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India’s rising corruption: Can we shake off this ‘national neurosis’?

The writer is an advocate practising in the Supreme Court. The views expressed here are personal.
Published : Jun 27, 2019, 12:30 am IST
Updated : Jun 27, 2019, 12:30 am IST

There could be many ways to define corruption: it’s a subject like an ocean!

The latest Madras high court judgment referring to “corruption” as an anti-national act also appears logical. (Photo: File)
 The latest Madras high court judgment referring to “corruption” as an anti-national act also appears logical. (Photo: File)

A media headline of June 23 — “CBI books arms dealer in IAF trainer aircraft case” — once again brings to fore the question every Indian must ask: Is corruption a “national neurosis”? Is each and every imported aircraft of the Indian Air Force/Air India/Indian Airlines pregnant with corruption? Are we to take that India simply thrives on corruption and the system remains beyond anyone’s reach for rectification? That’s the way money is being made or unmade by some people in the land.

Let’s then start with the legal definition of “corruption”. According to Black’s Law Dictionary, “corruption” is “depravity, perversion, or taint; an impairment of integrity, virtue or moral principle; especially impairment of a public official’s duties by bribery”. It also is “the act of doing something with an intent to give... advantage inconsistent with official duty and the rights of others; a fiduciary’s or official’s use of a station or office to procure... benefit… contrary to the rights of others”.

We know now that corruption is “depravity, perversion”, lack of integrity, accepting bribes, betrayal of trust and faith which the State and people thereof put on personnel whose bounden duty it is to do things properly and without accumulating wealth through unfair means. There could be many ways to define corruption: it’s a subject like an ocean!

Coming down to brass tacks, let’s clearly understand that corruption is a two-way tango. And there’s nothing unilateral or third-person singular number in it. Corruption is a “contract”. It’s bound to have two parties; like in the Indian Contract Act 1872. Corruption, at times, could also be likened to “conspiracy”, as defined in Section 120B of the Indian Penal Code. “One offers” — “another accepts”. Therefore, “offer plus acceptance is equal to contract”. Similarly, the giver and taker of money or whatever the “consideration” becomes “corruption of conspiracy” or “conspiracy for corruption” on completion of the act. Whatever way one looks at it, it simply cannot be anything else.

The latest Madras high court judgment referring to “corruption” as an anti-national act also appears logical. Indeed, unless checked and the culprits punished by the State, things could be nastier and the day is not far when we could equate corruption with terrorism too.

To make corruption as simple and understandable as possible to the Indian people, pertaining to “offer” and “acceptance” leading to a “contract” or “conspiracy”, this writer, after spending a few decades in the service of the State, would like to cite a few “real-life instances”.

On Sunday, November 5, 1978 (soon after Diwali on Tuesday, October 31, 1978) my officers tracked, detected, and seized “24 carat gold biscuits” from a well-known jewellery shop at a Delhi market. Both quantity, quality and value-wise it was a very good case. I was informed at 9.30 pm approximately on the phone. As a follow-up action, three persons were detained, interrogated, their statements recorded and produced in court the next day (Monday).

In the evening came our landlady, who apparently was related to the owner of the famous jewellery shop. I wasn’t home, being busy in office till late evening. On my return home at 10 pm, my retired, senior civil servant father informed me that our landlady came with an offer of `5 lakhs in cash (in 1978 one could buy a three-storied building for `3 lakhs at Safdarjung Enclave in New Delhi, where we lived on rent) and he just politely asked her to talk to me if she had the guts and not to come home to breach our privacy. I talked to my officers then and there (who were preparing papers in office) to make the case as stringent as possible, and not to let go of anyone. I went back to office at 11.30 pm to help my juniors. There was an “offer”. There followed “non-acceptance”.

On Friday, December 27, 1991 (5.30 pm) rang my office’s “secure” phone. My boss, Mr P.N. Malhotra, indisputably the most honest, professionally brilliant commissioner of customs of his time, and a genuine good soul, was on the line. With an agonising and trembling voice, he revealed that he was pressured by a flamboyant additional secretary in the ministry of finance to “order” me to “go slow” on a particular consignment of an NRI business tycoon (reportedly a “whisky friend of the additional secretary”). Fortunately, however, the file had already been passed and processed, and tax worth a few million rupees assessed. Hence I had no problem informing Mr P.N. Malhotra: “Sir, don’t worry. Tell Delhi that the due process of law has already been followed and things are beyond the control of any official. The file now constitutes a government record. No one dare touch that.” It was a case in which an “illegal order failed to tackle the quick disposal of a file which had already gone through the legal route, following the due process of law.”

On Monday, February 17, 1992, I joined as director, ministry of civil aviation, under S. Kanungo, secretary, of the 1960 Odisha IAS cadre. I have seen (there must be more) only two such brilliant secretaries in my life. Ruthlessly honest, perceptive, analytical, decisive and brutally truthful. The other being R. Gopalaswamy (1953 Kerala IAS cadre), with whom I worked later.

Nevertheless, around the second week of October 1992, I got a late-night “international call” from an NRI whom I had known since my Ninth Asian Games days of 1982. He straightaway offered me `10 lakhs in cash to be delivered by instalment. “Before, during and after” the job. The job was for “tomorrow’s bilateral air agreement between India and the one-airport country. Everything stands fixed through the ‘highest quarters’, beyond the civil aviation ministry, but I should not come in the way… and remain quiet during deliberations, notwithstanding the fact that I was the second-in-command representing India.” Stunned numb, I put the phone down and the next day spoke more than what I normally would have done. “India’s interests at the international table were non-negotiable.” My secretary got the report of my performance. He hugged me, being genuinely happy. My minister too was out of it, being at a bigger arena. Some extra-terrestrial forces always are at it. Bribe Indians to thrive there!

On Friday, March 19, 1993, I joined the ministry of information and broadcasting as PS to a minister. “Kicked up!” There are two sides of the hill. First, the giver, and second, the taker! Offer and acceptance lead to a conspiracy, contract and cash. Civil servants, or the uniformed service officials, do deserve punishment; but “one-way traffic justice” is sure to harm more than help. This leads one to remind all those who run the country of the famous Romain Rolland saying: “When order is injustice; disorder is the beginning of justice.” Yet the show goes on!

The writer is an alumnus of the National Defence College and is the author of China in India. The views expressed here are personal.

Tags: corruption, madras high court