Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The White Tiger and The Indian Culture of Corruption

There are serious problems facing India in the 21st century, and there is great debate as to which problem should be top priority. Along with corruption, problems like the negative impacts of globalization, social inequality, religious tension and conflict between social classes also present a case for being the largest hindrance to Indian progression. A main theme in The White Tiger is corruption and its strong presence in Indian political culture and society. The main character’s personal successes are based around corrupt acts which act as the catalyst for virtually plot development. The novel portrays a very dark side of every-day India where corruption is common and often necessary for career advancement or societal reputation. Corruption truly manifested itself in India in the 1990s and it was not unique to India as other Asian countries like China also saw corruption play a larger role in society and politics. However, what makes India unique is that corruption, rather than decreasing or at least becoming less visible, is going in the opposite direction.
Instead of cracking down on corruption and help create a new political culture, India and its leaders show no desire to move beyond the status quo. Corruption has a ripple effect through society and although most corruption takes place between political parties and upper class businessmen, the middle and lower classes suffer the most. Moreover, those same people have no choice but to desperately indulge in corruption in order to propel them into financial prosperity. What also is unique to India is the way corruption manages to infiltrate literally every aspect of Indian life imaginable from politics to cinema. While corruption is evident to Indians and the international community its causes are often overlooked or misinterpreted. It is the recognition of the causes of corruption that will allow for a viable solution. Corruption has been able to seed itself so deeply in Indian culture due to religious practices, economic insecurity, unenforced laws, a forgiving media and a powerless government.
The Booker Prize winning debut novel The White Tiger, written by Indian novelist Aravind Adiga, tells the story of Balram Halwai and his transformation from lower class labourer to wealthy entrepreneur. Balram works in the village he grew up in destined to be a lifelong member of India’s struggling lower class. However, Balram dreams of a different life outside of his village and its financial and social limitations. He works in the rural village of Dhanbad at a local tea shop and while working he decides to learn how to drive after learning about the high wages drivers can earn. Balram’s big break comes when a rich man known as The Stork hires him as his driver. The Stork has achieved notoriety and his nickname through skimming from the profits of local fisherman. He is the first person to expose Balram to real corruption and also acts as his ticket out of his impoverished life. Balram goes on to be the driver for The Stork’s son, who lives in New Delhi, also referred to as the “light” of India. Balram is desperate to find a way to access the world he sees while driving the son through parts of India he never thought he would be a part of.
An impressive feature of the novel is how Adiga exposes two very different portraits of India. Within the novel there are two sides of India known as the “light” and the “darkness”. The light and darkness refer to the economic conditions in different areas of India and really emphasis the inequality that exists in the country. Ironically, the actions that often bring you from the light to the darkness or from the bad to the good are morally questionable. It seems that you need to abandon the values learned in the darkness in order to escape into the light. Basically, to live in the light you need to be dark or bad, whereas if you live in the darkness, your morality might have a chance of staying intact. Balram’s narration, especially later in the novel, does not glorify his actions or achievements but uses his actions to portray how moral ambiguity is a commonly accepted practice. While it is true that there are many wealthy people in India living lavishly, there is also a vast portion of the population living in contrasting conditions.
Adiga impressively manages to express the scale of disparity between rural and urban India through his protagonist, Balram. A resonating part of the novel comes when Balram recalls a former teacher of his while growing up in the “darkness”. His recollection is powerful in the sense that it really explains the two different worlds within India. Balram reveals that while there was a government funded lunch program in place for his school, the students never saw any of the food. He goes on to claim that the students knew why and it was because “the schoolteacher had stolen our lunch money” (Adida, 20048, 28). The students do not blame the teacher however because he had not received a salary in six months. As Balram’s thoughts so eloquently put it, “...you can’t expect a man in a dung heap to smell sweet” (Adiga, 2008, 28). And perhaps that analogy pertains to more than just the teacher but India as well. How are impoverished Indians expected to refuse to engage in corruption when they live in such poor conditions? The system must be held accountable, not the people themselves.
