Senior Punjab Congress leader and former cricketer Navjot Singh Sidhu targeted the Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann-led Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government in Punjab at a rally in Moga recently and said that it “was not democracy, but kleptocracy” that was currently ruling the state. Sidhu said it was a professor who told him about the word kleptocracy when he mentioned how his mission was “to save democracy”.
“The professor said, ‘But where exactly is democracy? It is kleptocracy ruling Punjab right now’. I was stunned when I searched for it. Indeed, it is a kleptocracy right now. I say this with my full might, dear Bhagwant Mann, that kleptocracy is prevailing in Punjab where there is no welfare of people but only rule of the corrupt. It is chor-tantra,” said Sidhu.
So what does kleptocracy mean and how did it originate? Who has used it in the past and why?
The Oxford English dictionary describes kleptocracy as a combination of two words – ‘klepto’ meaning theft or thieving, and ‘cracy’ meaning a government. The word ‘klepto’ traces its origins to ancient Greek. So the word kleptocracy largely means a government whose highly corrupt leaders abuse their political power to make themselves rich by using public money which otherwise should be used for public welfare.
The Cambridge Dictionary says that a kleptocracy is a society “whose leaders make themselves rich and powerful by stealing from the rest of the people”.
In the current times, kleptocracy can also be widely construed as the misuse of democracy, meaning leaders elected by the people misusing powers and indulging in corrupt practices.
The earliest evidence recorded by universities and researchers in English suggests that the word kleptocracy became known after it was used by 19th-century English poet and journalist Leigh Hunt. However, in recent years, Sidhu’s close friend, former Pakistan Prime Minister and ex-cricketer Imran Khan, also used it to describe the political situation in his country.
James Henry Leigh Hunt, better known as Leigh Hunt, a famous English poet, essayist, journalist and political critic who edited and founded several publications including The Examiner, The Reflector and The Indicator, among others, is believed to be the first to use the word kleptocracy in one of his essays titled ‘Thieves, Ancient and Modern’. The wide-ranged, lengthy essay, published in The Indicator in December 1819, had the term “Spanish kleptocracy” where Hunt reflected on Spanish thieves, robbers and other organised crimes. But his usage of the word in that essay cannot be compared to current times when the word has become more relevant politically.
Scholars and authors, however, largely credit Hunt for inventing this word.
Oliver Bullough, an award-winning British journalist and author of the book The Last Man in Russia: The Struggle to Save a Dying Nation in an article titled ‘The Rise of Kleptocracy: The Dark Side of Globalization’ published in the Journal of Democracy, 2018, while referring to Hunt’s essay, wrote: “Hunt remained widely read through much of the nineteenth century and his word reappeared occasionally in the following decades… In 1857, an anonymous author in Blackwood’s Edinburg magazine used it to describe “thousands of convicted thieves at large” in England… From these and other appearances, it seems clear that the word was understood to refer to any organization of predatory criminals…Obviously, Hunt and his emulators did not use the word kleptocracy in the same way that we do today. When he coined the term, it carried none of the connotations of “egregious grand corruption” that twenty-first-century authors have in mind when they speak of kleptocracies…”.
The word has often been used to describe deplorable political situations and corruption in several countries. In 2014, while reflecting on contemporary Russia’s corruption issues, American political scientist Karen Dawisha wrote the book, Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?
In 2014 itself, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) chief Imran Khan (who was later elected as the Prime Minister of Pakistan in 2018), had also used the word kleptocracy while targeting the then Nawaz Sharif-led government for massive rigging in the general elections.
“There is a difference between democracy and kleptocracy. Democracy means government by the people and for the people, while kleptocracy is the government in which the ruling clique exploits national resources. In Pakistan, we have kleptocracy, not democracy. Today, these lawmakers gave us a lesson in democracy, but I want to remind them of Clause 3 of Article 218 of the Constitution [of Pakistan] which says that elections should be free, fair and transparent,” Khan had said, as reported by Pakistan’s leading daily The Express Tribune.
In his book The Rise of Kleptocracy in India, Samirkumar Mukhopadhyay, a Kolkata-based political scientist, wrote: “India since independence has been plunging into corruption added with random distortion of all democratic institutions. The word ‘kleptocracy’ doesn’t appear to be in use and the author has used the word to mean that a large section of people assigned with political decision-making and execution of the same have been badly affected by what in psychology is said ‘kleptomania’ meaning obsession for theft…”.
Deliberating on the role of media, especially in South Asian countries where kleptocracy has affected development for common people, a research paper titled ‘Media in the Times of Kleptocracy’, presented at the 9th International Anti-Corruption Conference (IACC) in Durban, South Africa, read: “The rich and powerful countries make news… And within countries, it is the rich and powerful class who make news. The weak and meek, the minorities, the women, the underclass do not make news. Corruption is so common today that most editors, reflecting the public mood, do not regard it as news anymore. It has become ‘a dog bites a man’. So, corruption is not news, because it is not new. Sadly, it is in South Asia with its fragile democracies, that corruption stands as an obstacle to progress. And it is here that the power of the free press is most important in making the government more honest, accountable and efficient. In many South Asian countries, foreign aid is a major contributor to the budget… Billions of dollars later, there are more poor people in South Asia. Need we say more? Where did this money go?”.