Sunday, November 21, 2010

Crime and punishment

The last month on India's political front has been dominated by scams: the Commonwealth Games, the Adarsh building scam and the telecommunications scam. These have brought about the short-term political demise of Messrs Kalmadi, Ashok Chavan and A. Raja respectively.

For a variety of reasons, I've spent some time recently reflecting on (and discussing with friends) the nature of wrongdoing and the purpose of punishment. The more I learn about the subject, the less comfortable I feel with the way we as a nation pursue allegations like the ones above. Let me try to list my reasons for discomfort.

(i) The press and public are pre-convinced of the guilt of the concerned parties in each of the cases. But, while there are specific and serious allegations in all the cases, there hasn't yet been a complete investigation of any of them. By the time this happens, a lot of people (and the media) will have lost interest.

(ii) In each case the concerned persons are out of office pending investigation. This would be a good thing if it conveyed the principle that a tainted official should voluntarily step aside till their name can be cleared, or otherwise. But none of the persons here were dismissed voluntarily. And even if their guilt is totally established in the future, it's possible - quite likely, in fact - that they will simply be kept out of the limelight for a while and then slowly rehabilitated.

(iii) In each of the cases, not only is guilt apparently "established" by the press and the public, but the presumed degree of guilt appears to be infinite, and therefore essentially on the same footing for all three persons. The slogan of the middle-class is that all politicians are utterly and irredeemably corrupt without limit.

The third point is my greatest source of discomfort. It is childish and ultimately self-defeating for us to clamber on the bandwagon of "all politicians are corrupt". There always have been some who are honest and upright, shouldn't we actually be highlighting them? As for the corrupt ones, this is a democracy and we have elected our politicians - so how did they get to be the way they are? It wouldn't have anything to do with us being the way we are, by any chance?

Some people will tell you it is the poor and uneducated who elect corrupt politicians, so the middle-class isn't to blame. Others will tell you corruption is really a politician-businessman nexus. Yet others will insist the blame devolves on the bureaucrats or "babus". In all these views, whoever is responsible for corruption, it isn't the middle class (which makes me suspect we could have found the culprit).

Now suppose M/s Kalmadi, Chavan and Raja in fact turn out to be guilty as charged. How effective will the current handling of their cases be in deterring others? Ashok Chavan may be no genius and seems totally lacking in the kind of imagination required to run a major state like Maharashtra. But his reputation has consistently been that of a reasonably honest and sincere Chief Minister, in a similar category as Sushil Kumar Shinde and in a totally different league from other predecessors like A.R. Antulay or Narayan Rane. If Chavan is guilty in the Adarsh scandal, all he's probably done is put in a word for a couple of his relatives to get a flat they don't deserve (something most middle-class Indians believe is the right thing to do). Admittedly this is far far below the standards required of a Chief Minister or indeed any politician. But it's not on par with having murder charges against you or being convicted of extortion. People with the latter charges pending or proven against them were, like Chavan, once shunted out of the way for a while but today they are still around as members in good standing of the ruling party.

So this is what really happens if you treat all politicians as equally (infinitely) corrupt: someone who commits murder or extortion and someone who puts in a word for their relatives is in the same boat. The action taken against them ends up being exactly the same, and over the person's life-time its impact is more symbolic than real.

This is not, I feel, a good message. It's up to us to find a more effective approach if we are to recover a lost moral compass. Such an approach will require us to believe there are both corrupt and non-corrupt politicians. Then we can try to define the degree of political punishment appropriate for the former class in proportion to the actual crime. It's not as easy as screaming for someone to be dismissed as soon as NDTV decides they should be, but it would be more correct and useful.