There is nothing to be proud of India's ranking in the Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index 2009. The country ranked low also in the Bribe Payers Index among emerging economic giants.

There is nothing to be proud of India's ranking in the Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index 2009. The country ranked low also in the Bribe Payers Index among emerging economic giants. The use of public funds for private gain is common. The misuse of power, position and privilege is widespread. Corruption seems to be a fact that affects all sections of society.

Misappropriation of public funds and acquisition of ill-gotten wealth are clearly illegal. However, subtler forms of non-material corruption, coupled with abuse of power and misuse of privilege, are equally prevalent but not often debated.

Power corrupts: Lord Acton said: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” This aphorism is widely acknowledged as true. William Pitt, the Elder, a British Prime Minister, echoed similar sentiments when he said “unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it.” Both seem to have based their observations on anecdotal evidence rather than formal research. The systematic enquiry and evaluation of evidence in social sciences were not standard in their times.

Corrupts absolutely: Recent research confirms Lord Acton's dictum that power corrupts. Contemporary research has focussed on issues related to power and on the state of powerfulness and powerlessness; on how power affects people's behaviour and thinking. The evidence suggests that people who believe that they deserve their power and position are morally pliable and more prone to abuse their privileges. Studies have documented that power and hypocrisy go hand in hand as the powerful feel a sense of entitlement; their sense of privilege become private law. The culture of entitlement results in double standards, one for themselves, their family and friends, and the other for the general population. Such use of divergent values and principles by the individuals involved results in hypocrisy. One could argue that corruption and hypocrisy are the price society pays for being led by the privileged.

Power attracts: Anecdotal evidence also suggests that power attracts the corruptible. This may be particularly true when systems are steeped in or breed corruption. If organisational structures provide greater and illegitimate influence with the rise in status within institutional hierarchies, then loftier titles and higher ranks mean illicit power. Power will attract those who seek to use and misuse such licence for their own ends.

Power and corruption seem to have a complex and bidirectional relationship. In societies which accept corruption as part of life, power appears to attract the corrupt and those in power encourage corruption. These associations seem to work on the whole, with exceptions proving the rule.

Privilege empowers: Even a cursory analysis of the powerful clearly documents the fact that privilege is almost always the route to power. Privileged education, in private schools, provides the platform for future unassailable confidence, disarming sincerity, captivating charm and understated authority. It also makes for articulate and confident individuals with high self-esteem. The combination of parental aspirations, family resources and excellent education lays a firm foundation for later success. Children's levels of achievement are usually closely linked to their parents' background. The privileged background of many elected representatives also argues that many advantages are inherited rather than inherent.

Spectrum of corruption: Corruption in its broadest sense is not restricted to financial irregularities. The abuse of religion, language, ethnicity, kinship, privilege and position also comes under this rubric. Such misuse is also a form of moral fraud. However, these may be in the form of “softer” violations which, though equally fraudulent, are much more difficult to recognise, quantify, track and document. While moral corruption may be universal, it tends to spread like wildfire when it is accepted as the norm at the top of an organisational hierarchy and within institutions and populations.

Conflicts of interest: It is widely recognised that related and unrelated interests can, directly or indirectly, influence decision-making; specific interests can prejudice appraisals and consequently bias judgments. It is always good policy that interests are declared and conflicts evaluated in people who are entrusted with impartial decision-making. The presence of conflicts of interest is independent of any execution of impropriety. Many organisations now mandate that such financial and other interests be declared prior to appointments to decision-making bodies. Removal, disclosure, recusal and third-party evaluations are different methods of managing them.

Individuals and systems: Power and privilege are usually institutionalised and are part of systems and organisations. Organisational support for unaccountable power often causes individuals who occupy top positions to fail to differentiate between legitimate and illegitimate use of such power and privilege. The line between these is often very fine, with many individuals unable to see the difference. Even honest individuals may unquestionably accept their positions and consequent power without realising its impact on their functioning. Their intelligence, diligence, strategic planning and hard work to reach the higher echelons of their organisation may propel them to believe that their position and privilege are well deserved. Such feelings of entitlement often result in double standards and consequent hypocrisy. Even the most scrupulous people can be caught in such situations when they come up with ill-conceived schemes and proposals, or when they want to rigidly maintain status quo, despite evidence of a need for change.

The corruptible actively seek power to enhance their position and privileges, and in pursuit of more unaccountable authority. Systems, which encourage corruption and which have normalised illegitimate power, support such people's sense of entitlement, thus furthering their original aims of acquiring public power for private gain.

Corruption and India: While no society is free from corruption, what is worrying is that such behaviour appears normalised in India. The licence raj of the past did not help. Capitalism, globalisation and liberalisation have also increased the pressure to succeed, achieve targets and acquire wealth quickly. The abuse of public power, office and resources for personal gain is common. A culture, which declares conflicts of interests and institutes systems to assess them, is rare and yet to take hold in India.

No organisation is immune to the abuse of power. The intense desire to leave lasting legacies and to make significant changes in institutional direction and function often result in decision-makers short-circuiting standard procedures. The culture of sycophancy, common in our culture and society, aids and abets in such corruption. Double standards in public life are accepted; hypocrisy is tolerated and is the norm.

The way forward

We need to focus on power and highlight the abuse of privileges. Corruption does not necessarily imply financial fraud. All of us need to examine ourselves as individuals to identify, minimise and eliminate double standards and hypocrisy. We need to audit our systems and institutions to change the culture, which breeds such corruption. The task is to identify power, which comes with position, to recognise conflicts of interest and to detect feelings of entitlement, which turn the privilege of office into private law. The struggle is not a one-time affair in the lives of individuals, systems and communities but a constant quest, a journey. Society should allow for greater social mobility for wider social participation and greater equality.

There is need to re-examine our culture, which has normalised corruption in its many different forms. We in India need to acknowledge the need for introspection on our acceptance of the abuse of power. The “Seven Nolan Principles of Public Life” — selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership by example — should form the standards for holding public office. There should be regular and independent reviews of individual and organisational functioning. The challenge is to inspire and change individuals and to transcend and transform societal norms.

(K.S. Jacob is Professor of Psychiatry at the Christian Medical College, Vellore.)

Keywords: powercorruption

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