Who is honest and who the thief?

In the eyes of most people, it is opportunity that makes the thief – you leave your diamonds lying on your dining table every morning and one day your otherwise honest maid might be tempted to pinch just that teeniest-weeniest bit of trinket she thinks you might not miss.

Similarly, most politicians are honest only till they do not get caught out. And, in my time, I have come across many squeaky-clean characters who have had many skeletons securely locked up in their cupboards. Some have even tried for the highest offices in the land but there are others who have had to hold no office, high or low, to have been able to make it good in this world.

So corruption and honesty are relative terms and, over the years, I have learnt there are many ways of being corrupt without quite soiling one’s hands. And there are many ways of defining honesty, too. Years ago, when the newspapers were speculating who should be a particular chief minister of Maharashtra after the incumbent was moved to Delhi, a bureaucrat called me over and gave me a big piece of his mind. He pointed to the name of the man who was said to be leading the race and asked if I really thought he would make a good chief minister for the state.

“Admittedly, he is intelligent, a good administrator and an excellent minister. But chief minister?”

I wondered why the bureaucrat was so riled. After all, it was just some, well, ‘honest’ and innocent speculation. When I asked, he said, `”Its no fault of the man. But your newspapers were full of stories that he is the frontrunner. I must say that he did nothing to promote himself nor did he ask any one for anything. But just based on the presumption that he might soon be the chief minister, a whole load of honchos came across to Mantralaya yesterday with brief cases full of just some petty cash from their respective companies.”

I was really blown to learn that when they counted the “petty” cash at closing hours, it ran into an astronomical seven-figure sum. “He didn’t demand it. But he did not turn it down either. He raked in millions just for nothing.”

Now this minister could certainly not have been called greedy or corrupt. But who, after all, had the guts to turn Goddess Lakshmi away when she came knocking at his doors? That’s how he put it to the stunned bureaucrats who could say nothing in return.

But the other way is to ask for some favours instead of instant hard cash: the usual practice, I discovered, was to place your wives, children or other relatives on the boards of various companies who came seeking licenses, et al. Without quite being ‘corrupt’ in the fashion we know, this ends up earning them enormous amounts of money for the rest of their lives — and I noticed that businessmen hate this practice the most. One businessman who, at one time in the late 1990s, had to constantly approach the government, told me he preferred to hand over some hard cash for favours sought and delivered. “That way its just a one-time payment, no lifelong burden. Usually, the cash, in earlier years, used to be returned untouched if the work was not done. These days we have to keep handing over again and again until their enormous appetites are filled to the brim and they are burping with the intake. But that is still better than having to place their family members on our boards – that means we have to keep taking care of them forever and we can never be rid of them, even if the people get rid of their government.”

The names he gave me stunned me out of my wits, because some of them had holier than thou images and others had made such a virtue of their own non-existent honesty. Even then the businessman had told me that as journalists were not doing our jobs adequately. Those were the days before the Right to Information Act had come into being but it was still possible to dig out that kind of information by simply checking out the lists of directors or members of various boards already in the public domain – if someone had no business to be on that company, that was a sure sign that something fishy had been afoot.

Now I am startled afresh to discover that the BJP’s former MP Kirit Somaiya has done just that. In his campaign against Sunil Tatkare, who is under the scanner for disproportionate assets, Somaiya has released a list of companies promoted by Tatkare, who belongs to the NCP and is Minister for Water Resources (he was earlier Finance Minister) in the Maharashtra government.

Somaiya was being deliberately mischievous for a reason but it was interesting to discover how such activities cut across the board (pardon the pun!) and across party lines: for, many companies on Somaiya’s list has names of various members of Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray’s family, including a daughter-in-law and a grandson. Somaiya, of course, had particular reason to expose that: the Shiv Sena is voting for Pranab Mukherjee at the presidential elections and it is some deserved (from the BJP point of view) tit-for-tat for that betrayal.

But, then, apart from some bars and restaurants owned by BJP politicians (as from all other parties) which has led these politicians to come down heavily on Vasant Dhoble, Bombay’s ultimate moral police(man) who is busting hem up every day, Somaiya’s own party has a top functionary whose interests in diamond mines in his state has brought about some unique kind of manipulation. That particular state government, I am told, has itself sought and brought about a High Court stay on the mining of those diamonds, despite the fact that that could benefit both his state enormously as well as the country substantially. For so rich is that stream that it could contribute to a major fall in diamond prices across the world. But it could impoverish diamond merchants across the board (oops – there’s that pun again!). So those diamond merchants keep that state government amply sated to keep extending the stay. Corruption in a way, ain’t it?

I recall an old-time bureaucrat whom I had run into at a bus stop years ago. He had been in the Indian Civil Service under the British and he told me that at Independence we had had better and more conscientious politicians. “They did make use of the licence-permit-quota raj. But every time a businessman wanted something from the government, he was asked to build in return either a school or a hospital or a tube well, somewhere in a far-off remote village so that those facilities would better the lives of their constituents. Now they seek returns only for themselves. And that is why he country is going to the dogs.” Then he added under his breath, “These politicians today are dogs!”

I have always thought that was insulting — to the dogs.

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