A weird thing happened this week. A politician said something that may actually be food (contains no artificial flavours) for thought. At a meeting with IAS officers, Shivpal Yadav, a minister with the Samajwadi Party, said, and I quote “As long as you work hard, you can steal a little, but don’t behave like dacoits.”
The implications here being that as long as said officers deliver services to people, it’s okay for them to make a little cheddar (or if they’re Masterchef fans, emmenthal with garlic) on the side. The caveat being, “don’t behave like a dacoit” which makes sense because how can you take a guy in a cave with a shawl covering his face seriously when asking for a water connection?
But then an even weirder thing happened. The media reacted with outrage, calling for his head. Watching this outpouring of anger online and on TV taught me two things;
1) Nobody in the media has ever had to apply for a gas, water, or phone connection.
2) If Fido Dido were old, jaded, and Maharashtrian, he’d look like Rajdeep Sardesai.
Does our media live under a rock? Or did everyone in it suddenly realise they finally had an opportunity to use that awesome-but-so-far-useless idealism they paid so much for (“try our latest design, we call it Poseur Jhola”) at journalism school? What Shivpal Yadav said isn’t outrageous, it’s realpolitik. I’m now going to say something that’d make Team Anna choke on their food, so it’s probably a good thing they don’t eat any. Consider, for a second, if Shivpal Yadav is right; What if corruption is awesome?
I should point out, before I go any further, that I know as much about economics as a doorknob does about poetry. So this is the view from my chair, that’s all. But from this chair, it looks like corruption in India is like marijuana; everyone’s doing it, nobody wants to say it, and maybe legalisation IS the answer. It isn’t an external virus attacking the system that is our economy; it was built into the source code. Ripping it out blindly would be akin to ripping three legs off a table. If you’re going to do that, you’d better have another way of holding the damn thing up. If you grind your teeth at the thought of paying off everyone from your gas guy to the cop that stopped you from jumping a light, consider how much more annoying those systems would be without corruption. Imagine standing in line for six hours when you could be at a movie, or showing up in court when you’re supposed to be at work.
Corruption keeps systems lubricated. After her two hour commute to a dead-end job that pays nothing, maybe the lady that sorted your passport out in two days instead of weeks needs the extra cash you slipped her just to stop from taking an axe to her co-workers’ heads. And why shouldn’t you pay a little convenience charge to the cop that lets your club stay open until 3 am? He probably has to work until 11. And that’s p.m, the next day.
In India, corruption’s a philosophy, not a crime. I love the word we use for it. ‘Baksheesh’. As a word, it’s so much more romantic than ugly words like ‘kickback’, or ‘bribe’, or ‘moist’. Baksheesh implies that your payment is a gift, an expression of appreciation at the fast-lane your task’s been put in. It’s an acknowledgement of the fact that someone’s making your life easier for you, and you’re helping them out with a surrogate financial reward they probably deserved in the first place from whoever they work for.
The truth of it is in Mr Yadav’s second line. “Don’t be like dacoits”. What if we’ve just gotten to a point where we’re executing corruption wrong? The problem isn’t that we’re corrupt, the problem is that we’re greedy. Corruption works if you take five thousand rupees, but then get a gas-connection to me. It doesn’t work if you eat a thousand crores but then deliver nothing but potholes to the people. You’re supposed to run a gravy train. But our government runs a railway network. Corruption only works if I walk away from the transaction in the same way I walk away from a meal at a five-star hotel; I know I paid too much, but service and quality were so good, I can rationalise it.
Of course, Mr Yadav works as a Public Works minister in Uttar Pradesh, a combination of designations that is second in sinister-ness only to “son of Satan and Hitler”, so it’s entirely possible that his definition of earning “a little” is nine million crores. But what if we could get corruption to work for us? What if corruption IS awesome? What if Fido Dido DID get old and jaded?
Rohan Joshi is a writer and stand-up comedian who likes reading, films and people who do not use the SMS lingo. You can also contact him on www.facebook.com/therohanjoshi