Tribalist corruption

Mohammad Badrul Ahsan

It was in 2001 when Russia's Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo was addressing concerns that corruption was on the rise in his country. "You should not confuse corruption," he explained, "with bribe taking." His argument was that only those officials with links to organized criminal gangs should be called corrupt.

Perhaps the word corruption is also undergoing a similar redefinition in this country. It's no longer clear what is corruption because nothing appears to be shocking anymore. We know people who take bribes. We know people who womanize. We also know people who cheat and lie. What we don't know is where to draw the line.

It is said that corruption is as old as human history. But that isn't the problem in Bangladesh, because we are increasingly becoming confused over what corruption is. If corruption is old, it is also getting bold. In these days it is hard to tell who is corrupt because everything is kosher in the brotherhood of crooks.

Photo: Imagezoo

In Philippines the presidential candidate Senator Manuel Villar Jr., assailed upon his rival Senator Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III that he was not fit to be president because of, among others, his smoking habit. Aquino replied that corruption was a greater sin to the country than smoking.

Imagine a candidate being accused of smoking in this country and whoever dares doing it will be smothered in sleek ridicule. In this country tax dodgers can become advisors to the government. In this country smugglers can become politicians. People can be fired from their jobs and still thump their chests saying they have quit. If anything is fair in love and war, it's also fair in this country.

By standard definition, misuse of government power for other purposes, such as repression of political opponents and general police brutality, is not considered political corruption. Neither are illegal acts by private persons or corporations not directly involved with the government. An illegal act by an officeholder constitutes political corruption only if the act is directly related to their official duties.

Then again, general forms of corruption vary, and they include bribery, extortion, cronyism, nepotism, patronage, graft, and embezzlement. While corruption may facilitate criminal enterprises such as drug trafficking, money laundering, and human trafficking, it is not restricted to these activities only.

If corruption is a problem in Bangladesh, a bigger problem arising out of it is corruption of corruption. There is a concerted campaign going on in this country to justify it. It's repeatedly said that corruption exists everywhere in the world. It's said that pure gold doesn't make ornaments. Suddenly this country is on a flip. There is a silent corruption going on to legitimize corruption.

This is happening on two fronts. One is the internalization of corruption. This is how corrupt people justify their actions. This is how they cope with the guilt and shame of their inglorious habit and flaunt their ill-gotten wealth without scruples. This is also how they hold their heads high before family and friends.

The other front is intellectualization. Here the battle is being fought at a higher level. And, mind it the warriors in this battle are all intelligent and educated people, the high priests of the new moral order that nothing is wrong with breaking a few eggs to make an omelet.

While internalization grows acceptance for corruption within a person, the intellectualization is aimed to promote tolerance amongst people around him. So, when a poor man can be beaten into pulp or sent to jail for stealing a chicken, people, who steal millions, get to become respectable and powerful in our society. This particular process is not only promoting a counter-culture to facilitate corruption but also undercutting resistance to its advancing influence.

Photo: Noor Alam-Driknews

George Orwell once wrote, "To an ordinary human being, love means nothing if it does not mean loving some people more than others." Yes, in this country love means nothing if we don't love our own more than others. The sons of powerful parents always get the best breaks in life. This is what nepotism does. It automatically assumes that those who are privileged always have the first right to privilege.

So jobs go to the members of connected families. Business contracts are awarded to friends and cronies. Admissions in schools, nominations for elections, promotions, selections, license, permits and even court verdicts can come under the aegis of dishing out favors.

Adam Bellow, son of Nobel-winning novelist Saul, was an editor-at-large at Doubleday, who sought to redefine nepotism not as a "deplorable lack of public spirit" but as the very "bedrock of social existence"-a natural, healthy concern for family and, by extension, those ethnically or otherwise similar to ourselves. In the end, Bellow argues that nepotism is about power and the ruling class throughout history from Borgia and Bonaparte to America's Adams, Roosevelt and Kennedy clans has practiced it.

It is the instinct of nepotism that has branched out in many forms as societies evolved from feudalism to democracy to market economy and privileges transformed from subservience to loyalty to transaction. In older days, the aristocracy enjoyed a privileged status by virtue of their social position. In democracy, privilege went to people who were close to power. But the market economy has inculcated the spirit of give and take. Favor for favor works fine, but money reigns supreme. Bribery is cash-based nepotism. Any body who is ready to pay can be treated as an uncle or a cousin.

Photo: Andrew Olney

Thus the face of corruption has changed, while the body remained the same. The same set of malpractices is still there, but those malpractices have become more universal. In other words, privilege is no longer the source of corruption. Instead corruption has become a privilege.

More alarming than corruption is how it is being corrupted. It's being sanitized. It's being legitimized. It's being popularized. It's also being organized.

We often hear discussants on television shows saying that corruption cannot be eliminated and that it exists in every country of the world. And these were said in a manner as if doctors wanted to reassure their patients. That makes it a suspect that organized efforts are underway to establish corruption as a fact of life in this country.

Corruption must be treated like any other crime. People have murderous tendencies but that cannot justify murder. People have habit of stealing, but that cannot condone thieves. People have lust for sex but that doesn't rationalize rape. And all of these crimes exist in every country of the world, yet every country makes laws to prevent them because corruption breeds corruption and, given an inch, takes a whole yard.

Guests invited to dinner often use a trick. He who wants more on his plate asks the host to serve the person sitting next to him. It looks as if that same ploy also works in corruption. There is a growing tendency to ignore corruption because so many of us have become corrupt.

Mohammad Badrul Ahsan is Editor of First News and a regular columnist of The Daily Star. Email: badrul151@yahoo.com