One day back in the 1970s, my husband was talking to a friend who worked with him in Washington D.C., deploring something that he saw as corruption. He had no doubt that his friend would agree with him that corruption was a very bad thing. How could he think anything else?
But his friend did the opposite. He snapped at him: “Don’t talk like that about corruption! If there were no corruption, me and my family would all be dead.”
His friend was a Jew from Eastern Europe, and during the time of Hitler, his family was trying to leave with him and his siblings to reach the West, but first they had to get past an international border. They had taken precautions. His grandfather took one of the border guards aside and they had a brief conversation. The guard nodded and took a package his grandfather had prepared for him and examined it, and went inside and stamped their papers. The family was free to leave.
The guard was obviously corrupt. For a consideration, he was ready to ignore the law and the requirements of his job and let the family leave. If he had been law abiding, he would have arrested the entire family and they would have been sent to one of the Death Camps that had been built as Hitler’s ‘Final Solution’ to the ‘Jewish problem’.
There is just a tiny possibility that the guard was thinking for himself, that he was not so sold on the new laws that he felt obliged to send a family to their death. Maybe by leaving open a little window of corruption, he could still see himself as human, something more than just an obedient man in uniform implementing laws that were more barbarous than his conscience.
The way a traffic policeman, when required to levy a fine that he thinks is excessive, charges you what he thinks is the right amount, as a bribe. And if you still insist on paying the fine and getting a receipt, he may even wave you away and let you go for free. There is something about the enhanced penalty that he does not like.
Not all corruption is like this. There is also the corruption of the mighty, who are able to control the system and override its laws. But the law itself is not universally a good thing. Incidents like these, where our friend and his family were spared, force us to make judgments about man-made laws, with all their time-bound meanness, as against something more human and eternal, and linked to a deeper and more independent notion of what is ‘right’.
There is something democratic about this kind of petty corruption, because it allows even the powerless to find a way to override the system. All it takes is… money. This is the kind of corruption that society at large seems to resent the most, not the corruption where just a ‘phone call’ from the right power broker can get you something out of turn.
And this is strange: the corruption that is off limits to the general public is seen as all right, and is given a free pass, while the corruption that is only about getting past a brief hurdle for something that should have come to you automatically brings the biggest shame. Or is it that ordinary people do not know about the other kind of corruption, where things that are far more outrageous, far more illegal, can easily be done with the right sort of access?
No: I am not saying that corruption is something moral, or sublime. I am only trying to question the way petty corruption has been prioritised as a depravity that must, per se, be rooted out at all costs: but not the other one. So much so that the word ‘corruption’ itself has become a dogwhistle, a demand from any pied piper on the make trying to claim the moral high ground. “If you can’t see the corruption all around you, you must be blind. If you don’t listen to me and let me set your moral compass,” so the spiel goes, “you yourself are definitely corrupt.”
Then the gaslighting will go into full force. The guilt-tripping that you are not doing enough. And that the pied piper knows what is best for you. This would be a small personal cautionary tale, the sort that so many of us have seen firsthand, were it not for the way this can grow until it becomes something big enough to bring down governments and change the course of history. Not because there was ever any intention of creating the clean stable world that does not use roadblocks, gatekeepers and the delays that make people desperate enough to seek out of turn favors, but because an allegation of ‘corruption’ is a sure-fire way of ruining the competition. And once the barb is thrown, it sticks.
The word that has been winking at me from left field as I write is: manipulation. The way an image is carefully planted in our minds and then used as a dogwhistle, so that even if we stray and start asking awkward questions, we must start out by couching our words in an apology and a disclaimer. Because we are the ones going against received wisdom, and indulging in heresy. We are the ones raising questions about long-term players who are supremely networked and intent on total control. In this context, ‘corruption’ is the little goat tied up there in the jungle to bring the tiger into view so that he can be shot down.
I once asked a government officer if things eight years ago were really as bad as the media had made them out to be. He stared into the distance for a few moments, trying to gather his impressions together, all the things he had heard everyone around him say back in those days. Trying to square his response with what he had said the last time we met. “Yes,” he said, slowly. “Maybe…”
Peggy Mohan is a linguist and the author of four books, the most recent being Wanderers, Kings, Merchants: The Story of India Through its Languages, Gurgaon: Penguin Random House, 2021. She teaches linguistics at Ashoka University.
This article was first published on The Wire.