The Art of Corruption
October 2014

A supporter of Jayalalithaa fasting in protest

Last weekend, late on Saturday afternoon, Denis and I left our rented house in the leafy, residential area of Kilpauk (north-west of the centre of Chennai), to go and have something to eat. As we came out from our lane, we saw that the entire main road had literally shutdown. Where usually we would encounter a pollution-fuelled, headache-inducing cacophony of city buses, auto rickshaws, motorbikes, cars and such, there was silence. The roads were empty and every shop, supermarket, street trader, bank and restaurant had pulled down their shutters and gone home. I was stunned.

What we did not know at the time was that at 4pm, it had been announced at a special court in Bangalore that Jayaram Jayalalithaa, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, was convicted of amassing an undeclared personal wealth in the region of ₹66.6 crores (approx. £6.1 million) during her first ministerial period from 1991–1996. She had been sentenced to 4 years in prison, as well as required to pay a ₹100 crores (approx. £10 million) fine. To put this into perspective: the Chief Minister is the top political role in the state; J. Jayalalithaa is responsible for governing a population of 72,147,000 people (12% greater than the whole of the UK); and ₹66.6 crores in 1995 has the equivalent value of around ₹200 crores today, that's approximately £20 million. In India, this is a big deal!

The tension spread quickly, particularly from the news that mass demonstrations by her supporters were being organised for the same evening the conviction was announced. It was not only businesses in Chennai that were taking precautions against looting and rioting, but also those in many cities and towns across Tamil Nadu. In spite of her obvious and hugely extravagant lifestyle, J. Jayalalithaa has created a state-wide base of adoration and loyalty similar to that of a god in her thirty years in politics. In the days following the verdict, I've read stories of self-immolations (people setting themselves on fire with kerosene), the Tamil film industry staging a silent hunger strike, cinemas remaining closed, and people across the state fasting and not working in protest.

While the actual prosecution and conviction of one of India's most high profile politicians sets a new precedence for the newly elected Indian Prime Minister's (Narendra Modi) intention to clean up corruption, I felt even more shocked by the protests that have been triggered in support for the Chief Minister. It seems that for the sake of having a strong leader, who has initiated many social policies and projects for the poorest populations of Tamil Nadu, people are willing to accept and/or turn a blind eye towards such a disproportionate level of corruption.

In a system where politicians are allowed to continue to serve in Government whilst facing charges, no matter how serious, and cannot be suspended from their office until proven guilty, it is no wonder that the case has taken 18 years to reach a verdict. However, India is a country where corruption is sadly inherent and endemic from the highest to the lowest strands of society. And corruption is also insidiously integrated with the modern economically, culturally and educationally progressive city that Chennai is branded to be in the media.

From the moment I arrived, I've mostly met people who would not lift a finger in effort simply for the sake of doing the right thing, or providing good customer service. Give them money and they will sell their souls! Every rickshaw driver, as soon as they saw Denis, a white European, immediately claimed their meter was broken and quoted two or three times the amount an actual journey costs; a cab driver, the same. Liaising with rental agents when searching for a flat was even worse. When I called about a property I'd seen online, they told me it had already gone; although, they did have another similar property to show me (i.e. the same flat), but it was of better quality and therefore three times the price. In addition, the listings in adverts of “fully furnished, with a washing machine, cooker, etc.” proved to be variations on empty kitchen cupboards with no pots or crockery, or missing mattresses and no bed sheets, or promises of “don't worry, we'll make sure it's all installed once you've signed the contract.”

In the context of the everyday life of Indian citizens, the clearly transparent assumption that it's perfectly okay to scam foreigners (to all intents and purposes, even though I am Indian, I too am a foreigner in India) is unbelievable. Yet I also see this attitude of greed and disrespect being played out between the wealthy and the poor of the local population too. A house cleaner, gardener, street trader, any employee, is simply not viewed as an equal human being, but as a sort of commodity, a measure of power on an economic and social scale. Rich and poor accept the rules of the game and take advantage of each other, either trying to get away with paying the least for getting a job done or doing the minimum effort in order to get paid. The result is that nobody trusts each other.

All around me I see this attitude of extortion, irreverence and laziness, and I wonder how such unconsciousness created a country and a culture that has millennia of history in spiritual philosophy and the quest for human salvation. And then, I stop to reflect on all that I have perceived in these first few weeks in Chennai. Perhaps it is simply because I am in an unfamiliar environment? Every experience I engage in feels new, from the food I taste, to the lethargy of walking in the heat, to what I dream of at night, to how I communicate. Then I wonder, is it really new? Not really.

How different are the thoughts I've had of how extortionate it was to travel on London Transport, where staff go on strike all the time for more pay? How different are the criticisms I've had of lazy, uncaring managers where I used to work? How different was the disrespect I felt towards my mother when we've had terrible arguments? And how different is the corruption that I see in India to, say, the disparity of the rich and poor in America, where the wealthy constantly lobby congressmen in order to pay less taxes, hold tight their wealth and contribute nothing towards creating a fairer society? (An attitude that the poor also buy into by the way, in the hope that they too will one day achieve the ‘American Dream’ of being wealthy!)

Greed and selfishness is in all of us. That is the truth. The Western mindset and attitude has just learned to not be so obvious and upfront; they turn the economic and social cogs in more subtle and ‘legal’ ways.

And what is my response to corruption? To keep observing and looking for the goodness in people, including myself. On that Saturday, when I realised there were no restaurants open, my first thought was that I might die of starvation, as we had no food at home. (Rather dramatic of course, because the reality is that I have ‘quite a margin’ before I starve, as my husband would say.) Our local vegetarian restaurant, who were officially closed, very kindly lifted their wire mesh grille, cooked a meal for us, and told us to be careful going home again.