Balram eventually concludes that the only way to immerse himself successfully into the world he sees while driving Ashtok around is to kill his employer. The murder is successful, as Blaram slits Ashtok’s throat and steals his even hundred thousand rupees intended for political bribes. He takes the money, moves to Bangladesh, changes his name and establishes his own taxi company. The same man who felt remorse for outing a fellow driver as a Muslim, had little issue with murdering for career advancement. However, because he is able to feel remorse, he remains very human and his immoral acts seem much less immoral. After his new taxi company takes off, Balram fulfills his dream of distancing himself from rural India by living in the “light” as a wealthy entrepreneur. He even changes his name, which is a means of avoiding persecution, but also as a means of officially starting a new life as a successful, urban, corrupt citizen.
Balram is a unique type of protagonist because although the reader sympathizes with his life in the darkness and hopes his pursuit of the “light” is successful, his methods are immoral. However those immoral acts are overlooked along with his corruption, in a perfect example of the ends justifying the means. That is likely the most appropriate description of most pursuits of propensity in India, especially if coming from rural poverty. It is not about how you get there, but that you get there at all. Everything else is excusable. Adiga is aware of this mentality and uses it to his advantage in the novel by using the reader as an example. We should care a lot more about the malicious acts Balram commits, but again the system takes the majority of the blame, while the individual goes on unscathed. The White Tiger does not try to simplify the situation in India or glorify corruption. Rather, Adiga uses Balram to give an accurate, albeit occasionally humorous, depiction of the lengths people will go to in order to remove themselves from poverty.
Suresh Kohli claims in his book written over three decades ago that “the most important single cause of corruption is economic security” as there is a constant possibility of gaining or losing in the Indian economy (Kohli, 1975, 14). His assessment still applies to Indian society even all these years later. The poor become corrupt in their pursuit of growing rich while the rich “indulge in corruption in fear of losing what they have” (Kohli, 1975, 14). It is a vicious circle which will only be broken when Indian citizens of all social classes feel somewhat secure. Security means having health care, two meals a day, clothing, and employment. Once people attain these basic needs, corruption will be automatically reduced because people will not be willing to act immorally when they are not as desperate for essentials.
An important factor when considering the solution to economic insecurity is severely low government wages. Government workers often make such meagre pay that corruption becomes not only tempting but necessary to put food on the table. For instance, a police officer is more likely to accept a bribe from a speeding driver if that bribe is more than what they make in a week of honest work. If salaries are increased to reasonable levels to that government works can sustain themselves without corruption, economic insecurity and corruption will take a serious blow. Kohli and other Indian historians advocate for a neither a top-down nor bottom-up approach but rather cooperation between the upper and lower class. He argues that the government needs implement free medical centers, secure employment opportunities and reasonable wages. If these steps are taken, along with the enforcement of anti-corruption laws, corruption will seem much less attractive to at least the middle and lower classes. When the upper class’ corruption is finally no longer accepted or tolerated by the rest of society, the process of removing corruption from Indian culture will finally begin.
Another aspect of economics is globalization, a phenomenon that has impacted India more than almost any other country in the world. Whether globalization is truly good for India, it has undoubtedly contributed to its economic success in recent years. The view of the novel’s main character shares this perspective. From Balram’s perspective globalization is largely a positive force and its success is due to the outsourcing of jobs from American companies such as IBM and Microsoft. As long as businesses continue to outsource to India and provide jobs for the middle class, the Indian economy can continue to prosper. The obvious problem with the outsourcing of jobs is that if there is no longer incentive for American companies to provide jobs to Indian workers, those jobs will be taken away and given to the domestic labour force. Although to be fair, that seems highly unlikely as low labour costs and highly efficient workers make India extraordinarily attractive to corporations. While the economy prospers however, inequality continues to increase, a pattern that can be traced back to globalization. Essentially, there is a large amount of very wealthy people in India but they are counter balanced by an even larger part of the population living in poverty. Investors and upper class business men continue to make profit off of millions of workers making minimum wage or less. While this clearly is a problem, it is trumped by the problem of corruption simply because the negative aspects of globalization are grossly exaggerated by the presence of corruption in Indian society.
