While pursuing Masters from Jawaharlal Nehru University during 1998-2000, I got to know a number of BJP supporters, many of whom I would classify as friends. For most of these people it was a "party with a difference", and that difference was supposed to be lack of corruption. It was an argument I had a hard time swallowing, as mere bribery seemed to me a quaint problem given the deep moral corruption of a party that had used violence and thuggery to undermine constitutional values. Nevertheless, I understood the appeal of a party with a difference.
Coming from Gorakhpur, where I had spent the last three years doing my BA, I had closely seen the humiliation and indignity that corruption brought. To get a train reservation, I used to stand in line for half-an-hour, while people who had paid a little extra had their slips carried by touts straight into the cabin.
Getting a telephone connection was an exercise in pleading and graft. An electrician from the power department offered to "fix" our meter so we would get only a "small" bill and my mother bawled him out. The next month, our bill, which used to be in hundreds, was marked to Rs 10,000. It took years of my father visiting the department's office to clear it.
Every little thing, every form of documentation, from land records to certifying a college marksheet, wherever the government was, there was an outstretched palm that you could grease to get ahead, or suffer in silent frustration as services were not delivered, as work was not done, as the state left you out of the very systems that would allow you to engage with the body public. It was degrading and dehumanising, a system that reduced you to somebody from whom the state authorities extracted everything they could while denying services they promised and at the same time opening doors to those willing to bribe them.
It is hard to convey the kind of ingrained rage this leaves you with. You just want to be cleansed of it, be able to live a life of some dignity, not bow and scrape, smile sickly when a hand is outstretched with the inevitable demand. Just as those who have never experienced riots and curfews, been trapped into their houses unsure when the mob will reach their house, unsure of whether the police will be with the mob, or merely missing, the terror of being completely vulnerable, being completely impotent in protecting your loved ones, can never know what this may feel like.
Many years later, in 2008, I went to small Dalit villages around Lucknow to interview the inhabitants about Mayawati's government, about the grand monuments that were being built while security of Dalits themselves continued to be a problem. The inhabitants were critical of the governance, but when I asked them about the monuments and parks, their eyes lit up, and one of them said something that I have never been able to forget. It was the first sacred space he had experienced, he said, a place where he could be himself, "Yeh to humare liye swarg hai" (This is like heaven).
I could never truly understand how life had been for him, but I knew in a very limited way that longing to stand in a space with your head held high. Maybe this is why upper caste/class people hate corruption so much - because it makes them feel, for a very small time, in the smallest of ways - the deep indignity we heap upon the most marginalised. Why should we pay for access when the accident of our privilege is supposed to give it to us?
So, maybe I understood a little of the anger of my classmates against corruption, and I also watched as their faith in the BJP crumbled, as the deals were revealed, as late BJP leader Pramod Mahajan's briefcase made him into a natty caricature of the failed promises of the party with no difference at all. Today, I watch as a similar change seems to be taking place, as the current government, that rose to power on the promise of fighting corruption, has done nothing to hold to account those responsible for corruption smeared across the nation - through the IPL, through Vyapam, through the Panama Papers, through a suit stitched with his own name that Prime Minister Narendra Modi wore like a statement that even his clothes were bought and paid for when we welcomed former US President Barack Obama.
I also hear people suggesting that corruption doesn't matter, never really mattered, it was merely the tool of political operators to win power. There are even theorisers of corruption, such as Shiv Visvanathan, arguing that corruption is a construct of language, that it is an aspect of modernity. This would be laughable it was not tragic.
There is nothing modern about corruption or bribery, it is mentioned in texts as old as the Arthashastra and the Torah, when Alauddin Khilji flooded Delhi's mandis to enforce his price control policies, he was no flag bearer of the European Enlightenment movement. Most hideous are statements such as, "Disasters like Bhopal or the Orissa cyclone open new markets for aid and relief." By all accounts the Bhopal gas tragedy - that took place because Union Carbide did not follow the same standards in India as it did in the US - was an outcome of corruption. The horrific deaths of thousands, the poisoning of the land, and the torture of those affected, is not some bit of light piffle to be dismissed as "opening new markets".
In a slightly different vein, Ashis Nandy sparked off a controversy at the Jaipur Literary Festival in 2013, by suggesting that some types of corruption equalises. The corruption among the connected, who are able to do favours for each other through ostensibly legal ways, is not seen, while the corruption among the newly rising communities comes in the way of money and physical gifts.
A politically connected person could have a company that suddenly increases its turnover by 16,000 times, and then winds it up, totally legally. There is some logic to that. This is how privilege works, within systems where people do each other favours while keeping other communities from competing fairly. But is the answer to privilege corruption money? What about those from marginalised communities who do not have that money? Is the unfairness of their lives eased because the richer among them can bribe the state?
In the end what corruption, hidden or open, through money paid or favours given, is not about unfairness. It is about denying a level-playing field to those not privileged by community or wealth. It is the theft of opportunity from the poor and marginalised. It is wrong. Political parties can come and go, all of them may become "parties with no difference", that does not mean that Indians need to accept corruption as part of their daily humiliation, or stop caring.