Thursday, August 18, 2011

Schmoozing, Indian-style

By Deepa Krishnan
The media today is full of the anti-corruption / Lokpal bill protests around the country. Some folks are pro-Lokpal, some are anti, but almost everyone agrees that corruption is really a huge issue and needs to be dealt with.
I think it's useful to look at this corruption issue from a historical and cultural perspective.
Humans have always given presents and sweeteners as a way to establish good relations, improve trading ties and smoothen their way. The first tribe that came out of a cave probably received presents of meat from visitors who wanted a place by the fire.
Certainly from the time of recorded history, every historical account of landings in a new place, or setting up of trading starts with little presents. Thomas Roe presented a book of European maps to Jehangir. The Jewish arrivals on the Malabar Coast presented gifts to the Cochin king. This is routinely the case at the courts of kings and emperors; from the durban at the door to government officials, everyone is part of the sweetening process.

Thomas Roe at the court of Emperor Jehangir
We should really first admit that this kind of dealing is part of the normal human way of life. Sweetening is done in many ways, you go with presents, you send boxes of mithai at the next Diwali, you return favours and contacts, and you eat and socialise together to make sure the relationship is reinforced. This is the way work gets done among human beings. We schmooze. We relate. We give and we take.
Shop selling fancy Mithai boxes for Diwali gifts
To expect that people will come out of thousands of years of a way of life/way of work and suddenly stop this way of influencing things is just very impractical. It may be "morally correct" but it is not practical. Those who can influence will always do so, whether it is by money or contacts or through ideas and words. I think taking the high moral ground on this is very much like many other moral stances that we love to take - totally impractical and completely blind to historical reality, or any understanding of what the average human being is all about.
When I look around me historically as well in the present day, I find that everyone in India understands the concept of influencing and schmoozing very well. After all, it is very much a part of our social culture and tradition!! What varies is the extent and style with which it is done. The current brouhaha is only because people simply are boggled by the SCALE at which it is being reported. Therefore we are seeing a feeling of outrage among people.
So what is the practical solution?
Before we attempt a solution, we need to understand that humans WILL try to influence, whether by social means or by money. So we CANNOT end that. But the line between baksheesh (tip), the traditional way of rewarding work, and ghoos (bribe) does exist, although it is very thin. So how do we ensure that this thin line is maintained?
I am inclined to think that the answer lies in the Indian legal system. All organizations have rules about what constitutes a gift and what constitutes a bribe. In large corporations this is called "a material amount" i.e. the amount above which you cannot accept gifts. In government also, this rule exists. So what we need really, is to tighten the EXISTING legal system to work faster, to allow reporting and punishment when someone crosses these rules. THE ABSENCE OF AN EFFECTIVE LEGAL SYSTEM IS THE ROOT CAUSE OF CORRUPTION IN INDIA.
There was a McKinsey report regarding this some years ago. The facts of that report were staggering. With the additional hiring of judges and setting up of speedy courts, the benefits to the nation were mind-boggling in terms of just economics.
I for one would like to see that report again, and look for solutions within that. Setting up a new Lokpal doesn't seem like a solution to me. My fear is that it will set up a new authority that goes against the basic principles of checks and balances enshrined in the constitution. What we need to do is make our current checks and balances system to work well. That is what we need to debate.
It is good that we have an Anna Hazare to raise the consciousness of people, and the current media-hype and circus around it is a necessary evil to increase awareness of the issue. But the stupidity of the situation is that this will lead only to Congress downfall, and not any long-lasting change in the historical way in which we Indians operate.


Divya Shankar said... - Similar views on Lokpal in this article too. An ombudsman alone will not help the country. Anna Hazare definitely is a great man and has raised a valid point but a wrong company like Baba ramdev who is all out to seek publicity through all this may bring him down, much like Manmohan Singh's clean image over years that won him the post of PM is now all in the drain due to ppl like Sonia, Raja etc
Legal system in India must be tightened further, that alone can help and that too not immediately, to root out an evil since birth of civilization, lot of time and efforts is required.

Shobna said...

Deepa - your reasoning is sound though we face the issue of non-performance despite underhand earning (eg. our caving roads).

I have a stomach-churn with the sheer vagueness of the problem that Anna Hazare and his group is trying to solve. The more I see the grinning faces on camera, the more I worry that we are but a short distance from a Talibanised society.

Deepa Krishnan said...

To all the Hazare supporters, I want to say that it is downright irresponsible to support such a large-scale change to the system without large-scale public debate.

The man you're supporting is blackmailing the government to push through change without adequate discussion. As far as I can see, there has been little or zero debate on this either in the press or in formal sessions. For such a huge change, there must be wide-ranging debate. As a citizen I am quite aghast that the system is being held to ransom by a zealot who threatens to kill himself.