The reason why globalization and its possible dangers are not nearly as counter progressive as corruption is because while they are separate issues both are certainly related. Since globalization really hit India and its economic boom took shape, an already corrupt society invited even more corruption into the country as foreign investors took great interest in the thriving Indian economy. Such investors include global corporations, entrepreneurs, and local and intentional investors. These investors arguably have more domestic influence than the government and thrive in the culture of corruption. The upper class is fuelled by the capital of foreign companies and investors while the government is dwarfed by the power of economic prosperity. It is hard for government officials to crack down on corruption and risk investments leaving India. Nobody wants to be responsible for bringing down the Indian economy and there is a fine line between cracking down on corruption and turning away potential economic opportunities. However, it is a line that can be walked if the government works will all social classes, cracks down on the rampant corruption while supporting investors, and provide incentive for companies to provide transparent financial information to the government or an independent auditor. Globalization is acting a catalyst for increasing corruption and widening the income gap. Without corruption embedded so deeply in India, the people could benefit much more from globalization and its negative aspects would be much less visible.
Drawing a connection between religion and unethical practices may seem contradictory, however in India, religious practices often feed into the culture of corruption. An analysis of Hinduism reveals that despite the good intentions of the religion, its associated traditional practices replicate that of corrupt society. Kohli observes that “the chief object of our religious exercise is to gain prosperity, good health, triumph over adversaries” (Kohli, 1975, 12). Indians traditionally bribe their gods with prayers and the promise of good deeds in return for the washing away of past indiscretions. Also, priests receive large payments to carry out rituals for the sole purpose of washing away sins. Despite its virtuous intentions, this brand of religion, in regards to corruption at least, does more harm than good. There is a way that these religious practices can exist without breeding corruption, but the connection between religious practice and corruption must be recognized. The chief object of India’s religious practices shares the same chief object with corruption and that is the major problem. There is no doubt that a largely Hindu population can live in a society without corruption, but when combined with all of the other causes of corruption, religion is not helping move in the right direction.
The relationship between corruption and religion has another angle as well. Religious tension between Muslims and Hindus still exist decades after the creation of Pakistan, and these tensions play an active role in Indian society. Competition between the two religions is very real and this is true to all aspects of life, whether it be over territory or career advancement. This competition fuels corruption because each side is willing to take whatever measures necessary to better the other side. While a war is not taking place between two armies, there is constant conflict over jobs, economic opportunities, political representation and other means societal success. The Muslims in the North often act as an independent nation with independent interest and look out for their own. The same goes for Hindus throughout the rest of the country. Basically, religion comes before nationality and people identify with being Muslim or Hindu before identifying with being Indian. In turn, corruption is the beneficiary as competition between religious groups means that ethics and morality take a back seat to gaining some sort of advantage over the opposing group.
A free mass media is crucial to any democratic state as it can act as independent third party to keep all levels of government and society in check. India does have a functioning media which has the power to act as a positive force against corruption. Thus far however, the media has played a reduced role and acted more as an indifferent bystander than an independent third party in search for truths. There is no greater deterrent to corruption than public exposure, and such exposure has to increase if media wishes to invoke positive change. Because corruption is so rampant, media outlets can be bought as well. Often, the media only exposes the corrupt practices of those they want to be exposed. Other corrupt parties that the media benefits from are free from being exposed. In other words, the media reports selectively based on who they like and do not like. If the mass media were to report on the facts and refuse the temptation of bribery and corruption, they could truly act as an objective force behind ending corruption. Political corruption scandals continue to dominate the media, and it is scary to think that there are more stories that go unreported due to corruption within the mass media.
