Can there be a non-corrupt government in India? This question is as critical as some other problems: can there be a caste-less Hindu society? Can there be dowry-free marriages? Can we consume beef without being stigmatised? Can there be Hindutva politics without othering Muslims?

While these questions may mostly be answered in the negative, a lot also depends on what is understood as corruption, dowry, beef and hate. Corruption linked to the state machinery is often discussed but the other forms of associated societal corruptions are talked of less often. Corruption is less of a moral aberration and more of a necessity in Indian society. Why?

Corruption, associated with the state, is always in the news.

In August, the Central Bureau of Investigation raided Delhi Minister Manish Sisodia’s residence in connection with an excise scam while another minister, Satyender Jain, was arrested in June by the Enforcement Directorate in an alleged money-laundering case.

In Karnataka, too, a contractors’ association had in July last year alleged a 40% commission to officials under the Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled government. As it turns out, the contractors were not against corruption but irate that the current commission was “too high”.

‘Acceptable’ corruption?

This sparks another key question. Should there be a certain level of corruption that is acceptable to society? What, then, is the level of political violence that is acceptable? What are the types of untouchability are acceptable? After all, there appears to be a settlement value for everything corrupt.

As a young professional, I had an opportunity of working with a government rural development agency. As the Bharatiya Janata Party committee took over, we recited Sanskrit prayers before beginning and ending our quarterly meetings.

At the same time, non-profits complained of receiving phone calls from the chairman’s office demanding a cut of the development grants they had received. So, we had Sanskrit prayers and corruption together. Is that a paradox? Absolutely not.

Spiritual purification and economic corruption do not necessarily clash in our society.

BJP’s new model

That corruption is at the heart of Indian politics is common knowledge. However, what we see advancing under the BJP’s Hindutva is the valourisation of archaic ideas around religion and a simultaneous acceptance of corruption.

The BJP seems to be following familiar party structures where a few progressive and “selfless” leaders/fakirs occupy Delhi and Bengaluru whereas the grassroot politicians cultivate and entrench corruption. What is new about the BJP model is the ideological arrogance of the privileged and “pure” Hindus that is normalising moral and economic corruption.

This is also a model that the Aam Aadmi Party seems to emulate in Delhi, at least partially. The October 9 resignation of its minister Rajendra Gautam for the crime of participating in a rally to celebrate BR Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism and the intolerance of the Aam Aadmi Party and the BJP to Ambedkarite Buddhism marks the height of moral corruption where subaltern ideals of emancipation are seen as a threat to Hindu society.

What kind of society does that make us? What happens to reason in public life? How do we so efficiently regress from the progressive ideas of Indian philosopher Basaveshwara to a point where Hindutva ideologue VD Savarkar flies on a bulbul out of jail in history textbooks? Does reason have space in public engagement? We are in the age of new sanatani public reasoning – neither reason nor compassion matter here.

As a society we may urgently need to realise that neither 5% nor 40% of corruption levels should be normalised and that a democracy cannot run on limited and particularistic Hindu aspirations of ethics. Else, we will continue to have a vibrant procedural democracy that celebrates and entrenches corrupt morals.

Suryakant Waghmore is professor of sociology at IIT Bombay.