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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 34 August 15, 2015

Corruption and Immorality: An Illustration

Saturday 15 August 2015, by Arup Maharatna

Over the recent past a great deal of hustle-bustle has been generated in our country in regard to one single phenomenon, namely, corruption. New news-channels have cropped up now and then on the TV screen, with routinised displays of what very often turn out to be nearly melodramatic performances by some of the possibly best orators—albeit skilfully moderated by professional anchors. Some sitting Ministers have been sent to jails of late in course of trials pertaining to corruption charges. Accordingly, corruption episodes of high-profile public officials and people’s elected representatives as also related legal and intelligence proceedings eat regularly into a sizeable portion of total space in the major dailies. Indeed the country has witnessed the birth of an entirely new political party with its almost single-point agenda, namely, elimination of corruption from public places. Besides, there has been a luxuriant growth of mainstream economics theorising on and modelling corruption as a part of rational economic behaviour or of competitive games under typical socio-political circumstances in many developing countries.

Significantly, this entire gamut of euphoria hinges on a single narrow definition of corruption, namely, abuse/misuse of public office/authority for purely personal/pecuniary gains. However, this constricted—albeit too straightforward—definition of corruption with its overriding concentration on bribery is designed to overlook that its genesis and existence cannot but be foundationally linked to an ingrained fragility of moral/ethical sense and integrity on the part of the persons involved. No wonder, this predo-minant and highly popular notion of corruption leaves out from its orbit many situations and circumstances wherein persons, while formally bereft of any public office/power, carry on private professional activities or transactions that resemble a typical scenario of corruption. As we would argue, there is an urgent need for re-thinking and overhauling the existing anti-corruption approaches and measures founded squarely on this narrow notion of corruption, which excludes many deeper issues and concerns pertaining to fundamental arenas of people’s honesty, integrity and moral strength.

Take, for instance, the case of private legal practitioners. Imagine that a legal professional, who is hired by a private individual client, stealthily accepts an offer of a bribe from the opponent party, with a task of secretly foiling his/her own client’s cause in a court case. It is somewhat strange that we cannot brand such advocates as ‘corrupt’, as they do not hold any public office, or authority or money, even though an exchange of bribe, an essential component in the popular perception of corruption, is very much present. As a result, such surreptitious (almost-impossible-to-prove) cheating/betrayal by a private legal practitioner lured by a hefty bribe from the opponent party does not qualify for a redressal within the ambit of anti-corruption laws/network.

Cheating one’s client or breaching a contract/trust in myriad branches of business/market transactions and activities is neither uncommon nor entirely immune to legal or statutory punitive mechanisms and agencies. But a client’s vulnerability in the hands of an unscrupulous private lawyer sounds somewhat unique because, unlike most other instances of betrayal, the client normally would never be able to know in life that he/she was betrayed or cheated by his/her own paid lawyer against a pernicious kickback from the other litigant. Even if a client happens to have reason to become suspicious over his/her hired lawyer’s integrity vis-a-vis the court case, there is little, if any, scope for its remedy within the statutory/legal framework in place. For example, any complaint about the advocate’s hidden (bribe-allured) action/inaction towards (mischievously) jeopardising his own client’s interest would scarcely stand ‘admissible’ in a consumer court or in any other such forum because of the inevitably shaky and unverifiable nature of evidence/proof gatherable at best in validation of the complaint—let alone huge distraction and hazards potentially present in the entire process of registering such a complaint. This clearly points to a formidable dilemma.

Apart from the near-impossibility of gathering hard evidence on the advocate’s hidden cheating and bribe-taking, any attempt to bring the latter to book, ironically, calls for trust again on a judicial professional service on which one has already had reasons to be deeply sceptical. Even if a client pays one’s advocate abundantly, this still cannot guarantee absolute impossibility of hidden (impossible-to-track) deceit on part of morally/ethically broke advocate. Besides, this option, even if reliable, can be open exclusively to relatively wealthy litigants. Again, a scenario wherein the party argues its own case without assistance of any professional lawyer is as rare as the party having a friend/relative so close to an advocate of one’s choice as to ensure the latter’s unmixed scruples vis-à-vis the opponent’s bid for bribery. The crux, therefore, is that there are fairly strong limits of the existing laws/regulations by which bribe-taking and cheating amongst practising lawyers, if rampant, could be addressed, let alone mitigated.

