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Commentary/Pritish Nandy

Misunderstanding Bribery

The World Bank and the IMF held a conference last week. Long lectures were delivered on public morality and threats were held out to debar nations with high corruption indices from receiving institutional aid. Uganda was singled out for exemplary punishment and the sword of Damocles was unsheathed and hung up, to underscore the point that any nation that did not take a strong stand against bribery risked the danger of getting their aid cut off. The targets were obvious: Asian and African nations.

Now we all know that bribery is an awful thing. It brings us a bad name and compromises our politics. But the question is: Can we stop it? I don t think so. For bribery is a way of life. In an imperfect economy like ours, bribery -- despite its social stigma -- actually achieves the impossible. It redistributes wealth. It ensures efficiency, understanding, sometimes even social justice. That is why, even as we decry bribes, in practice we all give or take it under various semantic disguises. Gifts, tips, donations, bonuses, discounts, incentives, alms.

When it rains too much, we bribe taxi drivers by paying extra to reach us to our destination. When we are out on a date, we tip the gateman, the steward, the room boy, the driver for services that they should be rendering in the normal course of their duty. When we want our children to do well, we bribe their teachers with tuitions outside school hours. When they go to college, we pay donations or capitation fees. Openly, without any pangs of conscience.

Or take our gifts. These are nothing but bribes in another guise. Whether they are roses or carnations, chocolates or Diwali sweets. Whether they are Cartier watches or Schwarovksi crystal. The value's not the issue; the purpose is. Most gifts are meant to seduce, impress, persuade or make friends with people we need something from.

Parents who have no time for their kids are usually the most lavish with their gifts. Straying husbands stagger their wives with their generosity. Dirty old men and rich brats try to buy sex by handing out costly gewgaws to their girlfriends. For every Missionary of Charity who actually helps the poor on the streets to change the quality of their life, there are millions of us who happily bribe their way to God by throwing some loose change into the outstretched hands of beggars. Even in temples, a cash donation goes a long way towards cutting short your queue for darshan. A hundred bucks takes you straight into the inner sanctum. Isn't that a bribe?

A Diwali bakshish for the MTNL linesman. A tenner to a peon in a government office, to dig out your file. Dandiya passes for the local police. Boxes of dry fruit. Akbarally gift vouchers. Pre-paid mobile phone cards. Suit lengths handed out at press conferences. Chai pani ka kharcha. All these go a long way towards getting your work done quickly. Call them incentives if you want. But they are bribes. Meant to say Please Help or Thank You.

Enron said thank you to politicians by spending a few million dollars on what they described as education in their books of accounts. Tata Tea said thank you to the ULFA by giving free medical aid to its sick cultural secretary. Bofors said thank you to Rajiv for getting the howitzer deal through. Himachal Futuristic said thank you to Sukh Ram for giving them so many licences. Narasimha Rao said thank you to the JMM MPs for saving his government. Karsan said thank you to his son for the urea deal. CRB said thank you to RBI for an undeserved bank licence.

We say thank you to a waiter with a 15 per cent tip for a perfectly foul meal. Till private airlines came, we said thank you to Indian Airlines staff for a confirmed seat on a flight for which we had already paid the full fare. We say thank you to railway staff for giving us reservations we are entitled to. We say thank you to our kids for passing their exams. We say thank you to subordinates by way of bonus. We say thank you to drivers by signing overtime. We say thank you to shareholders with gift vouchers at the AGM. We say thank you to customers by sending them huge hampers at festival time. We say thank you to black marketers for movie tickets. The thank yous are genuine. But they are also bribes.

So are government schemes like Tatkal. Where, by paying extra, you break the queue for a phone or gas connection. Government officials learnt a lesson themselves when they were forced to pay bribes to the minister in Delhi to get their official quarters allotted out of turn. Similarly trade unions are bribed. Not just by private employers but also by the State. The present government, almost broke, has gone out of its way to woo the working classes by giving them an absurd pay rise. Risking bankruptcy to buy political peace. Isn't this bribery? Isn't it bribery to promise rice at Rs 2 a kg knowing that this subsidy would cripple the economy? At the same time, if these bribes did not take place, how would the poor and middle classes survive in India?

Bank managers were once paid incentives to get more deposits. It helped the banking sector. But it was bribery. Just as the loan melas where bankers were forced to give debt to totally undeserving people who had no intention of either servicing the debt or repaying it. But, here again, the bribery helped many marginal farmers. Like the Panchayati Raj, which was touted as a great rural regeneration scheme but was, in actuality, a bribe. To win votes. Luckily, rural India was cleverer than Rajiv thought. It took the money and booted the Congress out.

But bribery is not unique to us. In the West you have speed money, gratuity, charity dinners, donations, sponsored lecture tours, PR fees. The semantics change but the purpose is the same. Burton gives a diamond to Liz Taylor. Khashoggi names his yacht after his daughter Nabila. Onassis tempts Jackie Kennedy with his wealth. Dodi buys Diana a monstrous ring. Each is seen as a signature of true love. But each, in its own way, is a bribe. We call it dowry. They, gifts. A sanction for sexual ownership.

Bribery will not, cannot end. For the roots of corruption lie in our scriptures, in our fairy tales, in the legends we grew up with. Remember the prince in the Grimm's tale? His long journey was interrupted by endless bribe seekers. The brook stopped him and asked him for pebbles. The woods stopped him and asked him for flowers. The hills stopped him and asked him for something else. The poor chap had to bribe his way all through the journey. Till he reached his manzil. Ulysses, Perseus, Sindbad, Arjun. They were all forced to pay bribes. Under different pretexts.

Yet we insist that bribery is a crime. It must be eradicated.

When you instal a free economy, you make a choice. This choice entails moral compromises. The most important being the fact that you no more take responsibility for the poor and the weak. You are driven only by market forces. In such an economy, corruption is inevitable. For money moves by the compulsions of profit, not ethics. Once you have made such a choice, it is silly to pose like King Canute and imagine that you can roll back the waves of corruption and crime.

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Pritish Nandy

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