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Conceptual Trap in Corruption as a Security Issue

P. K. Gautam was a Consultant at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • December 08, 2010

    Why has corruption not been listed and addressed as a security issue by think tanks? It is the common understanding that corruption in its many forms is the top most internal security threat. Corruption is akin to cancer and weakens a nation from within. Thus, in its external dimension, the nation loses its power. Some argue that even though corruption must be addressed as a non-traditional security issue, it is in fact a traditional security issue. So much is the prevalent cynicism that the noted sociologist Ashish Nandy in a television debate noted that corruption is in our genes.

    One reason for academics and policy pundits to ignore corruption as a security issue is due to a conceptual trap. It is declared that corruption is not part of their mandate. Rather, ‘hard’ and ‘loud’ security issues are what need policy focused work. In the same tone it is argued that scholars in think tanks are not activists. They should rather sit back in their ivory towers and observe a trend. In any case the futility of addressing corruption is also propelled by the logic that even the best policy outputs and suggestions are not acted upon. The slow and casual process of delivery and governance results in policy papers gathering dust. Scholars also note that the institutions to fight corruption are already in place like the judiciary, the Election Commission, the Comptroller and Auditor General, the Central Vigilance Commission, the Income Tax Department and Enforcement Directorate.

    Conceptually, as one example, it is easy to mix up poverty with corruption. Is corruption due to poverty or is poverty due to corruption? Those studying the Naxal challenge cannot afford to ignore the fact that corruption in delivery mechanisms is one root cause of the insurgency. If corruption serves the basic human tendency of greed, then enough work exists on insurgencies having been caused by greed and grievance; for instance the work by Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler. In the military dimension, it is pointed out that due to corruption the process of induction of state of art artillery guns has been delayed which has impacted on military effectiveness.

    A recent report by the World Bank on Africa points out that the standard definition of corruption – the abuse of public office for private gains – needs to be expanded. Though it acknowledges that the problem of big time corruption is the proverbial tip of the iceberg (like the series of scams being exposed in India), the World Bank report also introduces the term “quiet corruption” or the 90 per cent of the iceberg that lies under water, to indicate various types of malpractices of frontline providers of governance (teachers, doctors, inspectors and other government representatives) that do not involve monetary exchange. Absenteeism and low effort are examples, with 15 to 25 per cent of teachers being absent from schools, and considerable numbers not found teaching. Similar behaviour can be seen in India as well. This quiet corruption has deep long term consequences.

    How do issues like corruption become a security threat? According to Barry Buzan and Ole Waever, there needs to be a process leading to securitization. Securitisation is a discursive process that shapes the collective understanding of what constitutes a vital threat. They suggest that an epistemic community can redefine it to match changing circumstances. In the case of India this role, as far as corruption goes, is now being undertaken by activists like Anna Hazare, Swami Aginvesh, Kiran Bedi, and others, which is akin to a second freedom struggle.

    Researchers and academics are also citizens. It may not be incorrect to state: scratch a researcher, you will find an activist. As Professor Kanti Bajpai has suggested, policy research in one way also needs to address a wider public audience. It may be slow acting, but an informed public benefiting from policy work will influence policy makers.

    The research agenda in Indian think tanks must now include corruption as a security issue. The challenge is to prove Ashish Nandy wrong. Scholars and analysts need to ask one question: Do I have corruption in my genes, as suggested by Ashish Nandy, in a one size fits all logic? Probably, most will not find such a gene in themselves.