Corruption, Caste, and A Dubious Brand of Social Science

It may be perfectly correct to argue against Ashis Nandy’s legal prosecution. It may be perfectly correct to argue that Ashis Nandy’s remarks in Jaipur Literature festival must be seen in context and no hurried conclusions be drawn about his intentions. However, none of his defenders so far have been keen to examine the kind of theorizing of social psychology he has been doing for decades. His defenders have eulogized him for his ‘intuitive’ intellect, his ‘ironic’ wisdom and so on. None seems to demand from him any empirical correctness or logical consistency, if not a dialectical treatment and validity of what his ‘imagination’ or ‘intuition’ induces him to utter.

Such demands on someone working with social theory are not out of place. Some have suggested that for Ashis Nandy, corruption may be a form of upward mobility for the disadvantaged and that he declared that ‘lower caste corruption gave him faith in Indian democracy and its future.’ Can one be faulted for missing the irony or figure of speech, if any, contained in such statements? It demands some kind of an empirical assessment as to how many ‘lower caste’ people are socially positioned to exercise such ‘entitlement to corruption’ which Mr. Nandy seems to propose for their upward mobility. It is also worth probing which social classes are at the receiving end of public or private corruption? Take for example the ‘Uttar Pradesh food grain scam’ (2002 to 2010) wherein food grain worth 35,000 crore, meant to be distributed amongst the poor, through Public Distribution System (PDS) and other welfare schemes like Antyodaya Anna Yojana, Jawahar Rozgar Yojana and Midday Meal Scheme for Below Poverty Line (BPL) card holders, was diverted to the open market. Who were the victims? Does it take too much ‘imagination’ or ‘intuition’ to conclude that the people affected belonged mostly to the ‘lower castes’? Do scams such as the Arunanchal PDS scam worth 1000 crore, Maharashtra PDS scam wherein 42 lakhs bogus ration cards were issued between 1995 to 2009, Orissa pulse scam worth 700 crore wherein bad quality pulses were distributed to children and women under mid-day-meal and supplementary nutrition programme, Himachal Pradesh multi-crore pulse scam, MGNREGA scams in U.P., Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand also not point to the same conclusion? Who are the people displaced and dispossessed by illegal mining operations in so many tribal areas in India? Who are the people whom a Vedanta or a POSCO or an Essar displaces by obtaining official clearances in contravention of Forest Conservation Act or Environment Protection Act? If almost 80% of Indian people are OBCs, SCs & STs, would it be unwise to assume that each rupee of loss to government exchequer due to Coal-gate, 2G scam or any form of corruption is a loss precisely of these sections of society in same proportion, at least notionally? Mr. Nandy can’t assert that such instances are unrelated to his main argument for the simple reason that social classes robbed by corruption don’t have option (access to power and a ‘critical’ capital to kick-start a scam) to go corrupt en masse. When Mr. Nandy hypothesises corruption as a route to ‘social’ mobility, he demeans the word ‘social’. His theorising or hypothesis may serve to legitimize a handful of corrupt people from disadvantaged caste groups, but it is thoroughly spurious and dangerous, if taken seriously. Issues related to a phenomenon such as corruption have more to do with political economy than with social psychology or ethics. Corruption and crime in these neo-liberal days are thoroughly secular and multi-cultural professions involving a complex network of people from diverse social backgrounds.

Caste is a reality and also serves as an ‘analytical category’, but not everything under the firmament can be explained by it. Some intellectuals have betrayed a kind of ‘caste neuroses’ in analysing everything from ‘FDI in retail’ to movements against corruption or protest movements against rape entirely in caste terms. Mr. Nandy’s statement and the furore it created is an ironic reminder to how such analyses boomerangs on practitioners of a brand of pseudo-academics.

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