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26 March 2001

Among Asians, bakshish is just another word

We call them bribes, but Indians may regard them just as a way of cementing social relations

By Ziauddin Sardar

Asians have a very distinctive style of doing things. Think Taj Mahal and Kama Sutra and you know our approach to love and sex is unmatched. Watch a Bollywood film and you will realise that it cannot be paralleled for the sheer spectacle of its song and dance routines. Similarly, our approach to corruption is without equal.

Asian corruption has its own particular sociology. This sociology has been in evidence recently both in India and Britain. India has been reverberating with the aftershocks of a seismic scandal. A string of politicians, bureaucrats and military types have been caught in flagrante accepting bribes. Four ministers, including George Fernandes, the defence minister, have so far resigned. In contrast, the allegations against our own minister for Europe, Keith Vaz, so far remain just that – unproven allegations. But the pressure is mounting for him to follow the Indian example and resign.

The Indian scandal was broken by the Delhi-based website tehelka.com. Two of its reporters worked undercover for seven months to set up a number of stings. Posing as representatives of a fictitious London-based arms manufacturer, West End International, they claimed to be selling “fourth-generation thermal imaging equipment”. Using spy cameras, they shot more than a hundred hours of video of politicians and officials gleefully taking bundles of cash in exchange for access, documents and introductions.

Tehelka, literally meaning “panic”, is developing a track record in such stings. Last year it used similar tactics to expose match-fixing in cricket. This time, among those exposed by “Operation West End” is Bangaru Laxman, the president of the BJP, the main party in the ruling alliance, who is seen taking 100,000 rupees (around £1,500) as a bribe to facilitate West End’s prospects. Jaya Jaitly, the president of the Samata Party, was filmed in Fernandes’s residence accepting a bribe of two lakh rupees (£3,000). Both men have now resigned. The Tehelka tapes show numerous generals, army officers and civil servants taking bribes and making disturbing allegations about pay-offs in earlier arms deals. Most significantly, the tapes appear to implicate both the prime minister’s private office and the national security adviser, Brajesh Mishra.

What is noticeable in the Indian scandal is the pitiful amounts of money involved. The allegations against Keith Vaz also revolve around small sums of money. He is said to have offered to help to obtain planning permission for a mosque, in return for a £500 payment; he is alleged to have received £8 a month for four years from a Leicester councillor; even the “donation” to Mapesbury Communications, a company set up by Vaz by the mighty Hinduja brothers amounted to no more than £1,200.

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Why would a rising politician, in Westminster as in the Lok Sabha, compromise his position for such paltry sums? The answer is that in the Indian context such an exchange is seen not as a bribe, but as part of a historic tradition of cementing social relations. Asian cultures have very strong notions of reciprocity – you do something for me and, in return, I will do something for you. The payment of small, almost token, amounts of money is seen traditionally as balancing not an account, but an ongoing relationship.

A number of those exposed in the Tehelka tapes mention Ranjan Bhattacharya, the prime minister’s son-in-law. The tapes show nothing that incriminates either the prime minister or his son-in-law. But it is difficult to avoid the impression that the prime minister’s office is run as a crude machine dispensing favours and contracts to family members and business friends. In Vaz’s case, the allegation that he secured jobs for his mother, Merlyn, is more specifically made by Sir Peter Soulsby, a former leader of Leicester Council. It is also alleged that Vaz uses his family company, Mapesbury Communications, run by his wife, Maria Fernandes, to support his parliamentary office without disclosing the sources of the company’s income.

Family ties, as everyone knows, are an Asian speciality. Asians have patented nepotism as a particular form of Asian corruption: the excesses of their families brought down Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif in Pakistan, ended the Gandhi dynasty in India, led to the fall of Suharto in Indonesia and the near ruin of Mahathir Mohamad in Malaysia.

Asians do not distinguish between politics and business. Indeed, they go into politics to do business – and business is always a family affair. Thus, political parties, such as Sonia Gandhi’s Congress Party in India and Bhutto’s Peoples’ Party in Pakistan, are alliances of feudalistic families and large businesses.

A donation to the party is seldom differentiated from a reciprocal gift to a politician. The Tehelka investigation reveals clearly that the politicians in the Samata Party see themselves as the party per se. In the tapes, Samata’s treasurer, R K Jain, projects his own sleazy deals as those of his party’s. Similarly, Soulsby alleges that it is “not possible to distinguish between the constituency finances and the personal finances of Keith”. Cheques donated to the Labour Party, it has been alleged, have been received by Vaz.

So, corruption Asian style follows the natural contours of Asian culture, both here and back in the Indian subcontinent. Like curry, it is a dish best cooked by Asians themselves. Just how integral bribery is to Asian culture can be seen from the endless list of “suitcase people”, from every class and walk of life, merrily accepting bundles of cash in the Tehelka tapes. One Leicester businessman, alleged to have given a £1,000 donation to the Labour Party which was received by Vaz, is called Bakshish Attwal. Bakshish, as anyone who has been to Asia knows, is the gift given to grease palms. A culture that uses bakshish as a common name is hardly likely to view the giving and taking of a bribe with too much concern.

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