All of which goes to make the behaviour of Janata Dal-Secular leader HD Kumaraswamy extremely curious. An audio tape has surfaced of his demanding Rs 20 crore to swing a Karnataka MLC seat for a party member. In the clip, he helplessly points to his own MLAs who demand Rs 1 crore to cast a vote. And the rationale he cites is that they have taken loans to fight the election and need to recover it.
What makes the episode interesting is Kumaraswamy’s reaction after the tape was made public. Instead of opting for silence or denial, he claims that he was just explaining painful political realities. And that since this is something that all parties do, there is no point in singling him out. He was also ready to debate it in the Karnataka Assembly and outside.
It is natural to feel disgusted by such blatant give-and-take for a public office. For example, Karnataka Chief Minister K Siddaramaiah has said that it is no defence to say everyone is doing it, and, using rather poetic language, added that a cat might drink milk with its eyes closed but that doesn’t mean the world will not see it. But whereas he might be right about the cat, that everyone is doing it is actually quite a good defence. Corruption is dangerous for the corrupt when it is abnormal, otherwise it is just an entitlement like the conveyance allowance in your salary. And the proof of how normal it is can be seen in Kumaraswamy remaining unperturbed and untouched despite his public confession. And, more importantly, no one is really taking him up on his offer to debate it.
Kumaraswamy states an obvious truth that goes back to the time when democracy took root in India. A half-decent leader delivers the money he makes to his party funds; more enterprising ones add some of it to their personal fortune, which again goes to retain him in power. It is naive to be shocked at one man getting caught talking about it. But it is definitely an opportunity if he is willing to discuss it and wise to accept this offer and debate it.
But it won’t happen because that also means a potential moral hazard—as if recognising it will give it legitimacy. We also saw this thought process when the economist Kaushik Basu made the perfectly reasonable point that if people who give bribes are not penalised then corruption will come down. But the implication of that—letting a wrongdoer go free—was somewhat unpalatable. There is, however, a price to such wilful blindness: when it is normal to be rotten, then eventually nothing good will flourish.