The Consumerist Laws

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No economy, least of all ours, where half the people lead an existence below the poverty level, can support the middle class dream of unbridled consumerism.  So it has been quick to learn the ropes of the “world of market efficiency with its corruption and dirty tricks” to fulfill its essentially unachievable dream.

You cannot embrace the market, the profit society ruled by the consumer king and keep away corrupt practices. But then the middle class does not only want to eat well and live well, it also likes to think well of itself. A generalized and diffuse sense of grievance against the “system” nicely relegates the individual guilt to a collectivity from which they are automatically excluded.

The newly invented myth that the laws are inadequate justifies the demand for the all conquering thunderbolt to strike the mightiest of the corrupt. The unqualified support of the Jan Lokpal Bill is the most articulate expression of their middle class ontology. Any serious discussion of the bill therefore, must be foregrounded in the Dr. Jekyll and Hyde character of the movement. Many of those who light candles or keep vigil for the TV cameras are also part of the anonymous and shadowy “corrupt system”.

The utopian thinking which favours radical and subversive solutions even a recasting of the institutions and practices that create the social order has teamed up with the consumerist urge. Never satisfied with what is on offer, these drives ceaselessly demand ever greater things; the bar is progressively raised, the aims go higher and higher. The consumerist urge is both fuelled and satiated by a longing for newer and shinier merchandise and disposing off the old. The use value is supplanted by the sign value. Otherwise the proposed Lokpal bill – the authorized version of it - we are agitated so much about would not have been such a do or die imperative.

We have a roster of laws in the arsenal – precision guided to eliminate corruption, black money and acts of financial malfeasance. It is in this context that one would like to raise the tactless and undiplomatic question – in what respect has the Prevention of Corruption Act 1988 been tested and found wanting in the context of investigations. In tandem with the RTI, it can take care of the corrupt practices by the lowly peon as well the PM of the country.

If it shakes in craven terror when it comes to calling into account the mightiest, the fault certainly lies with those who are wielding the authority under that Act, not the Act itself. I am all for the strongest possible Lokpal Act; it is always comfortable to have an ICBM tucked away somewhere in the silo. My worry is our dismal track record in terms of our use of the available weapons.

The Prevention of Corruption Act by outlawing the giving and taking of crime obligates the entire society to an honest conduct and yet the nation is outraged and helpless before its all pervasive corruption. What is the purpose of law if no one obeys it? How do we administer a society which throws up people against whom the law itself hides behind legal lacunae and legerdemain?

The CBI, an organization which appeared to have been carved out of pure awe, (was it till yesterday?) - suffers from a serious crisis of credibility today. The laws that it has been dealing with have become more lethal. The institution of the CAG has been there all the while and no one took much notice. Comes a man called Vinod Rai and suddenly the nation wakes up to its tremendous powers and anti corruption potential.  To bring up the counterfactual, a serial grabber of post retirement assignments has all but killed the Right to Information Act in a particular state.

Corruption, just like AIDS, is not a disease but a syndrome. It is the manifestation of a society which has turned immunodeficient; a society which can no longer depend on its own antibodies, its moral defences hence. In the present context it is more important to make better men; for that we have to reform our society a little bit. One can be a very efficient minder of other people’s morality: the difficult part is watching your own conduct.

Gandhi sought the terms of his appeal by delving deep into himself; for him the political was never divorced from the moral. Is there a Gandhi today who could lead a civil obedience movement to exhort his followers to obey just one injunction –of not paying or accepting bribe; admittedly an action as heroic as those of our forefathers, who faced bullets in the freedom movement?

In his second coming, could a Gandhi produce enough number of men commensurate in their moral worth on a regular basis to occupy the perfectionist Lokpal assignments? If that were not to be, the Lokpal Act would be another consumerist indulgence.

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