That India is gripped by an overarching predicament of rising corruption, defined squarely as misuse/abuse of public power/ authority for private gains, is a banality. Parliament has been known to be like a club of the super-rich: one out of five MPs is a dollar millionaire, the total assets of 543 members can be reckoned at $2 billion, while over half the population lives on less than $ 2 dollars per day. In mainstream economics literature, cross-country studies show a clearly negative association between Corruption Index and GDP growth. However, India’s firm-level (micro) evidence indicates mixed results about the effects of bribery on a firm’s economic performance.

According to mainstream economists, corruption can have two opposite effects on economic performance of firms ~ ‘grease the wheels’ and ‘sands the wheels’. In the former case, bribes to bureaucrats expedite official processes and thereby benefit individual firms/businesses, especially when the market is not competitive. But such rent-seeking behaviour is often found to dampen entrepreneurial efficacy/initiatives in smaller-scale industries that face competitive conditions. In such economic analyses of corruption, prescriptions hardly traverse beyond emphasising the need to tighten the tax-collection machinery, streamlining of politicians’ regulatory power and revamping anti-corruption law-enforcing agencies. However, these remedies are of little efficacy when an inherent mentality of corruption extends beyond the purview of public institutions and their accounts/audits and also tax-collection machinery.

How effective can we expect anti-corruption laws to be in tracking down adulterators of baby-food when law-enforcing officials are amenable to bribes? How far can regulatory authorities be able to book the ‘edu-care’ businesses, which often sell ‘degrees’ without imparting objective knowledge and skill? How far can a polity ensure impartial justice if a sizeable section of judges, lawyers and court registry officials are amenable to rent-seeking? India’s recent demonetisation could be seen as a clear admission on the part of the central government that its anti-corruption machinery has serious limitations in curbing corruption in a pervasively immoral society.

What is particularly distinctive abut India’s corruption is that easy corruptibility is not restricted to those who hold public power/authority. An overwhelming majority of citizens seem prone to indulge in corrupt practices without remorse as if they have never known or learnt what it means for one to possess strong moral integrity. Corruption in this context is generally perceived to be a normal legitimate way of life or perhaps a distinct cultural trait of the land. If not so, how could we explain that a large number of Parliament members, with criminal records or corruption charges, get elected and then behave in an odious manner in the public sphere?

In an illuminating recent essay, Sumanta Banerjee observes that Indian citizens seem to have been so deeply conditioned by blatantly corrupt and opportunistic political culture that their current ‘mentality’ ~ one of keeping patience/ silence in the face of increasing flare-up of communal and caste riots and lynching ~ increasingly resembles what was called ‘the mass psychology of fascism’. This expression was coined by the German scholar, Wilhelm Reich, in his book published in 1933 to explain ‘the popularity of fascist leaders and institutions among the common people’ at the height of fascism in Germany. In an equally insightful analysis, the late Ashok Rudra sought to trace the roots of Indians’ low integrity and weak moral standards to a pervasive influence of similarly loose, lousy, and deviant characters and behaviour of many revered Gods in Hindu religious mythologies and Brahminical scriptural narratives, folklore, folk drama, songs with which even illiterate masses are pretty familiar.

BR Ambedkar had also advanced a somewhat similar thesis and showed how Hindu mythological discourses and the Brahminical scriptural texts have had many ambiguities and riddles, which contributed to the shaping of dilemmas in terms of thought and perceptions among common people through instilling what is otherwise illogical or incoherent or immoral. All this, as he had argued, has sought to perpetuate Brahminical domination over the lower social stratum. Indeed in a recent revelation of a young woman’s official complaint, a self-styled godman, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, is said to have been asked by the CBI as to how he could justify his sexual relations with his female disciples. The “godman” replied: “Sri Krishna too was God and he had 360 gopis (milkmaids) with whom he enacted Prem lila (love drama). Nevertheless, people regarded him as God. So, there is nothing to be surprised”.

It appears that this putrid religious rationalisation feeds into people’s stubborn silence, ambivalence and patience towards immoral activities on the part of elected leaders, ministers, and big business houses.

In a similar vein, as Gunnar Myrdal had argued about half a century ago, what is more damaging than corruption per se is India’s ‘folklores of corruption’, which tend to make common citizens well-nigh immune/ insensitive to rampant corruption in politics and administration.

After getting soaked with such folklores of corruption since childhood, the common popular perception is almost as if corruption is very much integral to our national life and traits, resulting in an enduring, pervasive societal ambivalence or a deep sense of legitimacy and tolerance about corruption. Conversely, people generally become morally insensitive or even prepared to be party to any corrupt deal if the chance of grabbing ‘unearned’ money come their way especially without the risk of being booked. The entire polity thus becomes comprehensively and intrinsically immoral and dishonest. In such circumstances India’s pervasive corruption is better viewed as attitudinal deformities and moral deficiencies in people’s minds, culture and society at large, not just a matter of particular proclivity for corrupt deals on the part of only those who happen to hold public power that is utilized for private gains.

This reflects a clear lack of profound values such as moral integrity, honesty and social commitments ~ necessary ingredients for smooth and effective societal functioning, governance and harmony. That corruption in this country cannot be eliminated merely by laws and regulations, without raising the moral standard and integrity of public officials from within, was made clear by Gunnar Myrdal in his remark: ‘It is quite hopeless to fight corruption if there is not a high degree of personal integrity at the top levels’.

Clearly, a country cannot progress on a stable and sustained development trajectory by formulating anti-corruption laws and preventive codes of conduct given the mass immorality and corruptibility of character. What seems highly imperative is a mass-scale cultural revolution triggered by attitudinal and perceptual transformation embedded in an appropriate curriculum/content of school education that enlightens people’s minds in tune with key values of reasoned rationality, objectivity, and integrity. And this is one major task that has been kept pending by the Indian elite and politicians ever since home-rule was established in 1947.

The writer is former Professor, BITS-Pilani, Hyderabad campus. He can be reached at [email protected]