Besides selectivity of the media, there is a major need for an increase in press freedom. As outlined in the University of Delhi’s report on corruption, international organization “Reporters Without Borders” ranked India as the 122nd country out of 178 countries based on the freedom of the media. There is no benefit for any party involved if the media is suppressed or censored, unless that party is corrupt. If the government eliminates corruption within itself, a free media can be a useful tool in bringing down corruption outside of the government. From the perspective of businesses, doing good, ethical business would for the first time be beneficial as corrupt practices would finally suffer. For the communications companies, a credible and trustworthy media enterprise would be financially prosperous and challenge competing companies to employ the same standards. An independent mass media has the power to hold the corrupt accountable and expose the severity of the problem to the public.
Another culprit behind corruption is the lack of government enforcement of laws and its consequent lack of credibility. Laws are only effective if they are enforced, and while there are laws meant to prevent and punish corruption in India they are for the most part ineffective. Between 1950 and 1980 alone, India had the Railway corruption Inquiry Committee, the Vivian Bose Commission, the Santhanam Committee on Prevention of Corruption, the Wanchoo Committee Report on Black Monday. None of these committees have managed to slow down the spread of corruption and that is because the enforcement of laws relating to corruption is extremely weak. The government has failed to successfully implement legislation because it is simply not credible. Nobody takes the government seriously due to its perpetual inability to enforce its own laws. A government lacking credibility also lacks obedience, and those engaging in corrupt activities know that they are just one corrupt act away from getting away with their crimes, as opposed to getting caught.
Due to the lax enforcement of laws surrounding corruption the government seriously lacks credibility in India. If the government’s desire is to cooperate with the people to come down hard on corruption, credibility must be established first. For the people to be receptive to government changes or new legislation, the government must establish at least minimal credibility. Corruption is a phenomenon in India that is just as much psychological as it is a cultural custom and it has reached the point where it is threatening the political system. If democracy is to survive in India, cooperation between a socially conscious people and a credible government must take place.
The recent spread of democracy at the grassroots level means that corruption can be discussed and confronted openly by members of all social classes. According to so and so, preventing corruption requires more than just legislation. He argues that there is a serious lack of participation in civil society in India, and that contributes to the governments struggles to enforce laws. The people have to feel safe and secure in speaking out about corruption and also have to be knowledgeable on the subject. The general public must participate in civil society in order to be properly educated on the implications of a corrupt society.
The White Tiger focuses on an individual representative of a massive rural population. And it is the people that have to take the initiative to defeat corruption with the cooperation of the government. The government must see that there is a public demand for the end of corruption or it will continue to cater to the corrupt instead. Balram is an ideal example of an individual taking matters into his own hands due to a lack of government support and a desperate need for a better life. The international community finally seems to realize the extent of the problem and the complexities in solving it. As reported by the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) in India, The United Nations General Assembly has designated December 9th of each year as International Corruption Day. The CVC report goes on to state, “Considering the enormity and complexity of the problem of corruption and the need for involving a wide set of stakeholders that include Government institutions, Private sector, Civil Society, Media, International agencies and Academic institutions...” Now that the international community is on board and has recognized that solving corruption involves tapping into nearly all parts of society, it is up to the Indian people to wage its own war from within. Suresh Kohli uses an analogy to best describe corruption in India and its deep roots in Indian society. He writes, “Corruption is like a cancer of the blood. Just as diseased blood has to be drained out before healthy blood can be infused to give the body a chance of survival, so has society to purge itself of false values before it can receive a transfusion of healthy social consciousness” (Kohli, 1975, 10). Before Indians throughout society can break free of the culture of corruption so deeply embedded in their nation’s social and political structure, the people must express their desire for change. It might mean someone like Balram finding another way to succeed or perhaps it means providing people like him with other ways to succeed. Likely however it a mixture of both, and until all aspects of society band together against the common enemy of corruption, advice given three decades ago will remain relevant.

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