Corruptcy is Not the Name of a Third World Disease

When I was growing up in India, the word “satta” was synonymous with the word “jugar.” The former referred to stocks, while the latter meant gambling. Owning stocks and gambling money were considered vices that only the lowliest creatures indulged in.

That cultural taboo remained until the 1980s, when parents of Indian immigrants still warned their kids against owning stocks in the American companies they worked for. I remember a friend of mine, one of the first Indian women in the Silicon Valley, trying to explain to her father the concept of a stock option and not being able to get through. It was all loosey-goosey money, her father feared, not a real asset like gold or land.

The reason most middle class professionals shied away from the stock market in India until recently was because Indian corporations had little accountability to shareholders. But in the 1990s, in the wake of globalization and the dot-com boom, the stock market finally acquired a kind of chic in India. As Indian newspapers went online and began to display real-time stock tickers, middle class Indians finally began to acquire Western status symbols like stock portfolios, time share condos, and wine cellars.

Alas, the recent meltdown on Wall Street has made many Indians take stock of the stock market. Ironically, in the midst of this gloom and doom, many other Indians are gleeful. To them, the latest financial scandals on Wall Street have revealed one universal truth; that all human beings are equally corrupt.

Even though I myself have suffered the loss of a small fortune in the American stock market, I have joined the small cadre of Indians who are silently laughing at the average American who once was so arrogant about the infallibility, even the moral superiority, of the great capitalist system. I am relieved to note that human nature all over the world is essentially the same, that we people of the “third world” are no more corrupt than people in the West.

Quite the opposite.

What the latest corporate scandals have revealed is that the difference between corruption in America and corruption in India is that the Americans do it on a grander scale and with more suave.

Alas, it was only a year or so ago that, during a visit to India, I was told stories of money being siphoned off Indian companies by their CEOs. “I wish we had the checks and balances, the protections that American companies have,” a friend of mine said at the time, “I wish our corporate executives and entrepreneurs were as dedicated to the products and ideas their companies sell as the Americans. But all they are interested in is looting the till.”

Now we know that American executives siphon off money too. It’s just that until the recent debacles of Enron and Worldcom, nobody suspected it. When I was a graduate student in Berkeley, I was forced to listen ad nauseam to American pundits analyzing the problem of what is called “corruptcy” in South and Southeast Asia. “Corruptcy,” the American academics pontificated, prevailed in countries like Thailand, Indonesia, and India, because the gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots” was so great.

Any Indian bureaucrat or government official, these wise men argued, would jump at the opportunity to make a quick buck, because he lacked the ethical framework that American capitalism was founded on. Now we all know what a load of hogwash that was.

I can sympathize with an Indian policeman who accepts an occasional 10-rupee bill in exchange for tearing a traffic citation he is about to issue to a citizen riding a bike without a lamp. After all, the poor policeman lives in a tenement, rides a bike himself, and carries a stick for a weapon. But I have no sympathy for Kenneth Lay and Jefferey Skilling, who received millions in executive compensations, and who had no real need to rob billions. What I would like to know is this: What distinguishes the lifestyle of a millionaire from that of a billionaire? Can anyone tell me the difference?

I would love to go back to those holier-than-thou- pundits in the universities now and ask them a simple question; “We Indians can offer poverty as the root cause of our corruption; what’s your excuse?” But what the American academicians and the media are focusing now, is not on teaching morality to our corporate executives, but on policing them better–through regulation. I guess the premise is that any human being will rob the country blind given a half a chance. Mind you, for every regulation the government invents, there are always a hundred attorneys devising loopholes.

Wouldn’t it be desirable instead to imbibe in our international capitalists a semblance of trade ethic, a modicum of humility, a slight sense of justice, a smattering of social conscience, and a fleeting adherence to morality? But talk like this, and a writer like me is bound to get branded an idealist. So where do we go from here? Have Indians lost faith in the magic of the genie called free market?

Or are we simply too embarrassed by the fact that we settled for a bribe of a mere 20 million, veiled as an “educational gift,” when there was at least a billion or two to be had, for letting Enron rob our country blind?

Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED.

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