One of the questions people keep asking me since my entry into politics is what we can do about corruption. What would I do, one citizen recently asked me in an on-line chat, if I became the “concerned authority” to deal with corruption? In fact corruption is a national malaise and a social ill, not just one that a “concerned authority” can solve. We are all complicit—those who demand bribes and those who give them.

As one who has long urged an end to public apathy about politics, I was inspired by seeing the passion of Anna Hazare’s followers against corruption, which I share, and I have no doubt that during his mass movement, he touched a chord amongst millions of Indians. But we must remember that his supporters are not the only Indians who are disgusted by corruption. When many of his followers constituted the Aam Aadmi Party against his wishes, they could never quite come to terms with the fact that there are patriotic and principled Indians amongst their critics too, and that we must reach out to each other in good faith.

Anna Hazare’s movement persuaded Indians in general, and the political class eventually, that a strong Jan Lokpal (Citizen’s Ombudsman) is a key part of the answer. Parliament finally legislated the creation of a strong anti-corruption ombudsman, with genuine autonomy and authority and substantial powers of action. It is too early to judge how well it will work, or indeed whether the unintended consequence many feared—of creating a large, omnipotent and unaccountable supra-institution that could not be challenged, reformed or removed—has been belied. If the current governmental bodies tasked with investigation, vigilance, and audit are deemed to be insufficiently impervious to corruption, it is worth asking what guarantee there is that the new institution of Lokpal will not be infected by the same virus—and if so, what could be done about it, since it would literally be a law unto itself.

A number of related steps need to be taken to tackle corruption at its source. Campaign finance reform, simplification of laws and regulations, administrative transparency, and the reduction of discretionary powers enjoyed by officials and ministers, are all of the highest priority too. The Right to Information Act (RTI) was in fact the first step in this direction. A credible Lokpal will be another.

But one of the things that was highlighted by the Anna Hazare phenomenon is the extent to which corruption is a middle-class preoccupation, when in fact the biggest victims of corruption in our country are in fact the poor. For the affluent, corruption is at worst a nuisance; for the salaried middle-class, it can be an indignity and a burden; but for the poor, it is often a tragedy.

The saddest corruption stories I have heard are those where corruption literally transforms lives for the worse. There are stories about the pregnant woman turned away from a government hospital because she couldn’t bribe her way to a bed; the laborer denied an allotment of land that was his due because someone else bribed the patwari to change the land records; the pensioner denied the rightful fruits of decades of toil because he couldn’t or wouldn’t bribe the petty clerk to process his paperwork; the wretchedly poor unable to procure the BPL [“Below Poverty Line”] cards that certify their entitlement to various government schemes and subsidies because they couldn’t afford to bribe the issuing officer; the poor widow cheated of an insurance settlement because she couldn’t grease the right palms … the examples are endless. Each of these represents not just an injustice, but a crime, and yet the officials responsible get away with their exactions all the time. And all their victims are people living at or near a poverty line that’s been drawn just this side of the funeral pyre.

One of the reasons that I was an early supporter of economic liberalization in India was that I hoped it would reduce corruption by denying officialdom the opportunity to profit from the power to permit. That has happened to some degree, especially at the big-business level. I am, similarly, a strong supporter of computerizing government records and applying e-governance to transactions that currently require paperwork, queues, and bribes to expedite their processing. But I underestimated the creativity of petty corruption in India that leeches blood from the veins of the poorest and most downtrodden in our society.

The problem of corruption runs far broader and deeper than the headlines suggest. Corruption isn’t only high-level governmental malfeasance as typified by the 2G and CWG scandals. Overcoming it requires nothing short of a change in our society’s mindset.

Everyone claims to be against corruption; the debate is on the means to be used to tackle it. For it would be dangerous to reduce the entire issue to a simplistic solution which won’t end corruption by itself. Inspectors and prosecutors can only catch some criminals; we need to change the system so that fewer crimes are committed, and that means changing attitudes too.

For ultimately, corruption flourishes because society enables it. Every time we agree to pay part of the cost of a flat in “black,” negotiate a discount from a store in exchange for not insisting on a bill, or offer “speed money” to jump a queue, we are complicit in corruption.

Every businessman who rationalizes an illicit payment as a “facilitation fee,” or airily dismisses a lavish gift in cash or kind as part of “the price of doing business,” is complicit in corruption. When I expostulate with such friends they tell me, “if we don’t do it, our work won’t get done.” Or even more tellingly, “if we don’t do it, someone else will, and he’ll get the business, we won’t.” Corruption is spawned by the human desire to get ahead of the competition; self-righteousness alone won’t end it.

Once, at the end of yet another argument about corruption, a friend challenged my suggestion that the corrupt only survive because the non-corrupt pay them. If we all stopped offering bribes, I argued, people couldn’t demand them, since no one would pay them. That’s impossible, my friend replied; there would always be someone looking to get an advantage for himself by paying someone off. “You can’t change India,” he sighed.

But we must. Mahatma Gandhi did. It will take a similar mass movement—abetted by efficient systems of e-governance and firm executive action—to deliver India its second freedom: freedom from corruption.

Shashi Tharoor, MP from Thiruvananthapuram and the Union Minister of State for Human Resource Development, is the author of 14 books, including, most recently, Pax Indica: India and the World of the 21st Century. This article was first published on NDTV.

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