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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

In familiar Company

What history says about the sources of corruption in India

By Swapan Dasgupta

In a compelling essay in Newsweek, historian Niall Ferguson contrasted President Barak Obama's missed opportunities in the Middle East with Bismarck's success in harnessing the nascent European nationalism to the advantage of the newly-formed German state in the late-19th century.

The comparison may well strike strategic affairs pundits as both facile and arbitrary: can decision-making in a complex democracy be equated with the resolute authoritarianism of the Prussian order? In his study of Bismarck, the historian AJP Taylor—someone who deftly bridged the gap between academia and journalism—had warned that "Great disasters are caused by trying to learn from history and correct past mistakes." Taylors's alternative was alluring: "it is probably better to think about the present, not the past—or the future."

It's a warning that has cut no ice. In a world where knowledge is driven by the principle of 'relevance', the temptation to see the past through the concerns of the present and profit from that experience is irresistible. William Dalrymple, to cite an example from nearer home, is presently researching a book on the now-forgotten First Afghan War (1839-42). The underlying message behind revisiting a campaign marked by initial success and subsequent disaster is obvious: Whitehall had learnt nothing from its 19th century engagements with Afghanistan and had committed the same mistakes in the 21st century.

Indeed, the War on Terror launched after the 9/11 attacks has generated a body of historical literature centred on the phenomenon of Empire. Written mainly by scholars deeply distrustful of President George W. Bush's foreign policy, they have been inclined to view the assault on Islamism as a cover for Empire-building and self-aggrandisement. In a war billed as being dictated by oil, former US Vice President Dick Cheney was often depicted as a latter-day personification of Robert Clive and Cecil Rhodes. Not surprisingly, the story of the East India Company's transformation from merchants to conquerors of India has formed an important part of the narrative.

The narrative has struck a chord among radicals and dissenters in an India that has hesitantly embraced globalisation. The East India Company has reappeared in populist political discourse as the symbol for corporations determined to subvert democracy and the rights of indigenous peoples for the sake of profit. This shrill denunciation of global capitalism has blended in neatly with the fringe but vocal anti-globalisation movements in the campuses of the West which accounts for Arundhati Roy's cult status.

For a country that has traditionally been disdainful of history, any attempt to imbibe past experiences is a welcome departure. To that extent, invoking the story of the East India Company is worthwhile. The danger lies in getting the wrong end of the stick. The Company holds out valuable lessons for contemporary India but the relevant lesson is not drawn from its creeping conquest of India—a feat that is near-impossible to replicate—but the story of how early capitalism subverted society and politics. In today's India where prosperity and improvements in standards of living appear to coexist with cynicism, scandal and corruption, another facet of the East India Company story is worth exploring.

To many early British administrators parachuted into India to bring order and streamlined governance, corruption often seemed a peculiarly 'native' problem. "Every native of Hindustan", Lord Cornwallis once exclaimed in exasperation, "I verily believe, is corrupt." It was a view echoed by Clive in his deposition to a select committee of Parliament investigating his 'disproportionate assets'. "From time immemorial", he explained, "it has been the custom of that Country, for an inferior never to come into the presence of a superior without a present. It begins at the Nabob and ends at the lowest man who has an inferior." Clive, in fact, claimed to have been "astonished at his own moderation" in resisting the blank cheque offered to him by Mir Jafar after Plassey.

Lest it is imagined that Clive and Cornwallis were guilty of creating 'orientalist' stereotypes to gloss over the venality of the Company's servants, it is interesting to note the first question posed to Sir Thomas Roe by the Moghul Emperor Jehangir in 1615 upon being asked for trade and tax concessions for the Company: "He asked me what Presents we would bring him." When Roe offered him "excellent artifices in painting, carving, cutting, enamelling, figures in Brasse, Copper, or Stone, rich embroyderies, stuffes of Gold and Silver. He said it was very well: but that hee desired an English horse." And Jehangir was no tinpot chief overwhelmed by greed and a desire to survive.

The suggestion that transactions in India always have a covert built-in quid pro quo clause may seem offensive but, at the same time, in the age of 2-G and the Commonwealth Games it does have a contemporary resonance. The annual payment of £27,000 to Clive for a jagir over which the Company already possessed rights was suspected to be a variant of the modern-day kickbacks that accompany defence deals and commercial contracts. What Warren Hastings disingenuously claimed was the "common Zeasut" or generous entertainment allowance "usually given to the visitor by the visited" would well have been construed today as bribes and sweeteners. Likewise, the endless retainers, some amounting to more than £10,000 annually, given by either the Nawab of Arcot or his rival the Raja of Tanjore to departing Company servants for promoting their interests in both Westminster and Leadenhall Street seem to have much in common with post-retirement consultancies and directorships offered by companies to retired babus.

The organised encounter between a commercially-driven Britain and a less purposeful India resulted in hideous political, social and economic distortions in both places. To Britons, dazzled by the wealth and opulence of the East, the ease with which Indians, legatees of an admitted rich civilisation, could be made suckers was puzzling. In the words of Charles Grant, a government official who returned from India in 1790, the people of India were "lamentably degenerate and base, retaining but a feeble sense of moral obligation, yet obstinate in their disregard of what they know to be right." Hastings wasn't so sanctimonious, preferring to locate the problem in the tradition of "arbitrary power". Today's anti-corruption crusaders have, ironically, also identified discretionary power as the root of corruption.

The ostentatious and vulgar 'Nabob' culture that stemmed from the interaction with India after 1757 also created widespread concern in Britain. The Company servants who returned with the huge proceeds of their 'private trade' may have bought prime properties, works of art and even seats in Parliament but they never attained respectability. Both Clive and Hastings were subjected to intense parliamentary scrutiny and were the targets of men such as Edmund Burke who sought a moral cleansing of society.

Justice never caught up with the Company Nabobs but the consequence of the fierce assaults on their ethics and integrity left a mark on Britain. By the beginning of the 19th century, the scandals of an earlier era forced it to move towards a relatively more ordered capitalism and an ideal of Empire centred on justice and fair play. Although there was always a mismatch between ideal and reality, the British 'national character' did internalise this abhorrence of excess. Some of this shift was reflected in India.

The post-1991 encounter with global capitalism has produced perversions that correspond broadly to the experience of the 50 years after Plassey. If history is prone to selective re-enactment, India can possibly look forward to what happened after the dust settled on the first flush of exuberance.

The Telegraph, February 18, 2011

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