Bibek Debroy on Partha Chatterjee and Kalinjara story

Small-ticket corruption has declined. But not the big-ticket Kalinjara variety

Cash, flats, houses, farmhouses, land, resorts, guest-houses, businesses—mind-boggling are the assets of Partha Chatterjee’s extended family. In some versions of Uttara Kanda, which has sections interpolated later, Valmiki Ramayana has a story. Briefly, Ram is king in Ayodhya and all is well. King Ram has instated a bell outside the palace, for anyone with a complaint to ring. A dog turns up and rings the bell, and there is a brief discussion between Lakshman and the dog about whether a dog is allowed to approach a king. That sorted out, the dog is taken to Ram. The dog was sleeping on the road, obstructing the path of a brahmana. Had the brahmana asked the dog to move, it would have. Instead, the brahmana beat the dog on the head with a stick. Those facts established, the dog insists the brahmana be punished. A discussion ensues about whether a brahmana can be punished, with ministers and advisers opposing the idea. Finally, Ram asks the dog about appropriate punishment and the dog suggests the brahmana be made kuladhipati (lord) of Kalinjara fort. Accordingly, the brahmana is sent off with a lot of fanfare, astride an elephant, seemingly rewarded, not punished.

Illustration: Job P.K. Illustration: Job P.K.

The dog then informs the gathering that in its past life, it had been lord of Kalinjara. That provided such an opportunity for corruption and sins that he was reborn as a canine in the next life. The brahmana has actually been punished. A position of power leads to discretionary abuse. We are usually more familiar with Lord Acton’s 1887 letter to Bishop Creighton than Valmiki Ramayana. “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd (sic) the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority.” Morality can be subjective, an issue discussed in correspondence between the two. Criminality, defined with reference to specific legislation, sets objective norms, subject to establishment of guilt.

I studied in Ramakrishna Mission School, Narendrapur, a school that supposedly instils moral values. Most of my peers (among ones I know), who studied in the school at around the same time, seem to abide by some principles, irrespective of what legality holds. Chatterjee was my classmate from the same school. I don’t remember him from those days. There were two distinct branches, English medium and Bengali medium. Mine was the former, his the latter, and the twain rarely met. Several years later, when he had become a minister, I was introduced to him once and told we passed out in the same year. Given our ages, that is off by a couple of years, but that’s irrelevant. Nor did he contradict the face.

He became a minister in 2011, just over 10 years ago.

Electoral affidavits (2011, 2016, 2021) are not necessarily truthful. Assuming they were, discovered assets are disproportionate to known income. Indeed, they are also disproportionate to wrong-doing from the teacher recruitment scam (dated to 2014) alone. The late Rama Prasad Goenka (well-known industrialist and founder of RPG Group) once told me, “It is easier to handle corruption in West Bengal. The Bengali bhadralok has limited ambitions and is satisfied with a set of Encyclopaedia Britannica.” That impression, if true, was formed several years ago and the Bengali bhadralok’s aspirations, once in a kuladhipati’s position, has exploded exponentially. However, it is inconceivable that aspiring school-teachers could have afforded to pay for grease, to oil the discretionary machinery, on such a scale. There is small-ticket corruption encountered as citizens, dealing with government functionaries. That has palpably declined, but not the big-ticket Kalinjara variety.

Bibek Debroy is the chairman of the Economic Advisory Council to the prime minister.