A study conducted by Transparency International recorded that 62% of Indians had paid a bribe at some point to a public official to get a job done and that over 50% had firsthand experience of bribery. As per the World Bank’s pithy definition, corruption is “using public office for private profit.” The silver lining, pun intended, in the clouds of corruption enveloping the country is that Corruption Perception Index ranked us at 78th out of 180 countries in 2018. This means that we have either developed immunity to the disease or that we don’t give a shit, we are like this only.
Most Indians have strong opinions on this subject, which is why corruption trumps Mandir, Kashmir and GDP in terms of hot-button issues. If I had a dollar for every time I listened to someone foaming at the mouth about “kruption”, I could have topped up the RBI’s annual surplus by another 25 crores. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not advocating bribery. I’m merely pointing out that it is systemic and the underlying cause is the Westminster bureaucracy we have inherited and grappled to our bosom with hoops of steel.
Cosmetic solutions such as lateral recruitment to the IAS only compound the problem; what is needed is a transition to technocracy. Stop with the all-rounders, give us specialists with domain knowledge and for heaven’s sake, let them get on with their jobs. Our Finance Minister preferred a bhaikhata to a briefcase to carry her budget inspiring our Chief Economic Advisor to gush, “It is a symbol of our departure from the slavery of Western thought.” Err, not quite, old chap, the bhaikhata in rural India is symbolic of moneylenders, which is a tad insensitive, don’t you think, in a year of record farmer suicides? We value symbol over substance. Five years ago there was national rejoicing about how the new administration had enforced strict punctuality rules. No one bothered to question productivity or accountability standards; instead we focused on clock watching.
D.N. Vittal, the former Central Vigilance Commissioner published a handbook on corruption. The blurb said, “Learn how you can change the system and take a proactive stance”, so instead of whining about “kruption” over a chota peg, I stood eagerly in the queue for a copy. Vittalji is of the opinion that behind every corrupt babu stands an avaricious wife and a bunch of greedy children. If they can be persuaded to take up ‘high thinking and simple living’ - to get their vices versa in a manner of speaking, into that heaven of honesty our country would awake, or words to that effect. The last chapter dealt with changing mindset, energising youth and criminalizing the bribe-giver: basically old wine, new bottle.
Some years ago, one of my uncles, a senior bureaucrat, was invited to a party hosted by a cement baron who held forth on why India could never match American standards because of our ‘fundamental crookedness.’ He railed about how ‘all these bloody gummint wallahs in Bombay rent out their flats at princely sums while living in sarkari quarters.’ ‘Are you sure?’ enquired uncle. ‘Of course,’ thundered the baron, ‘take that Buena Vista building opposite Mantralaya. Mr. B has rented it out for lakhs and is living in a jhuggi somewhere.’ ‘Well he must have done it in the last half an hour,’ said uncle, ‘since he’s been my neighbor for the last three years and I just met him in the lift.’
Now I’m not making the case that our bureaucracy is sea-green- incorruptible. Human nature is prone to corruption, irrespective of geography. The Nomura scandal in Tokyo (headline: The Yen for the Dollar) dwarfed Bofors and Rafaele in scale and size. In Korea, bribes are placed in a box of green apples, which probably gave rise to the expression, ‘How do you like ‘em apples?’ The Pentagon infamously spent $250 on a toilet seat, which, presumably, is when the shit hit the fan. Incidentally, the Defense department is the only US government agency that is exempt from audit by statute; in 2018 they finally conducted an internal audit at an expense of $ 413 million and only 5 of the 21 departments received a passing grade. Corruption isn’t our biggest problem; it’s a fundamental lack of efficiency. Bribes are taken but the job doesn’t get done which probably inspired our former CM, S.R Bommai to proudly proclaim, “See I told you bribes don’t work with my administration.” True dat, bro....