With graft in public life an almost accepted universal norm, the similarities between India and Italy are both striking and startling.

Indians returning from trips to Europe usually tend to grouse about the rude rigidity of the Germans, the haughty froideur of the French, the extreme parsimony of the Dutch or the racism of the Austrians.

Italy, however, brings forth altogether different reactions: “They are friendly, garrulous, welcoming, and it is the only place in Europe that vegetarians can get a decent meal. But they are also thieves and double dealers. Given half a chance they'll take the very shirt off your back and the shoes off your feet and you won't even know how it happened, a bit like with the Bambaiya pickpockets. But then, you also somehow feel you are on familiar ground.”

Most Indians say they feel at home in Italy: life is chaotic, no one obeys the rules, policemen can be paid to cancel fines, there is massive tax evasion, the mafia controls large swathes of territory, the government counts for little and for the well-heeled, life is very good indeed.

Hardly anyone, except for a few Christian charities and other NGOs, thinks of the poor. Public money hall-marked for disaster victims tends to disappear into the pockets of officials and cronyism is rampant; homes built for the poor are the first to collapse in southern Italy's earthquake-prone zones because of the poor quality of materials used ….

Sounds familiar? Well, with regard to the way politics is conducted, with corruption in public life an almost accepted universal norm, the continuing strength of family ties and how society is structured, the similarities between India and Italy are both striking and startling.

In India of course we do not have a jaded, ageing lothario like Silvio Berlusconi at the helm, whose Bunga Bunga nights — lavish parties where he surrounds himself with a bevy of often under-age nymphets — have brought Italy shame and universal opprobrium. Such behaviour would not be possible in India because of the prevailing notions of public (or for that matter) private morality. But like in Italy, hardly any politician caught for graft, blatant misuse of office, or, quite simply, theft from the public coffers has ever gone to prison.

The world might mock and the country's magistrates might well try to bring Mr. Berlusconi to book for paying under-age prostitutes, for abuse of political office (he ordered the police to free a 17-year-old Moroccan prostitute who called the Prime Minister on his private mobile number from the station where she was being held for shoplifting), or more seriously, for introducing legislation designed to protect him from the judiciary while increasing his own power and influence, but at least half the country's population continues to support him, admiring him for being a furbo, a clever clogs who has used every trick in the book to outwit the judiciary and get away with a host of alleged crimes and misdemeanours. These include fraud, tax evasion, bribing judges, consorting with the mafia, corruption, conflict of interest, impeding justice, undermining democratic institutions and exploiting them to serve his own vested interests … to name just a few. A recent poll showed that his popularity ratings continued to top 50 per cent and any Italian will tell you that Mr. Berlusconi has a strong chance of being re-elected should he stand for another term.

“In my view Italy is really a political infant, an underdeveloped polity, in a certain sense, a flash in the pan in the developed world. It is astounding, given the levels of corruption we have achieved that Italy continues to have the world's seventh-largest nominal GDP, (10th highest GDP in PPP terms) and the sixth highest government budget — hugely deficit-ridden of course. But this lack of balance between our economic prowess and the absence of political maturity is the result of history. You must not forget that Italy is a very young democracy — compared to other western powers and that the unification of Italy is barely 130 years old,” Clara Fiorini, a history professor from Milan who says she has compared the situations in India and Italy told The Hindu.

“Like India, Italy was forever being invaded by the outside world. Both our countries are insular peninsulas, protected in the north by the Himalayas in your case and by the Alps in ours. India was constantly taken over, first by the Aryans, followed by the Greeks, the Muslim rulers of the Delhi Sultanate, the Mughals, the Portuguese, the British, the Dutch, the French … and the country was divided into several independent kingdoms or city states like Hyderabad, Mysore, Gwalior, etc. It was the same with us. We had very powerful city states like Venice, Florence, Genoa, Pisa or Amalfi. We were ruled by the Spanish Hapsburgs and also by the Austrians. Then came the Napoleonic wars from 1796 to 1814 when Napoleon destroyed several parts of Venice including the great Arsenale or shipbuilding docks and stole some of our best Renaissance art treasures. When you are ruled by foreign powers, the only persons you can trust are members of your own family or community. That is how Italy's nepotism began. In India of course appurtenance to caste and community have the same effect.

