A Social Theory of Corruption

Posted by sepoy on September 26, 2021 · 11 mins read

We are grateful to Prof Sudhir Chella Rajan for this excerpt from his book A Social Theory of Corruption: Notes from the Indian Subcontinent (Harvard University Press, 2020).

Politics Is Personal

SH Book Cover

This diversion is personal. As a member of overlapping cultural and, less so, economic, elites, I find it necessary to reflect on comfort zones that allow me to rely on various forms of privilege in different circumstances. Doing so may expose some of my own involvement in this enterprise.

I was born into a large Brahmin family; both of my parents are from the same clan, Ashtaśāstra Iyers (Śaivite Brahmins having knowledge of eight sastras). The clan is claimed to have originated as a sect of 8,000 who were invited to move to south India from central or eastern India by a Chola ruler around the beginning of the second millennium to carry out priestly duties. Both sets of my grandparents were of modest economic means. My mother’s father was a schoolteacher and supported more than a dozen children and four of his grandchildren in penurious conditions. My other grandfather was a farmer who died young, leaving behind a second widow with several children and a few acres of paddy and coconut farms in the Kaveri Delta in what is now Tiruchirappalli District. In any event, my grandmother, like women in most parts of India, could not own landed property and had to flee to Madras (now Chennai) rather than get into a dispute with my late grandfather’s brothers and sons from his first marriage. Like her, her two daughters were widowed early and were under the care of their sons or brothers. Perhaps remarkably but determinedly, both my parents’ families managed to secure access to opportunities for themselves and their kin during a time of great hope in post- independent India.

Today, I have numerous cousins and second cousins who are highly economically successful: there are at least two dozen multimillionaires–in US dollars–and perhaps many more in the extended clan, and several others do well financially and lead comfortable lives. Most are known for their acumen and accomplishments in academia, business, writing, and so on, although none is directly involved in politics. Within my extended family network, several may belong to the global 99th percentile, or the top 1 percent, a category that shot to prominence in the Occupy movements after the 2008 destruction of poor and middle-class assets around the world. Almost everyone else in my extended family circle of more than 200 is at least middle class, with a roof over their heads and a secure if modest future for themselves and their children. Mine is nowhere close to the 1,000 or so prominent family oligarchies in India today, nor is it well known for its pedigree in the form of famous artists, politicians, or businessmen. But my relatives’ ability to connect their fortunes to more prestigious and select nodes of power occasionally astonishes me.

I doubt any of them is directly engaged in seeking or providing illegal favors. I take pleasure and pride in meeting my extended family at reunions, where I am moved by the verbal and nonverbal exchanges of food, music, and banter that seal our kinship. But I also recognize that their (and my) remarkable level of comfort and well-being compared to any other random sample of 200 or so close blood relations in the country is an anomaly. Why should the Chella and Swaminathan kin be so unrepresentative in such a vast country like India? And yet, my condition is, of course, hardly unique. There are tens millions of people in similar networks of privilege as my own, and I would hardly consider most of them or my kin as having any meaningful influence to shift the wheels of power. But collectively, it is clear that we make up a significant part of the engine of the regime and play global roles that are out of reach of most people.

Societies are not like atoms moving in Brownian, randomly dispersed, motion to make up diffuse gas-like entities, with any sample of the “gas” having the same properties as any other. Instead, they are made up of agents (actors) who occupy distinct positions in complex fields of meaning and material resources. They form relationships within these patterns of signification, but these meanings are mostly already available to them through long-standing connections of kinship and clientelism–exchanges of favors, usually involving substantially more powerful agents than themselves–as well as the modern rules of economic systems. These connections are made up of laddered arrangements of patronage and wealth creation, resting on a form of arbitrage that relates to in equality in access to different types of resources, including money and cultural goods. In the final analysis, they endow small, well-networked groups with disproportionately high material and symbolic wealth.

Although I could claim that my own modest success in life is attributable to my efforts and luck, some of that luck is surely due to my family connections, starting with the conditions of schooling around my birth and continuing through to the present day when I seek favors from my network to help solve my minor problems relating to buying or selling property, managing health crises, or handling my taxes. My family’s upper-caste membership by birth became my inheritance, even though I am technically in violation of virtually all dvija rules specified in the Dharmaśāstra. Neither I nor any of the people in my immediate network of friends and family need to engage in any sort of criminal activity to get things done, but I am aware that less well-connected individuals find it harder to resolve similar difficulties and that others, better connected, have an even easier time.

All this complicates the laddering of elite networks, their interlocking and mobile features; in short, their dynamics. But we can identify features of an inner circle within these networks and our own direct or indirect links to them, if we manage to connect the dots. The economic historian Vivek Chibber writes of a grand coalition of prominent industrialists in 1944 who pledged support for centralized state planning for the young country and gave rise to the Bombay Plan. The plan created the political coalition between the government and business to form a closed and protected economy. Its implementation, however, sheltered the interests of the small number of capitalists who worked with the ruling Congress Party to weaken labor unions and maintain a licensing system that provided select groups monopoly rights to produce industrial goods. Those groups, in turn, often used their licenses strategically to wait for favorable conditions. Regulators directly bargained with firms instead of setting up rules for new investors to come in. All this suggests that the Bombay Plan’s authors had concocted a just-in-time strategy to preserve oligarchies, many of which had prospered during the Raj.

These authors include several prominent individuals who remain well known even today, but that is not the point. Rather, it is that these fraternities (for they were made up only of men) operated at multiple levels but usually at the same scales of fewer than a hundred or so. They were hierarchically linked, if that could accurately describe the multiply transverse, links to different social classes, political inferiors and clients, and so on. Exchanges of gifts, money, and favors were common, making it possible to engage in investments and exchange around material and symbolic resources to consolidate gains for the oligarchy.

These patterns are familiar in several other contexts of elite networks. In India, one may assume that political and economic power, at least since in dependence, has largely been about family legacies, remaining within tight kinship patterns for long periods, with these relationships still dominant. Over the longue durée, there were periods when other coalitions of small networks took control of economic and political power and had enormous latitude in organizing dependent social formations. In some cases, they took the form of an urban order; in others, they were tied to esoteric combinations of mantra recitals and ritual sacrifice; in yet others, they described the patterns of financing and sustenance of transnational power networks through trade and arbitrage, creating new forms of capital. These configurations show that there are many levels of order, including several formations of power that control vast territory and have intricate ties involving the everyday operation of the economy, formal and legitimate state power, and extraordinary levels of wealth.

Across history, such manifold syndromes of elite dominance within long time frames were routinely responsible for extracting large amounts of physical and mental labor from vast populations in ways that always heightened social and economic in equality. But they were also frequently contested and, over long periods, created new cultural practices in diverse groups dwelling in many types of ecologies and spatial relationships. The revelations of corruption that I focus on in this book may only be a small fraction of the myriad stories that could perhaps be told. Yet these limited examples do show that, on a few occasions, elite networks or their effects were exposed and contested.