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On Anna, selfishness and corruption…

Author: Shantanu Bhagwat
Publication: The Times of India
Date: September 23, 2014
URL: http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/reclaiming-india/on-anna-selfishness-corruption/

Last week I chanced on an interview of Anna Hazare in which he talked “about the inspiration behind his social activism, his philosophy and his vision for India”. The interview was from last year, a few weeks before AAP’s spectacular debut in Delhi. It had a quote that caught my eye.  It was Anna’s response to the question, “In your opinion, what is the root cause of corruption?”

“The root cause of corruption is selfishness; the selfish nature of human beings”, Anna said.  “They go to any lengths to pursue their self-interest…Second, there is no deep thinking about the purpose of life. And since there is no purpose to life, we want to fill that void with commodities, things. You become an MLA and an MP and in a short period of two or three years, you become a billionaire. How? Do you really need so much? Since you keep increasing your needs, corruption increases.”

These words were uttered in late 2013, in an atmosphere of despair and disgust with the state of affairs. These were the times when anger had given way to exasperation. Selfishness and materialism were easy scapegoats in such an environment. Sweeping generalisations were tempting and found wide acceptance.

Anna was not alone in his views. There were many who could not see the wood for the trees. Most activists & commentators failed to understand systems & processes and how incentives & consequences drove behavior. Such views had widespread acceptance – and not just among the “Aam Aadmi”. For instance, here is Chetan Bhagat writing about a year before Anna’s interview, “We, the Indian society, need to reflect on who we have become. Organisations like the RSS, who claim they care for India’s glory, should be fixing this by propagating good values in society. And organisations like the IAC should also send out the message that it is a lack of values within us, and not just a few bad guys at the top, that has turned India corrupt.”

Not much has changed since. Hardly a few days pass by without someone remarking how Indians are “fundamentally” corrupt or “We are like this only…”.

Except we are not. Indians are neither more corrupt nor more honest than any other race.

What makes us behave differently is the environment around us – not the “materialism” or the “loss of values” – but deep-rooted flaws in the system. The behavior is driven more by self-interest than selfishness. In the absence of consequences, such behaviour very often degenerates.

But it is tempting to blame “people”. And far easier than explaining “the system” or the behaviour triggered by incentives and consequences.

In the same interview, when asked “Why do people elect criminals”, Anna said, “People are at fault here”.

Well, are they? Or is there the possibility that they are actually acting in self-interest?

Might it be that we (and here “we” includes the far broader group of voters than the urban, well-educated, high-income class) elect “criminals” not because they are criminals but because their criminality is of no consequence to the choice we are making at the polling booth?

Might it be that we elect such people because of an entirely different reason? Because they manage to get their work done? A ration card here, an admission there … an emergency medical treatment somewhere else? A job for a nephew? Or a cousin? Might it be that these matter more to the larger group of voters than the criminal background of the politicians?

And might this explain not only why people continue to elect politicians who are corrupt & venal, but do so with depressing regularity and astounding margins? It just might. And it just might be that it’s not the people who are at fault – or their “selfish” nature.

It just might be that the roots of the problem, as Raghuram Rajan pointed out so eloquently, lie in the lack of provision of public goods, in  the appalling quality of delivery of public services and the layers and layers of intermediaries who ensure that the benefits barely trickle down to where they are needed or were intended.

It just might be that it’s not the people who are at fault but the morally bankrupt and thoroughly discredited system of “Mai-Baap Sarkar” – built on socialist foundations – that has made public services a joke. And it might be that it is the creation of monopolistic government providers – whether in education or healthcare or public transport – that has ruined these public services, not just degrading their quality and delivery but creating enormous reservoirs of corruption that boggle the mind.

And it might be that it is to navigate this labyrinthine system that the voter elects such a politician. Because he or she is the only one who can get the job done.

And so, unless this system is dismantled thoroughly, unless the whole idea of public services and their delivery is re-thought from scratch, unless the delivery mechanism is made accountable, all efforts at curbing corruption – whether they involve self-control or ill-thought laws like Jan Lokpal – are unlikely to have any real impact.

The only way to tackle this monster is by reducing the “powers” and scope of government. By restricting discretionary authority, by focusing on transparency, by simplifying processes. By making bureaucracy accountable. By having fewer laws. And by fixing the judicial system – so that the consequences for breaking the law are swift & transparent. This is what we need to make a babu think twice before demanding a bribe – or to stop motorists from jumping a red light. As for morals and values, let’s leave these to parents and teachers.

I wish I get a chance to explain this to Anna, someday.
 
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