All Corruption is Bad but Some Corruption is Worse: A Reading List

Corruption makes frequent appearances in public discourse. What do we actually mean when we talk about “corruption”? 


In December 2017, all of the accused in the “2G scam” were acquitted by the trial court for want of evidence. Even more surprising was the fact that this case had completely receded from public memory in a short span of time.  

The 1.73 lakh crore loss in the 2G scam is often linked to  Narendra Modi’s victory. 

“Corruption” became the BJP’s most deployed poll plank, and also the narrative on which it claimed to be a “party with a difference”, and was able to legitimise the impact of demonestisation and GST on the economy. 

In May 2018, when the Karnataka Governor, Vajubhai Vala, anointed BS Yeddyurappa as the chief minister and gave him 15 days to prove Bharatiya Janata Party’s majority, the underlying assumption that the party has to convince Congress or JD(S) MLAs to defect was clear. And yet, even as the media indulged in following every twist and turn, somehow the word “corruption” was not one that dominated the spectacle of the Karnataka elections. 

In light of this, it becomes imperative to ask: What is corruption and did the India Against Corruption movement in 2011 change anything about how India looks at it? 

This list of articles from our archives, many of them published in 2011, helps think through the concept of corruption that emerged after 2011. It suggests that far from being a post-corruption society, people’s anger about inequality and injustice has been confined to a certain, narrow definition of corruption. 

1) How did Corruption Get Framed as India’s Singular Ailment?

The 2G scam became the template on which corruption by the Congress could be converted into “common sense,” and all the other alleged scams and corruptions of the UPA government could be added up without much scrutiny. It was this “common sense” that bestowed credibility to the India Against Corruption “movement” and led to a situation where corruption came to be seen as the single reason for all that ailed the nation, thus making anti-corruption the talisman for all problems, too. 

This is not to argue that corruption and favouritism were not in play in the allocation of telecom spectrum, but to highlight the fact that corruption became something of an “empty signifier” filled with morality and passion, which could, and did, trump all other issues in public life, including poverty, employment, public goods, discrimination, and violence.

This 2017 editorial traces how the furore surrounding the 2G scam formed a popular narrative that made the UPA government synonymous with corruption. It also states that one of the most important features of the 2G scam had been the politicisation of not just state institutions, like the CAG and the courts, but the injection of a certain toxic partisanship into public institutions, such as the media.

2)  How is Public Corruption Defined?

A paper about the typology of legal corruption, classifies public corruption into three forms, grand corruption, bureaucratic corruption and legislative corruption. 

Grand corruption is framing and implementation of policies by the political elite to divert allocation of resources in a manner that serves their private interests. Bureaucratic corruption encompasses dishonest practices by bureaucrats in their interactions with the political elite or the general public, and legislative corruption is the act of influencing the voting behaviour of legislators through bribing or vote-buying. Thus, corruption involves different groups of actors – politicians, bureaucrats and other public servants, the private elite and the general public. 

3) How has the Media Cluttered the Public Discourse on Corruption?

Written in 2011, this paper discussed how the media approached Anna Hazare's 13-day long protest fast. Far from reflecting the complex and multilayered anxieties that underpin the growing popular restiveness with governance processes, the media chose to present a singular authoritarian point of view as the true and authentic voice of all Indians. 

Yet there are obvious difficulties, both logical and ethical, in putting down the widening public ferment to media manipulation. People today are stirred up like never before over the quality of governance and willing to express themselves forcefully. And the 24-hour news channels that have multiplied over the last half decade provide them with a platform. Yet doubts persist about how clearly the media has framed the issues. “Corruption” is in the discourse of most of those who have joined the Hazare campaign, a convenient target onto which a whole complex of anxieties can be shifted. 

And the seeming  urgency of creating an authority superior to all others, meshes neatly with elite convictions that representative democracy has been a colossal failure. But since the Jan Lokpal, a body conceived as the magic bullet to end all corruption, has failure – and endless conflict with all other institutions – virtually encoded in the circumstances of its genesis, it should be asked what the consequences of manifest failure would be. Would the target then shift from “corruption” to “politics” itself? Would representative democracy itself fall victim to awakening Indian middle-class rage?

4) How do we define the rot in business and politics when the lines between both are blurred in India today? 

An editorial from 2011, examines how the anti-corruption struggle was being defined in terms of a virtuous "civil society" versus an "evil" State. How much do these categories hold? What is the limit to what we perceive as corruption? 

But coming to the very notion of corruption, what does it actually mean? Has not one of India’s most wealthy and powerful business houses funded a lobbyist and manoeuvred to get its nominee A Raja appointed as union minister for communications and information technology corruption? Was not the removal of Mani Shankar Aiyar as union minister for petroleum and natural gas in January 2006 and his replacement by Murli Deora at Washington’s behest corruption? (Washington did not want the Iran Pakistan-India gas pipeline project.) Perhaps the distinction between the “political” and the “economic”, the “public” and the “private” is getting blurred as finance capital comes to the fore in the present phase of globalisation. Business and politics are so closely intertwined; indeed, politics is also a form of business, and a very lucrative one at that. And, to think of it, once upon a time in the history of capitalism, politics-as-business was not considered legitimate.

5) Has Corruption Become an Empty Signifier?


““Middle-class”, “upper-caste Hindu”, “anti-politics”, “fascist” –these epithets are repeatedly applied to the anti-corruption movement by a section of left intellectuals despite mounting evidence to the contrary. Such criticism of the movement is a priori and ideological, and no mere evidence can plant a seed of doubt or introduce a moment of introspection. It arises from a deep constitutive unease about mass politics per se. “The People” are acceptable only once they have been tamed by academic discourse, pressed into the pages of history books and slotted into familiar and comforting theoretical frameworks handed down from histories of other places, other times, other movements – Jacobinism, fascism, anti-Mandal, Ram Janmabhoomi, even the Tea Party movement in the US.

Should we not address a movement in its own terms, in its own time and space, and allow for the faint possibility that it is not merely replicating something that has already, always, happened elsewhere?

In 2011, Aditya Nigam and Nivedita Menon responded to leftist critiques of the anti-corruption movement that called it “fascist” and “middle-class” by saying that that the anti-corruption movement was by no means without conflict and that there was enormous potential both for democratisation as well as for a right-ward shift. 

… Anna Hazare and “corruption” have become what Ernesto Laclau calls an “empty signifier”, with different sections of people assigning to them their own particular meanings. This is classically a situation of the emergence of any mass movement... Corruption” has the emotive charge of “salt” of the Dandi March. It touches everyone, and it highlights the oppressiveness of the State. Holding government and the bureaucracy accountable for corruption will automatically check corporate corruption too, because it is the former that must be bribed for corporations to circumvent the law.


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