City City Bang Bang, Columns

Scam as theatre

Every once in a while, an accidental event of some kind washes up on our shores, and allows us to see, in its bloated stomach, a semi-digested cross-section of reality. When the Chadha brothers shot each other (or were shot by someone else or whatever is the theory the investigators finally settle on) a fortnight or so back, the event was so bizarre and unexpected, that in its wake, we have become privy to an outpouring of facts, conjectures and gossip that may not have surfaced otherwise. As a result, we get a brief glimpse of the inner world of the nexus between politics and business, and it isn’t an edifying sight.

If media reports are to believed, Chadha’s life might well have been a compendium of scams. The picture that emerges is of a deep and mutually rewarding relationship between business and politics, where political connections nurtured by a businessman who ‘looked after’ all concerned , regardless of political affiliation extremely well, translated into extractive monopolies in sectors as diverse as liquor and nutrition, where a private liquor contractor was able to levy an additional ‘tax’ on the merchandise he sold, enforcing his will using a parallel private administration, complete with departments devoted to oversight and enforcement, where the state provided personal protection to people engaged in extortion and profiteering, and where the concerned businessmen could walk around with impunity with gangs of armed musclemen, eventually resulting in the shoot-out that lead to his death. The alleged accomplice/suspect in the whole matter is designated as the had of the Minority Commission of a state, but going by reports was nothing more than the provider of muscle to Chadha. The investigation into the murder too seems to be part of the same system as it plods on in the familiar combination of inefficiency and deliberate muddling that is the hallmark of police investigations in India. A simple procedure like a ballistics test that matches a bullet with a gun is shrouded in confusion, and statements about what happened contradict themselves on a regular basis.

What is most striking is the absence of any larger questions. There is great interest in the event itself and in the life of Ponty Chadha; reports about his empire do not shy away from spelling out all the sleaze that surrounded him, but this does not translate into asking more fundamental systemic questions. How could this be allowed to happen for such a long time? Why is this not an indictment of several successive governments and political leaders? What does it say about the nature of political patronage that allows for such extortionist business practices? And most importantly, when all this was known so publicly, why was no semblance of action taken? No political party has raised these questions with any seriousness, as indeed as has been the case with all the other scams that have been unearthed.

The disinterest in asking systemic questions is widespread. Each scam is consumed for its own sake, and follows its own and by now predictable pattern of outrage. Even when pursued on an individual basis, most scams die an unsung death. The journey from high dudgeon to bored impassivity is getting shorter with every new scandal. Adarsh, CWG, the Goa Mining scam, the Robert Vadra real estate deals, the 2G scam, Coal-gate, the imbroglio about Salman Khurshid, the Nitin Gadkari epsiode- the list is a long and exhausting one. It is clear that barring those cases in which the judiciary is involved, nothing much is likely to happen in any of the alleged scandals. The more central issue of overhauling a moribund system that produces scams at such regular intervals is rarely addressed. The JanLokpal attempt was a step in this direction, but it was scuttled by the coming together of the political establishment and helped in some measure by the grandiloquent ambitions of its backers, who did not know when to stop pushing.

It seems that two different modes of discussion are employed when it comes to subjects like these. We are quick to anger when an issue is presented to us under the label of a scam; we have a well rehearsed routine that we go perform with theatrical flourish. Every hint of suspicion becomes magnified into searing certainty, every infraction is seized upon, every sub-clause in a document produces quivers of anguished outrage, once something is declared a scam. But simultaneously we employ a mode of conversation which is much more knowing, where we can casually talk of about which businessman has bought whom, and who was paid off how many crores for which deal. The ‘everyone knows’ discourse operates off-camera with studied nonchalance, and is shocked by very little.

It would seem that as consumers, we respond to scams only when they come in recognisable packaging, neatly labelled and accompanied by clear instructions on usage. The anger around corruption is misleading, for it hides the extent to which it has come to be accepted as a routine part of our lives. We always knew that there were people like Ponty Chadha, and we always accepted that when one goes, another will take his place. Had the whole issue been uncovered as a scam, and had it involved a specific and prominent political personality, it would have made for some diversion, but what we have here is a simply some more commonplace reality. Here all that emerges is that the system itself is fundamentally flawed, and that is something that is not interesting enough. What is unusual is the mystery and the almost salacious thrill that surrounds a sibling rivalry that ends in blood. That is news; the fact that this is part of a larger murkier nexus is old hat.