“Italian unification or Il Risorgimento began with Giuseppe Garibaldi in 1861 and continued until 1922. We have had three wars of independence in this struggle to unify Italy and that was finally achieved after the First World War came to an end. But then we launched into the Fascist period with Mussolini and the modern Italian Republic was born only in 1946, just one year before India became independent.

But if India benefitted, in the first years of its existence as a fledgling state from figures as towering as Nehru or Patel to seal the unity of India, the same cannot be said about Italy, where the Vatican and the influence of the Catholic Church remained very strong. Italian intellectuals like elsewhere, including France, were attracted by Marxist ideology, reviled by the Church. The Italian communist party under charismatic leaders like Enrico Berlinguer commanded as much as 25 per cent of the vote.

“It was to keep the communists out of power at all costs that the horrible power sharing formula known as the ‘partitocrazia' or the reign of the parties was born. For almost 40 years thereafter until the huge 1992 bribery scandal in Milan known as Tangentopoli (Bribe City) the Christian Democrats and the Socialists with two smaller parties, ruled with governments changing every other day. Corruption was rampant. People held their noses when they went to vote — so strong was the stench of corruption — but voted for the four-party combine nevertheless, in order to keep the communists out,” says Fiorini.

As a result of the Mani Puliti (Clean Hands) investigation that came in the wake of Tangentopoli, Socialist Prime Minister Bettino Craxi fled to Tunisia where he died in exile. Giulio Andreotti, seven times Prime Minister, was charged with corruption, murder and for his links to the mafia. He escaped jail because of the statute of limitations, a trick Mr. Berlusconi has used again and again, getting trials postponed, adjourned or delayed or by transferring judges.

If Italians had hoped for a fresh start, with what many called the Second Italian Republic, they were to be disappointed. The major parties, the Christian Democrats, the Communists and the Socialists dissolved to spring up as new political formations. Silvio Berlusconi entered the breach left by the dissolution of the Christian Democratic Party to form first his Forza Italia and then House of Freedom party. His natural allies came from the right — the deeply anti-immigrant and xenophobic Northern League and the newly re-baptised Allianza Nationale (Mussolini's original fascist formation) led by Gianfranco Fini. The Left, in what has turned out to be Italy's greatest tragedy, has broken up into several small, squabbling, fractious political formations, leaderless and with no clear programme to offer. It is not surprising, that Mr. Berlusconi, who comforts the country's right-wing elites and business communities, remains as popular as he is, despite his shenanigans.

But the magistrates, who, in Italy like in India, constitute the people's bulwark against open and shameless corruption, appear determined to get him. Magistrates said they could file charges against Mr. Berlusconi “as early as next week.” If convicted of buying the services of an under-age prostitute and abuse of power, Mr. Berlusconi could face a long jail term. But he is protected by an immunity law he himself passed and for the moment, remains beyond the judiciary's reach.

The noted writer of Italian origin Alexander Stille wrote in The New York Times recently: “In almost any other democracy, that would have been enough to end a politician's career. But Italians are deeply cynical about their political leaders. Believing that ‘everyone does it,' it is possible to convince yourself that the exposure of Berlusconi's crimes and misdemeanours is actually a sign that he is being singled out for persecution.”

This is a view, says Stille, which is reinforced by the substantial portion of the Italian media, which is controlled by Mr. Berlusconi. Even the media outlets he does not own outright are either intimidated or under his influence. Much of the evidence in the current scandal (as with those in the past) has not been aired on the principal newscast of the Italian State TV, which, together with Mr. Berlusconi's networks, enjoy a nearly 90 per cent market share in a country where 70 to 80 per cent of the public gets its news from television.”

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