The one commandment
By M.J. Akbar
In India Today: Third Eye
14, November 2010
For reasons best known to the Almighty, greed is at the very bottom of the Lord's pecking order in the Ten Commandments, as faithfully reported in the Exodus chapter of the Old Testament. Murder, adultery, theft and prevarication take precedence. Maybe life was different when God was taking a personal interest in human affairs; as the poet reminded us, He doesn't fancy more than a passing glance now. The old days were tough - bondage to the Pharoahs could not have been a vacation - but perhaps they were simpler because prophets knew how to administer a sharp rap across the knuckles.
A contemporary index of vice, done by a mortal, would surely be more realistic about the corrosive dangers of avarice, and push it up the rankings. Any other vice exhausts itself, but greed is insatiable because it has no limits. You can count a murderer's victims. Casanova would have been hard put to attempt serial adultery, even if he lived in a nudist colony or a British pub. Liars are perfectly aware that if their tongue grows too long their words lose the ability to deceive. It is not entirely accidental that while the holy Bible was confident that sharp, short orders were sufficient for murder or theft, greed required a proper paragraph, just in case some future Chief Minister of Maharashtra confused it with natural entitlement. Hence: "You shall not covet your neighbour's house; you shall not covet your neighbour's wife, nor his male servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbour's." I presume mobility was not a big issue in the promised land, and crime was confined to the neighbourhood watch.
In any case, the Lord's statute is comprehensive enough to deal with Chavan and the creative partnership of generals, bureaucrats, builders, fixers and politicians who stole the inheritance of Kargil widows to provide themselves a room with a view over the Arabian sea in downtown Mumbai. Regrettably, while the Lord laid down the law, He left accountability to men. When convict and judge share the same interests, justice takes a holiday. This should clear the brow of those who are perplexed by the Congress Party's laissez faire approach towards its latest poster boys for fecund corruption.
A chief minister who shovels loot into his basement buys protection by sharing some with high-fliers living upstairs.
The Congress is not, and has not been for some time, perturbed by corruption; needless to add, most political parties seek to emulate its cash-stack culture, albeit never as successfully. The Congress is, however, always perturbed by the prospect of losing the voter. It will act, therefore, not when it discovers corruption, but when public pressure threatens the party's base. Media pressure is not good enough.
Political parties also have to worry about implicit internal blackmail. A chief minister who shovels loot into his basement buys protection by sharing some with high-fliers living upstairs. Moreover, what action can you take when the chaps in queue are equally guilty? Chavan did a brilliant job of distributing sleaze about those who wanted his job.
Every leader of Maharashtra has parlayed land into personal wealth. Why is land at the root of corruption? It is the most easily disposable, and exploitable, asset under government control. Land was the principal source of power during Mughal rule; the emperor personally owned every inch of the empire, and distributed its revenue in return for loyalty. Loyalty was preserved across generations since transfer to an heir had to be confirmed by the royal court. The British converted land into state revenue through the permanent settlement; the transfer was made in perpetuity, but revenue had to be guaranteed, or the sepoys would arrive. These systems of imperialism may have been exploitative, but they survived on logic. Democratic India has turned land into a cash cow for anyone in authority, with enormous fortunes being made between the difference in price and redemption in value.
Any corrupt circle seeks to expand its circumference. There is protection in numbers. There is insurance in sharing. The morality of greed demands that every thief gets his due. If land is stolen from the army, then generals must be appeased. Those condemned to be ordinary Indian citizens might be appalled at the thought of generals stealing from Kargil war widows, but fixers know that the honesty of individuals and institutions is often only the absence of opportunity. This is India. Everything is on sale. Palms itch. They need grease.
If Moses had been a modern Indian, God would have given him only one commandment instead of ten: Don't get caught. And if you do, brazen it out.