Ask of both sides, Annaji

Photo courtesy: Ramesh Lalwani on Flickr

In the mid-nineties, I was once working to win a good-size contract from a public sector company here at home. I hit it off very well with the General Manager in charge of purchase, but I learnt the reason why as we moved close to the deal. “Consider me your partner,” the senior executive said: “Pay me one rupee for every part we buy.” Saying which, he asked me to hang on and closed his files and packed his bag and took me home and gave me fine-tea flavored with cardamom and laced with the precise amount of sugar. After each sip a spicy peppery twang hit the tongue, making that cup the most memorable masala-tea I’ve had. In the executive's estimate the deal had been sealed with that cup of tea.

I extricated our company from such encounters by converting it to a 100% exporter. We began looking for customers who did business honorably, and challenged us in the extreme for the right things: quality and engineering.

In this last week of unusual intense rain and gloomy evenings and rainswept mornings and rising public protest I discovered I have some use for twitter, and I came upon tweetbot, a clever and well-crafted twitter-application. I subscribed to Javed Akhtar, Shekar Kapur, Kiran Bedi, Sadanand Dhume, Rajdeep Sardesai, Chetan Bhagat, and I allowed myself to be distracted by them. Some of them are naysayers, some say aye, but on my part I believe Anna’s protest is welcome, even if his medicine appears suspect and should remain sealed and stored in a cool dry place, while we await a third opinion. Without his protest, would the debates of these weeks have happened? In this intensity? Would Nandan Nilekani have offered to show how technology can check graft? Would the Prime Minister have moved the mention of it up high in priority in his Independence Day speech?

This protest should end in a good measure of success, any kind of success. The youth who are powering it should experience strength over nonchalant rulers. Our parliamentarians should shiver from a fear they’ve not felt before—fear that they may be challenged when they do wrong, when they ignore their constituents, when they commit crimes, and that, if they are sent to jail they may not in future ride out in quick time and be returned in the following election. They should fear those outside the circular building when they make their enactments. The fear should be lasting.

In the meantime I am surprised that Anna Hazare has missed a Gandhian step. Before a satyagraha, Gandhiji called upon every satyagrahi to begin the satyagraha with prayer and fasting. The two served to first purify the self; then they prodded the satyagrahi to contemplate the purpose of the protest, and his role in it. The result was a steeled protestor who had sensed the depth of what he was after.

The crowds before Anna are asked merely to focus on the Lokpal Bill. What about where corruption begins? The BBC asked a young man from Pune: Why have you joined Anna’s movement? To root our corruption. When did you last pay a bribe? Two days ago. Why? I wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, the constable asked for the government fine of 800, and I settled with him for 100. Did you do the right thing?

The young man’s case crumbled in mumbles. As it did with two Chennai youths who said they were in Anna’s campaign because they have paid a huge donation to obtain admission to college.

Corruption begins in us as much as in those who demand to be bribed. Indians pay to overcome the smallest inconvenience besides the big hurdles: to flout building by-laws; to register a home with a black-money component in the transaction; to win business; to jump a line; to escape the charge of being drunk while driving. This is not to say that there aren’t innocent and poor people who suffer harassment unjustly; such payments are decidedly on account of pure coercion and are a humiliating experience. They leave us drained. However, for many of us, it is possible—in more than half the situations we encounter—to refuse to pay. When more and more of us refuse to pay and are ready to forego a benefit, we begin to build a culture of integrity.

When you offer a taxi driver a tip in Germany he is genuinely surprised and he takes what you offer with pleasing courtesies. He wouldn’t have missed it if you hadn’t offered the tip. It is a cultural thing. Anna should constantly call on his admirers who want a clean India to first look unto themselves, to bravely shun every temptation, big or small, to give or to take. Gandhiji would have demanded that of the crowds before him, with the same curt confidence with which he asked them to practice personal hygiene.

When we exhibit such character we can expect probity in the powerful. And we will find what we expect because "a government is merely the reflection of its people." Some will be some left who are errant, corrupt people. Let us wield the Lokpal's powers on them.