Increasingly, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has shown that while his image may be that of a “right-winger”, his heart still beats as leftwards as during his South-South Commission days. Scant years into his tenure, he lambasted corporate chieftains for drawing salaries that were a smidgen higher than the wages paid to him. Since then, both policies as well as their absence have been pushing economic growth in India downwards to the Nehru Rate of Growth (of under 3%).
Manmohan Singh has been in the privileged position of a governmental office-holder for decades. Privileged because bureaucrats and their political masters acquired the same powers as were wielded by the British colonial administrators. In fact, since the time of Nehru, these powers have only been added on to. By retaining the criminal and other laws and practices of the British colonial period almost in their entirety, those who succeeded to the Raj made a mockery of the rights and privileges to citizens that got enumerated in the Constitution of India. There is a disconnect between the precept of the Constitution and the practices of the administration that have yet to be overturned by legislators elected to safeguard the rights of the people. Sadly, the perception that the people of India are not adult enough to be trusted with the same freedoms as counterparts in North America or Europe seems to have seeped into every pillar of governance. Witness the way in which books, movies and other manifestations of free speech have been proscribed and banned, to silence or even consent from the very institutions designed to secure the rights of the citizen vis-à-vis the state.
If newspaper reports of the PM’s speech at a gathering of police officers is correct, he appears to believe that businesspersons just love to pay bribes. That they would prefer that the system be twisted rather than straight. Such a surmise may apply to a few, but the overwhelming majority of businesspersons would be much happier were they to be spared the need to bribe their way to a decision. However, the identification of bribe-takers will be made much more difficult by the PM’s desire to punish equally both the bribe giver as well as the bribe taker. Should such a law be imposed, few would come forward to give evidence of bribery, afraid as they would be of immediate arrest for such an action. Till Manmohan Singh’s speech, it had been assumed that “the prevention of bribery” was the precise function of the very police officers whom the PM was addressing. However, Manmohan Singh would now like to outsource this work to the private sector, with the threat of jail should India’s corporates fail to check the greed of the country’s politicians and officials. For tackling graft, the present laws would more than suffice, were there the will to enforce them. However, it has become a habit for those in power to pass new laws, each more severe than the last. Even Manmohan Singh, sheltered as he has been from the vicissitudes of ordinary life, must know that the only consequence of the new law proposed by him would be to multiply the opportunities for corruption within both officialdom as well as their political masters. Those in Dr Singh’s audience who have enriched themselves through graft must have salivated at the prospects of fresh loot that the new legislation would bring them.
Instead of making it impossible for hapless individuals to expose those who have demanded illegal gratification from them (by threatening such complainants with prison), what Manmohan Singh needs to do is to get out of the cocoon in which he has lived for so long and breathe in the fetid atmosphere of the real world. He will then accept that instead of punishing them, those paying bribes need to be encouraged to report those who took them. Whistle-blowers should be rewarded rather than punished.
Demanding a bribe is an act of extortion. By equating that with the action of being forced to fork out cash so as to get a service that in a more honest setup would have been available for free, the Prime Minister would be reinforcing the already considerable immunity of those to whom the taking of a bribe has become second nature.