The moralist approach to corruption – although insufficient to evolve systemic remedies – should help us understand the phenomenon in proper perspective. It was Indira Gandhi who once said corruption is a global phenomenon. Much later the former PM, Chandra Shekhar, while in office, once said the Bofors investigation is the job of a police constable, dependent as he was on the support of the Congress. Both Indira Gandhi and Chandrashekhar were realists, having understood the problem of corruption at close quarters. The former Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee also told the then Defence Minister George Fernandes, not to touch the Bofors file – although Fernandes, rather unconvincingly, retracted saying the former PM said it as a joke. It used to be said when Vajpayee was in office as PM, that apart from the coalition allies he was dependent for his support, he also owed his survival in office to the Congress-I President, Sonia Gandhi – that is, the intense opposition that her probable candidature for the PM could evoke among friends and foes alike. Hence, keeping the Bofors controversy under wraps could mean buying peace with the Opposition, which could let him complete his term in peace, and thus contributing to a semblance of political stability .
The realists-politicians, therefore, are amused at the moralists’ lament over the alarming levels of corruption. In my view, both the realists and the moralists perhaps miss the revisionist perspective on corruption, that is, the probable benefits of corruption, in the absence of systemic remedies. Everyone knows how corruption speeds up cumbersome procedures. As the process of governance becomes more transparent, and RTI recognized at all levels, this value of corruption as a speed money, would certainly diminish.
But has corruption helped to buy political access for the excluded, and produce de facto policies more effective than those emerging from legitimate channels? The recent defection drama in Uttar Pradesh comes to my mind as the best illustration of this revisionist view of corruption. The defection of BSP MLAs to the ruling Samajwadi Party – allegedly in pursuit of money and office – secured access to power for those MLAs and their supporters, who would otherwise have remained excluded. The Supreme Court, by terming their defection unconstitutional, rendered the Mulayam Singh Yadav Government, vulnerable for attack by purists in the Congress who argued that it was illegal ab initio, as it lacked majority support without the support of these defectors. But it is possible to argue, in terms of this revisionist view, that the governance of the State – by and large, barring Nithari and the perceived breakdown of law and order – did not lead to a serious breakdown of Constitutional machinery, warranting imposition of President’s rule. It is however, debatable whether the Mulayam’s policies were more effective than those emerging from what would have been considered as legitimate channels by the moralists, and whether the costs of this illusion of political stability far outweighed its perceived benefits.