I don't agree with Lokpal. I'm sure a million other people don't agree as well. What happens to our voices?

You can't mess with the constitution of a country just because you happen to have a bright idea about how to set up a new system. This method of doing things violates the very things we want, i.e. freedom from zealots and goondaraj.

There has to be a constitutional method for everything, otherwise we are no different from terrorists who demand change through bullying.

And I really do believe that Hazare is right to go on fast to highlight the issue, to bring pressure to bear. But this "you do this EXACTLY MY WAY or I will kill myself" is ridiculous. The very fact that this blog piece exists, that we are having this discussion is a very, very good thing. Without such debates and without high levels of awareness we cannot bring in a new bill.

Iti Kaushik said...

You are right Deepa that his way of protesting is very stubborn but the constitutional method you are talking about, you know how effective it is. The Lokpal bill was proposed in 1972 i.e. 39 years ago.

I am not writing this because i support Anna but because I am against the actions taken by the government to suppress the whole thing. We are a democratic country and we have right to express our views as long as our method for doing this is not causing any harm to anyone. We cant tolerate this arrogant nature of the government.

Kannan said...

I think, the last sentence you wrote is the crux of, what is happening good for the country. The downfall of congress.

Pramod said...

Anna vs Congress - no doubt at all who I side with ! No matter at all this Anna's methods are not democratic. Fat lot of good "democracy" has done us in the last several decades

Anonymous said...

Well, the RTI act is changing the lives of Indians. Many people still do not know what RTI is. RTI can be used to get patta for land, or ration card or passport - these are examples of RTI in everyday life. Apart from the several bigger issues where RTI can be used. There were skeptics when RTI was passed too.

There are many rich Indians, who can afford paying bribes and get their things done. There are several poor one's who cannot. Have you visited a government office to get patta for land or Voter Id Card or to get pension papers? May be, not. May be, if you went there, you could be treated with respect because of your appearance. Do you know how the poor get treated in a government office?

There are a million skeptics now when Lokpal is needed. May be, it may not root out corruption in totality. But it can bring corruption down.

What is wrong with Anna fasting and asking for inclusion of PM and judiciary in the Lokpal? Are PM and judiciary above everybody? Why is the government afraid of including them in Lokpal? Does everything go by the constitution in India?

Anonymous said...

I feel sorry for such a constitution and parliament that is run by crooks and criminals.

The Nostalgia Reviver. said...

Well said Deepa!!

Unfortunately as you can see from the esteemed "Anonymous" comments, not everyone can get the fine print you are trying to put across.

The belief of the pro-Anna group is that "if you are not with us, then you are against us" and that equates to "you are with corruption". Wake up everyone. Lokpal is not a magic wand and will not do anything. Look at the current judiciary. It is bent and tired. Lokpal will end the same way. If something really needs to be done, it is to spruce up the current judiciary to have more teeth and fewer loopholes. Thousands of cases are pending in civil and consumer courts today because - the judge has not been appointed after the earlier one retired.

Anonymous said...

Having a government or group of politicians whose stance on change in constitution or laws is "it is none of your business" attitude is what caused all of this. Anna did discuss the bill but I feel he was given the same kind of response.I do not think that the bill is going to cause damage to the country. But it will pave the first step in involving people in decision making as a result.
This will also send a message that they are elected to serve us and not the other way as Mr. Chidambaram said in parliament. said...

Good Post !

Anonymous said...

I really liked the article, and the very cool blog

GSDastur said...

I believe that the reason 'corruption' is so all-pervasive in India is that in their heart of hearts, everyone brought up in India is deeply conditioned to believe that the claims of family, caste, and friends (especially generous friends) outweigh any imagined duties towards the state or an employer. 'Family First' is taken for granted. It is not always a question of morals. It is a question of hierarchy of loyalties. Till that is addressed, nothing can change.

Deepa Krishnan said...

And really, we have not yet seen any concerted effort to make any improvements to the legal system. If we are able to put all this wasted energy into improving that system it would be better than setting up YET ANOTHER system of policing.

Anita said...

Nice post. I agree that there should be a wider debate on handling corruption.

As far as Anna Hazare is concerned, I think he has shot to fame on account of championing the right cause at the right time (I am not sure if even he saw this coming!). Most people are just fed up of corruption and don't seem to be debating the lokpal as showing their solidarity to fight any sort of public effort at corruption.

Your point on strengthening the legal system is a good one. And I think enforcement is really weak in our country and we definitely need to have more workable checks and balances to ensure enforcement. I wonder if there is a study somewhere on how countries where corruption is low, manage to stay that way.

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