Our corruption and theirs

Is corruption among the lower castes an equaliser? Is it a

zero-sum game? First we, the upper castes, were the looters, now it is your turn, the lower castes, to loot and it's okay. After all, according to Ashis Nandy, there is hope for the republic if there is still some scope to loot, and especially if it is by the lower castes. And according to Tarun Tejpal, you have the right to do this because it means fairness in the ability to gain by subverting the system (perhaps corruption redistributes ill-gotten wealth, and those who did not earlier have a share will have it now).

Nandy argues that the upper castes are sophisticated looters while the lower castes are not so sophisticated, so they get caught easily (on camera or with their hands in the till) and get publicly branded as corrupt. They do not have the social networks or cultural capital (as yet, let us say) to be sophisticated in camouflaging their corruption, as upper castes do. Due to this, they suffer. Alarmingly, West Bengal's assumed insulation from corruption is attributed to the lack of lower caste persons in prominent political positions (a feather in the cap of communist West Bengal or an irony?) by Nandy. By implication, are the upper castes of West Bengal squeaky clean as their brahminical souls? Do they not indulge in corruption? Upright communists can't possibly be interested in the grubby material world.

This is the sort of discourse that can be understood from the statements of two public intellectuals one a renowned political psychologist known for his counter-modern, creative and unusual reading of India and the world, and the other a well-known journalist of Tehelka fame and a self-declared champion of India's poor.

Nandy's admirers (including myself) are appalled at the quandary he is trapped in; Nandy too is finding it hard to explain away, justify or retract his statement in or out of context. He has been trying to perform a balancing act between his indictment of corruption among lower castes, and blame towards upper castes.

There is an interesting commentary here on the "us and them" binary. First, does this binary stand up to scrutiny? At most times, liberals argue that intelligence, skill, talent and merit are equally distributed among any population, irrespective of caste, gender or race. The only difference is that some people have the opportunity to take advantage of their talents while others do not. They demand a level playing field are they demanding the same for corruption? Should we not simply be saying that corruption has no caste?

This debate, I suggest, is not about caste. It is about class, elitist class. Lower-caste corruption does not have "class" on its side, Nandy seems to be saying. Lower-caste corruption is justified "class war", Tejpal seems to be saying. There is a condescending attitude towards the lower castes in these posturings in the overblown drawing room that is the Jaipur Literature Festival. Why do Nandy and Tejpal need to bend over backwards to appear pro-lower caste or defend the corruption of those newly coming into power and pelf? Why do we need to tie corruption to primordial categories of caste, just as we tie violence to religion Hindu or Muslim?

For a long stretch of our post-Independence history, the left turned a blind eye to the realities of caste in India. Today, we need to open our eyes to the ways in which class operates. We need to redefine how we look at the Indian social world around us. It is no longer a world of primordial or fundamental unchanging identities of caste or religion that allowed us to read our reality with near approximate accuracy in the past (that is, caste and class overlapped neatly). As Nandy hypothesises, large and important spheres of our lives today are arguably caste-free politics, spectator sport, entertainment and crime. It is a world full of turmoil and change, of changing meanings and equations. As social scientists, it is our duty to bring an understanding of this world to the public. Nandy has little faith in modernity or its virtues but he mistakenly thinks that the world can be read accurately as the world of the vernacular, the category, the identitarian relationship that would have remained stable and harmonious were it not for the poison of modernity. Neither can Tejpal get away with wishing for a retaliatory or equalising class war and proclaim it just. The real world out there is far more fuzzy, as Max Weber was apt to remind Karl Marx.

As a sociologist, I respect the salience of cultural identities of various sorts. But the French Revolution taught us something when it privileged the "citizen" as the key actor in modern democracy. It is not the colour or caste of corruption that we should be proclaiming, but the need to recognise corruption for what it is, where it is, and by whoever it is, as being an immoral and unethical way to make one's material fortune. Talking about corruption in terms of group identities, or even formulaic class identities ("from the wrong side of the tracks"), is a lazy way of reading India's new reality.

Nevertheless, I defend Ashis Nandy's right to express his opinions. If we don't agree with him, we should counter his views with our own this being the only way forward for a civilised democracy. And Ashis Nandy does have the courage of his convictions, strange though they often may be.

The writer teaches at IIT Delhi

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