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Sowing Seeds, not Selling Timber

March 10, 2011

Recent events have cast a shadow over many institutions and groups in the country. Some, like politicians, have long been considered short on integrity; increasingly, all politicians are now considered to be corrupt or corruptible, unless proven otherwise. The bureaucracy, too, is widely perceived to be corrupt, besides being arrogant and power-drunk. The policeman is stereotyped as being a bully or groveling, depending upon whom he is dealing with, a bumbling investigator who depends on torture to solve crimes, and always hungry for a bribe. Media have reinforced, even built, these stereotypes.

Now, to these have been added long-respected institutions, which have traditionally been considered above-board: the army and even the judiciary. Again, media have played a role, by amplifying specific cases of corruption and generalizing them to whole organizations. More recently, ISRO – widely known for its impeccable integrity and many successes, and greatly admired by Space-related professionals around the world – has had its image tarnished. Based on allegations and a poor understanding of technological differences between satellite channels and terrestrial spectrum, media has indulged in all kinds of innuendo and mud-slinging, made worse by inept handling of the issue by authorities. In a Freudian association, “spectrum” today has become synonymous with “scam”.

It is a sad commentary on the situation in the country that, to people at large, even wild charges seem plausible. Every deal is suspect; given that there are corrupt people behind most doors, it is assumed that there is, in fact, a crook behind every door. No institution, no individual – irrespective of a spotless track-record – is trusted; in fact, most are assumed to be corrupt. Doubtless, the country is seeing a surge in corruption. Interestingly, though, at least one study indicates a reduction in petty or day-to-day corruption, even as “big” or growth corruption (that which results from large projects, which are plentiful in a growth economy like India) is booming. The latter is, in fact, easier to control: managerial and technological systems can ensure transparency and accountability of an exceptional order, making it possible to trace and track down any deviations from laid down procedures and processes. One hopes that government – on its own or due to public pressure – exhibits the will to take up this task, making full use of the IT capabilities in the country.

Even while measures can – and, hopefully, will – be taken to weed out the cancer of corruption, there is a more serious fall-out that needs to be addressed. The constant media-orchestrated sullying of institutions is undermining public trust in them. This portends ill. If key organizations that are the pillars of the State and of the democratic system – including the army, police and judiciary – cannot be trusted; if all politicians and bureaucrats are assumed to be corrupt, and hand-in-glove not only with each other, but also with criminals, what then can sustain the State? A general defaming of all institutions to the point where public faith in them is completely eroded is a dangerous path to travel on. One end point of such a journey can only be anarchy, a sample of which is often seen on our city roads when traffic signals fail or are ignored (both being common occurrences in the national capital). A grid-lock ensues, which benefits no one: a lesson to keep in mind when thinking about what happens when institutional order – the police and traffic system, in this instance – is neither respected nor feared.

The other end-point of institutional break-down is fascism: having lost faith in most institutions, many people will support the “order” that a totalitarian regime promises. Hitler’s ascendancy in Germany and the Taliban take-over of Afghanistan are instances of this; examples of why sensationalist media need to beware the present indiscriminate rubbishing of institutions. Some, particularly from the world of technology, may counter this with the virtues of creative destruction – the flux in which “the old order changeth, yielding place to new”, where many start-ups rise and many die. Yet, society as a whole prefers evolutionary change – howsoever rapid – to the chaos and suffering that inevitably accompanies revolutionary change. It is only when change is suppressed or blocked and ossification sets in, that there is no alternative to revolution – as was seen in Tsarist Russia, or presently in Tunisia and Egypt.

India has many outlets for pressure, and democracy makes possible a peaceful change in government. Importantly, it has active and credible civil society organizations. Even so, if all politicians and their parties are assumed to be corrupt, there are bound to be voices that want to get rid of all of them; advocating a “Presidential form of government” being only the first step. This is a wake-up call for self-serving politicians: they need to individually and collectively set their house in order. Reform in electoral funding, transparent auditing of party funds by completely independent auditors and unblocking of police reforms are key elements that all parties need to agree on, if healthy multi-party democracy is to survive.

Another key element is strengthening – and, where necessary, reforming and cleaning-up – institutions, and setting up appropriate new ones. In early years of post-independent India, Nehru created a number of vital organisations. Today, we need leaders who think not of pelf or the present, but want to “leave footprints in the sands of time”; leaders who realize that while today’s hunger can be satiated by harvesting fruit or selling timber and next year’s by planting seeds, that of future generations requires new ideas. The last can best be created and capitalized on through appropriate institutions.

This visionary task is not only for political leaders, but for others too. Scientists like Bhatnagar, Bhabha and Sarabhai were great institution builders. Institute of Science, Bangalore, and renowned centres for social sciences and fundamental research in Mumbai, owe their birth to the Tata family. It is time for leaders from business, science and elsewhere to step up to the plate and create vibrant new institutions and support civil society organizations in order to protect and strengthen India’s democracy.

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