Tackle the problem of huge disparities in incomes, and everything else will probably fall in place in modern India.
I do not believe that India is one of the most corrupt of all countries; I am convinced that it is not more corrupt than such supposedly ‘honest' nations as Denmark and Germany. In order to understand this, you have to perform a simple exercise: 1. Go to a PVR or any such luxury film theatre in a big city of India, where a single ticket will cost you around Rs. 700; 2. Try and pull a rickshaw or do any such ‘manual' or semi-skilled labour in a small town of India and save Rs. 700 in a week. And we are not even talking of our villages yet!
In a nation where the rich can spend Rs. 700 to see a film (not counting the popcorn, coke etc.) and the poor cannot save Rs. 700 in a week, it is surprising that there is so little corruption and crime. Such monstrous differences of income are bound to lead to corruption on all sides. It is nothing for the really rich to offer a bribe of Rs. 50,000 and it is a major fortune for the poor to get Rs. 5,000: It is to the credit of the poor, in particular, that they do not allow themselves to be corrupted too much in India.
In countries like Denmark or Germany, where most people earn around the middle-level range, there is less temptation to corrupt or be corrupted. If most people earn between (say) 40,000 and 80,000 a month, any one individual is unlikely to accept or give a bribe of Rs. 700. However, there is a kind of corruption there too: The ‘fraternal' class-based corruption of contacts.
Corruption by another name
This, to my mind, is the main problem with the anti-corruption ‘civil society' movement that is fore-fronted by Anna Hazare, and perhaps the reason why honest, village-based Annaji has to be its face. Unlike Annaji, most of the other driving lights of the movement come from exactly those classes which do not need the ordinary kind of corruption: Let us call it the ‘democratic' corruption of cash bribes. They come from classes where contacts and networks suffice. All of India's upper middle class and upper class belongs to this category, though again there are honourable exceptions who do not use the ‘network': Super-CEO XYZ calls good friend Honest Judge YZX, who calls schoolmate Thundering Editor ZXY, who calls club pal Efficient IAS ABC, who helps Super-CEO's nephew because there is nothing really wrong in doing so. Nothing wrong actually, except that most nephews and nieces don't have the right connections and hence their talents and capacities remain unexplored.
Cash bribes are only required when you do not have such contacts. Though indefensible, cash bribes are far more ‘democratic' than this kind of networking. For, cash, if you can raise enough, enables anyone to offer a bribe, while even the middle classes seldom have recourse to effective networking. With the occasional exception, you need to be born in privileged families or go to elite schools and colleges to have useful networks. No one calls this networking corruption though, and perhaps it isn't: after all, such ‘honest' nations as England, Germany and Denmark run largely on the basis of such networking too!
But no, you might object, what we are talking about is political corruption. We know that some politicians and their cronies mint millions on the side. You are right; this is a serious problem and there is the need to legislate, democratically, to curb it. But no matter how many laws you pass, this problem won't go away in a country where a small 10 per cent (it might be as low as five) control most of the wealth. It is to these wealthy people that politicians have to go when they need money to win the votes of the 90 per cent who do not have enough wealth. Given the huge gap in incomes in India, political corruption is sadly inevitable. The reason why there is less obvious political corruption in Denmark or Germany is not leadership or education or the character of their politicians; it is because there is less of a gap between those who have wealth and those who have votes.
What about the middle classes then, you might object. Surely there is a population of, say, 30 percent between the top 10 percent of the really wealthy, and the bottom 60 percent of the functionally (not ‘officially') poor? What about these 300 million who belong to the middle and lower middle classes: ordinary doctors, engineers, teachers, businessmen, journalists, administrators. What about these?
My answer is simple and brutal, and I am talking from experience, because I come from these middle classes: this section of the Indian population lives in a constant state of fear. They know the stars above their heads, for, they can sometimes splurge on a five-star birthday meal. But they are also always conscious of the chasm that lies beneath their feet: The chasm of absolute poverty, into which one mistake can tumble them and from which almost no one ever returns through honest means.
What can you expect this middle class to do? It is not more or less corrupt than the middle class in Denmark and England. But it is much more frightened: This is reflected in the lifestyles of the children of this class, who study, study and study. I have never come across a class in any country whose children are manically driven to study at the cost of almost everything else — sometimes even their lives, as student suicides attest every year.
And we complain: “India does not win enough gold medals.” Well, what can you expect in a country where around 60 per cent does not get healthy (or enough) food — let alone access to good early educational and sports facilities necessary for the development of any talent — and another 30 per cent is haunted by the chasm under its feet?
Let us not glibly blame our middle class. It is the extremely rare middle class boy or girl who has the courage to follow his or her sporting inclinations, and the rarer parent who can back this inclination — against the wisdom that the safest way to economic security in India is through back-bending professional ‘education'. The fear of poverty prevents most middle class children from indulging in sports or athletics as anything other than a passing distraction.
India will not be able to significantly reduce corruption or significantly increase its share of Olympic Gold medals as long as its stays suspended over this huge economic chasm. India has the advantage of being a functioning democracy: It can easily legislate to avoid the kind of corruption that takes place in a dictatorship, whether Communist (late USSR) or Capitalist, because forced economic equality means nothing in the face of a great imbalance of political power and social privilege. But legislative action will be effective only if a degree of economic fairness — which is not the same as artificial ‘equality' — is achieved.