A Relative Sense of Self-Righteousness

The opinionated lot in civil society and media spokespersons may feel comfortable with the detective’s relative sense of self-righteousness in loud denunciations of wrongdoings and suspicious dealings. Others will shrug off and walk on

By Nita Chicooree-Mercier

Fine phrases in well-articulated speeches are necessary to create trust between rulers and the public in advanced liberal societies and developing countries because the public has to be regularly reminded of the lofty principles their countries are ruled by. A dose of pragmatism and dream are essential components of trust and hope in the lives of common folks, and both politics and religion dish them out in plenty. Naked reality may drive people crazy. On the other hand, a sense of self-righteousness prompts critics of public figures and their private dealings to write and speak from a high moral position which they assume readers and the public adhere to.

Modern institutions and the rule of law make it difficult for politicians to use their position to feather their own nests. And to some degree, the political culture, a general level of prosperity, a sense of common good and ethics are guidelines for a sound governance and a progressive society. It has less to do with a natural sense of moral superiority which prevents the political class in advanced countries from falling in the trap of conflict of interest or self-enrichment through devious means. They are checked by uncompromising sets of laws which make no joke of wrongdoings. However, it does not make them immune to the temptation of sidestepping the law to pocket commissions for private use.

The following anecdote illustrates the point. An African politician is on a visit to his French counterpart and is impressed by his lavish lifestyle. ‘How have you made it?’ he asks. The French host opens his window wide and shows him the town, roads, tall buildings, apartment blocks, bridges, modern transport, schools, gardens and all. ‘This is how I make it.’ he replies. He works for the general welfare, and reaps some commissions in return. Sometime later, he pays a visit to his African friend in Africa, and is impressed by his lavish lifestyle. ‘How have you made it?’ he asks. The African politician opens his window wide and shows him vast desolate villages with shabby roads and makeshift dwellings along dusty paths, huts and underfed folks struggling for a living. ‘This is how I make it,’ he replies. He pockets it all for himself.

It may look caricatural, but it is also indicative of a stark reality a decade ago.

The rule of law works at variable levels in advanced countries. British law deals with common people and powerful politicians on the same footing while southern European countries are likely to try a cover-up for the powerful. Fake jobs for relatives, exorbitant bills for transport and petrol and public funds to renovate private apartments are among the most common wrongdoings MPs and officials are caught with. Smarter ones get away with unofficial funding of electoral campaigns which land in their private treasury, and a percentage in shared commissions handed down by cronies in the business world. At the least rumour of malpractices, they are hounded by the press, mostly left-leaning outlets, and delivered to the court of justice.

Magistrates, just like the police inspector in detective stories, deploy a lot of zeal in investigations and gathering evidence to pin down the wrongdoer. In a fictional narrative, the police inspector is an average functionary with little scope for promotion in his department; hence, his energy and zeal to track and lay his hands on rascals of all hues, corrupt mayors, unscrupulous MPs, drug barons, criminals and any white-collar bloke from bourgeois families, pretending to be clean. His commitment endears readers to him, and both detective and readers naturally assume a sense of self-righteousness which enhances their worth as moral beings. The algorithm which leads readers and the public to have an apparently healthy response may work differently if they enjoyed a higher social position with an ambition for more power and wealth.

In reality, public reaction to self-enrichment of the ruling class is quite mitigated. It ranges from outright condemnation to mild tolerance of using public office to satisfy unabated appetite for acquisition of property and wealth. French politicians during President Chirac’s mandate were said to have opened bank accounts in Mauritius to avoid paying taxes in France; others invested in real property of luxury villas which started in 2003. The lack of transparency in the source of huge sums invested did not bother anyone, judging from what a Frenchman I met a few years ago at a winter ski resort in Switzerland said during a conversation. He worked at the French Embassy in Mauritius. It implies that there are ways and means to sidestep the laws they vote for in Parliament.

Away from media spotlight, ordinary citizens shrug off such wrongdoings because they do not mind political leaders pocketing commissions for their personal interest as long as they work for the general welfare of society at large. A 28-year old engineer has no qualms about saying that, coming from a poor family, he is thankful to the French government and society at large for enabling him to do higher studies for free. So, he does not mind politicians getting more money through the backdoor.

In Mauritius, the general assumption that news of coffers brimming with millions of rupees sparked public outrage might have been true in the first days the news was delivered in a highly mediatized and sensational manner in 2015. The permanently disgruntled category flooded social media with hate comments. Afterwards, there are folks who downplay the big news be they from the well-off class, Labourites or common folks. Rs 220 m is peanuts if you consider the billions that a politician empowers big business cronies to amass through contracts and all, some folks opined.

In developing countries and specifically in post-colonial societies where economic power is determined by fortunes made in colonial days, the power equation is a source of frustration for many. The reasoning in the political class might be as follows: ‘If we provide political stability and peace with adequate social welfare, and devise cheap labour laws for industries to flourish and expand, we might as well ask for a backdoor share in the profits. We are not going to watch a few business barons enrich themselves exponentially and content ourselves with average salaries.’

Singaporean authorities opined that they are entitled to higher salaries almost on a par with CEOs of big companies. The same opinion was aired at the highest level of governance over here in 2006, and a significant hike in ministers and MPs’ salaries was voted for. Companies and property in the name of minors is common practice since it is not forbidden by law. Third-party involvement in operating what may be an opaque transaction is one of the tricks someone may use to dodge the law. Advanced countries come up with new laws to ensure transparency and track the source of wealth. The European Union has been home to rogue banks despite its grand position to blacklist smaller countries. Barring a few rare exceptions, there is no lily-white country when it comes to money laundering and generous kickbacks by crony capitalism.

All the while, the opinionated lot in civil society and media spokespersons may feel comfortable with the detective’s relative sense of self-righteousness in loud denunciations of wrongdoings and suspicious dealings. Others will shrug off and walk on.

* Published in print edition on 29 September 2020

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