Given that a majority of judges are selected amongst practising lawyers, many of whom could be found, like many corrupt politicians and public officials of the country, not immune to getting overpowered by immoral greed/lust for money or by some parochial interests, the probability could be high not only of ‘miscarriage’ of justice but also of its major brunt being borne by the relatively poor, who cannot bid out richer or influential litigants in buying or bribing morally-loose legal practitioners. Interestingly, though, all this appears rational or expected to the mainstream economics theorising founded on its basic premise that one’s proclivity for furthering personal gains or profit is nothing irrational and is perhaps even ‘healthy’. Nevertheless, a moral breach is indisputably implicated by the bribe secretly received by the advocate for compromising mischievously on his own client’s interest and hence it, if pervasive, deserves a serious social thrashing.

It is important to realise that such possible fragility of inner integrity on the part of private lawyers and many other private service providers (for example, doctors, tutors, nurses, tour-agents, civil or other contractors) reflects essentially acute moral frailty, not corruption per se. Unlike cheating in many other private professions, activities, and transactions or deals, an innocent client, as already noted, can remain ever deprived of a chance to know that he/she has been failed by his/her own paid lawyer. Indeed such covert betrayal for illicit money by unscrupulous advocates, if real, poses a great potential threat to the sanctity and usefulness of the entire judiciary system. This scenario, of course, has very close resemblance with the one wherein a private medical practitioner conducts an expensive surgery in case of an illness which could (and indeed should) be cured with medicines alone at a much lower cost.

In any case, a society cannot afford to let mass-scale practice of immorality in many private professions with no public authority/power overwhelmed by vivacious euphoria over so-called corruption in public places per se. This, of course, is to not to undermine the graveness of the latter, but this does suggest that they are both manifestations of the more foundational malady, namely, deeply slackened moral/ethical grip at the overall society level.

Thus, ‘corruption’, as we know it, is only a part of a much larger and deeper malice, namely, abysmally low levels of integrity and commitment to moral standards among the general populace and its deep-seated socio-cultural ethos. While corruption is only one specific dimension of what is foundationally a pervasive dearth of moral/ethical strength and integrity, the latter is hardly amenable to the means by which the former is usually sought to be curbed. Nor can the latter be left unaddressed if the former has to be wiped out. For example, the mainstream economist’s customary advice that opportunities, scope, and incentives for corrupt practices need to be eliminated through judicious use of economic instruments, cannot take us very far in a context of low-integrity or low-morality socio-cultural environ. On the contrary, the stark neo-liberal economic philosophy that money is the measure of all things entails—at least covertly—a sort of ideological (or moral?) backing for the practice of bribery itself especially if the latter happens to anyhow facilitate the avowed prosperity or ‘economic growth’ either at individual or macro levels.

That the existence of ‘opportunities’ for corrupt practices or bribery is the key to the pervasive prevalence of corruption—a commonly-held position propagated most eloquently by a section in the mainstream economics profession—is a fundamentally flawed (or perhaps even dangerous) perception. Rather, an acute societal dearth of moral sentiments and values is its foundational determinant. No amount of ingenuity of economic and related instruments as offered typically by neoliberal/neoclassical economic wisdom, geared primarily to eliminating the scope for corrupt deals, can dispense with the profound need to imbibe and inject into people’s minds a passionate sense of objectivity and admiration for morality, integrity, and honesty of character. The latter calls for, to start with, concerted efforts towards designing and implementing appropriate content and contours of Indian school curriculum and basic education, if one cares about the way much of the advanced world did in their history.

Arup Maharatna is a Professor, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, BITS-Pilani Hyderabad. He can be contacted at e-mail: arupmaha@yahoo.com