In the interest of transparency and accountability, I want to start today's blog with a confession. A good week ago, I broke the model code of conduct for the upcoming assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh. I did so for my own petty financial benefit, and in cooperation with - in fact instigated by - an assistant manager of a large private-sector bank. Travelling in a humble three-wheeled conveyance to avoid being searched by one of the many police teams on election deputation (who tend to concentrate on wannabe politicians' window-tainted, over-speeding, and seriously-honk-endowed SUVs), I transported a large amount of cash along the width and breadth of Lucknow - without enclosing the officially required, duly signed, stamped, and authorized authorization from the authorities. To my defence, I can say no more than that I intended to use said cash as the minimum required opening balance for my domestic savings account. I know this might sound like a lame excuse, though. The only option left to me now is to at least put this episode to good use ex post - by reflecting upon the complexities of corruption in today's blog. Food for thought:

What exactly causes people to call a person or action corrupt? The last year in India gave a good many opportunities to ponder about this question - from Anna Hazare's campaign down to the bunch of NHRM, 2G and similar acronymized scams. It is clear that corrupt practices have somehow something to do with taking an unfair advantage for oneself. But it is far from clear what qualifies as "unfair".1 Take my cash transport as an example: is the main problem, in your eyes, that I violated a legal rule? How does my intention of generating personal benefit play into your assessment? And what about the fact that my action did not harm anybody? If you answer these three questions, you covered the three classic academic definitions of political corruption.23

The problem with purely legal definitions of corruption - the first option - is that these tend to be too narrow. "Corruption" in the Indian police might, for instance, often flaw the rule of law and the principle of equality before the same - even though many Indian laws are quite progressive de jure. But, as I told some of our German visitors over Christmas: is it preferable then to have a flawed law being painstakingly implemented? Since that's what seems to be the case in Europe more often than not: while most police officers in Germany would not flaw the law according to their personal "corrupt" interests, it is the laws themselves which are flawed (I think of our shameful immigration legislation, for instance). In fact, many European countries might just have legalized "corrupt" practices, corporate graft, prejudice, etc...

Did I say corporate graft? Here you go: let's turn to market-based definitions of corruption - the second option -, which argue that the generation of personal financial gain out of one's influential political or bureaucratic position - so called "rent-seeking behaviour" - is unfair. One should please stick to one's official income as set by the Public Services Schedules. But why, I wonder, is it "unfair" to misuse public office, but "fair" to generate personal gain out of one's ancestors accumulated capital? Or out of one's superior intellectual training and education? Isn't rent-seeking just one among many ways of generating an income above stylized market prices?4 Of course, people argue that politicians and bureaucrats are responsible for the public good, whereas capitalists are not. But on the basis of which morale can this assumption sustain scrutiny, really? I am not claiming that one should be free to do wrong as long as others do it, too - but I find it problematic that market-based definitions of corruption single out and blame one economic practice while keeping silent on others.

More: thinking along the lines of market-based definitions alerts us to the fact that "corruption" can never be an individual affair - there are always at least two involved in such transactions. I was made to understand that shortly after my arrival in Lucknow, while riding through town in a Youth Congress's aspiring neta's SUV. When I enquired about his position on last summer's anti-corruption protests, he told me: look, it's not that simple. Say if you want to win a seat in any given constituency, you need to convince X thousand people to vote for you. These people expect a host of things from you, in fact they expect a package full of promises, free snacks, liquor, and maybe even cash (that of course being the reason why the Election Commission tries to restrict cash movement under the Model Code of Conduct). So you go around asking your friends to lend you money. Say you spend Y times X amount of money for your campaign and really get elected. You now have four years to not only recover this money, but also to ammass again as much for your next campaign, so that you don't have to turn to your friends twice. So you take bribes. But up to an amount of 2 times X times Y, none of that money stays with you: after all, half of it already went to your voters, and the other half will go there during the next election. So you have to understand that corruption might well be a question of individual morale - but only of that of politicians?

Once we turn to values, however, we have succeeded in mainstreaming the issue of "corruption" in its widest possible context. Now, a whole bunch of issues emerge: debates about universalism and particularism, about treating people equal to others versus treating them equal to their own needs, about contextualized pricing, about religion. I will leave these debates for another time though5 - since my main objective with this post is achieved: demonstrating the complexities of corruption. Three points are worth keeping in mind. Above all, I would emphasize that it needs to be understood as one phenomenon in a whole range of political and economic practices as well as associated values (one reason why Anna Hazare's single-issue campaign was problematic). Secondly, one has to move beyond legalism and acknowledge the essentially political nature of the term: it is basically an accusation levelled against certain people and practices in public bets for power (another reason why Anna Hazare's anti-politics was so mistaken). Thirdly, I would thus suggest to use more narrow and less charged terms for academic purposes whereever possible - such as "bribery", "nepotism", or indeed: "carrying-cash-through-Lucknow".

To conclude, let me thus briefly finish the story with which I began: I was not caught, the savings account was opened successfully, and in fact I only learned about my offence a few days later, when the election commission raised the barrier for cash movements in times of elections. Completely ignorant as I was, I even remember feeling vaguely reassured with every extra policeman on my way, mistaking him for my personal protection force from the many goondas out there - rather than realizing my own wrongdoing. And anyway: the amount pictured to the right - almost all there was - might have helped me to finally open a bank account, but would not really have gotten me anywhere in terms of serious bribery: most of my co-offenders play in another league altogether. But the episode got me thinking about corruption, economics, and values - which I am happy about...

  • 1. I won't plunge into the whole "justice as fairness" debate here and its implications for "corruption" - maybe another day. Til then, make sure everybody you do read Sen, A. (2010). The idea of justice. London: Allen Lane.
  • 2. Heidenheimer, A. (1970). Political corruption. New York: Holt Rinehart and Winston.
  • 3. Philp, M. (1997). Defining political corruption. Political Studies, 45(3), 436–462.
  • 4. This perspective on the rent issue is by and large adopted from my great teacher Harriss-White, B. (2003). India working. Cambridge: Univ. Press.
  • 5. Not without recommending to read Pavarala, V, Malik, K. (2012). Social constructions of religiosity and corruption. Economic and Political Weekly, 47(1), 61–68.