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Our gold-plated culture of corruption

Our gold-plated culture of corruption
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First Published: Thu, Apr 28 2011. 08 06 PM IST

Good lord!: (above) The Swaminarayan temple in Neasden, London (CGP Grey/Wikimedia Commons); and priests bathing the idol of Venkateswara in Tirupati (PTI).
Good lord!: (above) The Swaminarayan temple in Neasden, London (CGP Grey/Wikimedia Commons); and priests bathing the idol of Venkateswara in Tirupati (PTI).
Updated: Thu, Apr 28 2011. 08 06 PM IST
Analysis on corruption in India does not address its cultural aspect. We see nothing peculiar about corruption in India (except that it is everywhere). We see many corrupt individuals in a system unable to correct itself.
Our media rep
orts corruption episodically. One independent incident of greed follows another.
Let us set all that aside and look at it differently. No race can be congenitally corrupt. But can a race be corrupted by its culture? To know why Indians are corrupt let’s look elsewhere. What patterns and practices distinguish us?
First: Religion is transactional in India.
We give God cash and anticipate an out-of-turn reward. Our plea acknowledges we aren’t really deserving. The cash compensates for our lack of merit.
In the world outside the temple walls, such a transaction has a name: “bribe”.
In India God accepts cash from us, not good work, for which there is no reward. We don’t expect something from God in return for sweeping our neighbourhood streets. We go with money.
Observe this in another way.
Why does the wealthy Indian give not cash to temples, but gold crowns and such baubles?
To ensure his gift isn’t squandered on feeding the poor. Our pay-off is for God. It’s wasted if it goes to man. See what this has produced.
In June 2009, The Hindu published a report of Karnataka minister G. Janardhan Reddy gifting a crown of gold and diamonds worth Rs 45 crore to Tirupati.
According to the temple’s website, Tirupati got 3,200kg silver and 2.4kg of diamonds in just one year. The temple encourages such giving, according to a report in The Telegraph in April 2010. Those who gifted a kilo of gold, worth over Rs 21 lakh, got “VIP darshan” (which means cutting the queue) of the idol.
In 2007, Vellore’s Sripuram temple was built with 1,500kg of gold. By weight alone it is worth Rs 325 crore.
In May 2010, according to The Economic Times, 1,075kg of gold was deposited by Tirupati with the State Bank of India (SBI) for safe keeping.
In 2009, 500kg was deposited with the Indian Overseas Bank. 
Good lord!: (above) The Swaminarayan temple in Neasden, London (CGP Grey/Wikimedia Commons); and priests bathing the idol of Venkateswara in Tirupati (PTI).
In June 2004, Business Standard reported that Tirupati couldn’t melt down 8,000kg of gifted gold ornaments because devotees had stuck precious stones to their gift. This 8 tonnes of metal, worth Rs 1,680 crore but actually useless, was gathering dust in temple vaults.
On 11 February, according to The Hindu Business Line, 1,175kg of gold was deposited with SBI, and the temple trustees had yet another 3,000kg of gold handy.
What will they do with all this metal? Gold-plate the walls of the temple (lending new meaning to the phrase “India Shining”). This work was halted by the Andhra Pradesh high court in December. Not because it was wasteful—such things aren’t vulgar to Indians—but because it might have damaged wall inscriptions.
India’s temples collect so much of this stuff they don’t know what to do with it.
In February, 17 tonnes of silver, worth Rs 117 crore, was found in an Odisha temple. The priests say they had no idea it was even there. But the devotee keeps giving.
Tirupati alone gets between 800kg (The Economic Times’ estimate) and 1,825kg (The Telegraph’s estimate) of gold a year.
When God accepts money in return for his favours, what is wrong with my doing the same thing? Nothing. This is why Indians are so easily corruptible. Our culture accommodates such transactions morally. This is key. There is no real stigma. The demonstrably corrupt Indian leader can harbour hope of a comeback, unthinkable in the West.
Our moral ambiguity towards corruption is also visible in our history. This is our second point.
Any number of books on Indian history tells us of the capture of cities and kingdoms after guards were paid off to open gates, and commanders paid off to surrender.
This is unique to India. We read of battles won after battalions evaporated.
Our corrupt nature has limited warfare on the subcontinent. It is striking how little Indians have actually fought compared to ancient Greece and modern Europe. The Turks’ battles with Nadir Shah were vicious and fought to the finish.
In India fighting wasn’t needed, bribing was usually enough to see off our armies.
The invader willing to spend a bit of cash always brushed aside India’s kings, no matter how many tens of thousands peopled their infantry.
Little battle was given at the “Battle” of Plassey. Clive paid off Mir Jaffar and all of Bengal folded to an army of 3,000.
There was always a financial solution to taking our forts.
Golconda was captured in 1687 after the secret back door was left open. In 1700, the fort of Parli, west of Satara, the headquarters of the Maratha government, fell after it took a bribe from Aurangzeb. In 1701, Aurangzeb invested the Panhala fort for two months without success. Then he bribed the Maratha commandant Trimbak, who let the Mughals in. Aurangzeb took the forts at Wardhangarh, Nandgir, Wandan and Chandan without fighting. Khelna fought the Mughals (led by the mercenary Sawai Rajputs of Amber) superbly till commandant Parshuram accepted his bribe and gave up the fort.
According to The Cambridge History of India, Torna was the only fort captured in that long campaign without bribes. Allahabad was taken by the Mughals in April 1720 when Girdhar Bahadur left the gates open after being promised governorship of Awadh. The same year Asir opened its gates to Nizam-ul-Mulk after a bribe. 
The Raja of Srinagar gave up Dara Shikoh’s son Sulaiman to Aurangzeb after a bribe. Shivaji took Kondhana (which he renamed Sinhagad) after the Mughal commander was bribed. The Mughals lost Penukonda to the Marathas in 1706 after the commandant was paid off.
We must understand that this isn’t one man bribed alone. He must share that money with his officers, who must in turn pass it along to the infantry and cavalry. Everyone participated in this treason.
Question is: Why do we have a transactional culture while civilized nations don’t?
The answer is that we haven’t learnt to trust one another as Europeans have.
Indians do not buy the theory that we can all rise if each of us behaves morally, because that is not the message of our faith. This is the third point.
Our faith assures us that God will deliver for us individually, but we must deliver to him too.
When Europeans came here they built schools (there were zero schools in Gujarat before Mountstuart Elphinstone built the first 10 in the 1820s).
When we go to Europe we build more temples. Patels alone have built 12 Swaminarayan temples in Britain.
Unfortunately, the European is tolerant and the Indian quite shameless, though it’s true also that he’s unaware of what he’s doing. He’s practising his magic in a culture where it isn’t needed. He doesn’t need God’s favours in a society that isn’t corrupt, that is moral, that is equal. All he needs is hard work, which he’s quite capable of giving.
Some might say the doctrine of our faith doesn’t support this behaviour. That shouldn’t concern us here. We’re talking about its practice, the way we do religion, rather than its philosophy, which is ultimately meaningless.
The way we do it is Hobbesian.
We are up against everyone else, except God—and even he must be bribed.
Aakar Patel is a director with Hill Road Media.
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First Published: Thu, Apr 28 2011. 08 06 PM IST