FRUSTRATINGLY, WITH every exposé, India’s epidemic corruption seems to grow worse. Last year, the infamous 2G scam figure —Rs 1.76 lakh crore — seemed the highest a bill of alleged corruption could go. With Coal-gate, that’s jumped 10 times. But if undue benefit to corporates is to be the line of crime, these dizzying figures will keep leaping skyward with every new CAG report, regardless of which government is in power. This may net a few scalps, but after a point, the zeros will begin to lose meaning and Indians will start to glaze over. The disease may be real, therefore, but perhaps, we need a better diagnosis.

In the Coal-gate scam, a CBI investigation — or a probe of any other kind — is very welcome, but unlike A Raja, the Bellary brothers, BS Yeddyurappa or the former Maharashtra CMs, to name only a few recent cases, it seems improbable that PM Manmohan Singh will be found guilty of having taken bribes or of corruption in its crudest sense of personal gain. This is what makes Coal-gate, in particular, not just a crisis but an opportunity to crack open a sober and much-needed national debate.

What is the root cause of the magnum-sized corruption that seems to have pervaded our public life? Is it really “corruption” in its narrowest sense, the act of chors as our public crusaders are so fond of saying, something that can be halted with penal action? Or is it a much deeper phenomenon that needs a less shrill but more courageous and fundamental rearticulation? It may be politically dramatic to corner the PM, but the question that needs asking is, why were governments of every political description, in the Centre and states, allotting coal blocks, spectrum, land, iron mines, bauxite reserves, coastlines, rivers, forests and gas basins to corporates at rock-bottom rates? Greed and kickbacks can be only one page of the diagnosis. The deeper malaise is the feverish race to create a favourable “investment climate”.

It seems hypocritical, however, for India’s elite to merely be pointing shocked fingers now, because as champagne bottles were popped in Davos and the Shining India story was celebrated around the globe, no one paused to ask what was driving the delusional growth statistic. What were the characteristics of the favourable “investment climate” India was creating? What sort of crony capitalism was it embracing? India was a nation in a hurry and people who raised questions then were deemed anti-national and anti-development. Perhaps, they will receive a more patient hearing now.

One of the reasons for the ubiquitous “policy paralysis” is not because individual corruption is justly being brought to book, but because the very thinking that drove government decisions — the object of applause five years ago — is now suddenly being deemed corrupt. The demigods of the Forbes lists are suddenly the devils. That’s triggered an existential confusion few have the courage to voice. No one can deny India needs growth, or even that the growth years brought no gains. But everyone knew real estate profiteering and mining were the key forces driving this growth. Why were no questions asked then? Are “auctions” — the new buzzword — and maximisation of revenue the only issues at stake?

Scam-busting is only one part of the cure. But if that is to trigger reasoned growth rather than frightened stagnation, it’s equally urgent to create the discursive space to reframe the debate. India’s growth policy needs urgent caveats. “Inclusive growth” was only one qualifier. At least three new ones need to be added: “ethical growth”; “sustainable growth”; and “employment-driven growth”. Perhaps the bedrock of economic policy should be, how much should resources be used, not exploited; and in what proportion? So far, “favourable investment climate” has meant laying out the red carpet, wooing business at any cost. Given how global economies are crumbling, even big business will admit, the most favourable investment climate is one that is fair, competitive, transparent, consistent and sustainable. And monitored by reliable regulatory institutions rather than subverted ones.

If not, India’s rate of scandals will continue to be directly proportional to the galloping rate of growth it enjoyed all these years.

Shoma Chaudhury is Managing Editor, Tehelka.