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.