Lekin aiso nahi ki kauno se puri thaali hi cheen le,’ (You see, it is alright to indulge in corruption equivalent to the amount of salt added into wheat flour. But you should not snatch the entire plate from someone), she told a gathering. Defending her remark in a subsequent television interview, the laissez-faire lawmaker went on to say, ‘It [bribery] is happening across Madhya Pradesh, and the country.
Everybody knows about it. The government, administration, officials… who doesn’t take it?’ While not a few might compliment the legislator on her outspoken candour, Singh is not the first occupier of political office to air such views. More than a decade ago, a Karnataka chief minister endorsed the culture of ‘chaipaani’ by comparing it to the official tatkal schemes by which those who are willing and able to pay extra for various services get faster clearance — the premium thus exacted becoming a form of unaudited social subsidy to support underpaid officials who also perform the necessary task of serving the aam janta, though with less expeditious assiduity.
This way, according to him, one was helping bridge the social divide between what might be called the haftas and the hafta-nots. What in American parlance is termed ‘lagniappe’ — a bonus given for a service rendered — is a fixture both in command as well as capitalist economics. In the US, it is not just customary but de rigueur to give a tip — an apocryphal acronym for ‘To Insure Privilege’ — not only to wait staff in restaurants and bellboys in hotels, but also to tour guides and taxi drivers. Is mandatory tipping — a form of institutionalised bribery, a legitimate part and parcel of the American dream in which the carrot of financial lure, not the stick of an authoritarian state —used to incentivise performance above and beyond the call of routine duty? In the opening sequence of his 1992 film Reservoir Dogs, Quentin Tarantino shows a group of men who have just finished breakfast in a cafe discussing the pros and cons of tipping before they go to hold up a neighbourhood bank at gunpoint.
Is tipping daylight robbery by other means? Neo-atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris may well extend the discourse into the theological realm by arguing that votive offerings given to a deity in the hope of being bestowed with heavenly blessings are nothing but bribery on a cosmic scale. As are all the devices of organised religion, including prayer and other forms of obeisance to curry favour with the ultimate Higher Up. VS Naipaul recounted how a Bombay tailor he used to patronise would regularly cheat his customers by overcharging, having cleansed himself of the stigma of dishonesty by taking the precaution of propitiating his establishment’s resident deity with a daily proffering of prasad, rather like a Catholic confessional in which misdeeds are absolved in advance of their commitment. Venality is at worst a venial sin, as attested to by Herod in WH Auden’s 1944 long poem, For the Time Being:
A Christmas Oratorio, who remarks, ‘Every crook will argue, “I like committing crimes. God likes forgiving them. Really the world is admirably arranged.”’ Which is another way of saying that there’s no reason, earthly or celestial, to kill the ghoos that lays the golden eggs.