The Difference between British and Indian Corruption

‘There is no money to be made without power. And power comes from being able to make choices,’ as I said to a business colleague. Ministers have choice over who wins contracts, and that power is converted into money. That is the way all political corruption has always worked and always will. The Minister gets money, pays his lieutenants, and makes the decisions which will make you, the briber, rich.

On my BBC Newspaper review slot last week, the first story was about a report from Ireland of corruption by the former Irish PM in allocating land at undervalue in exchange for secret cash payments. The second story I was asked to comment upon was about corruption allegedly involving the Indian PM in allocating coal assets at undervalue in exchange for secret cash payments. The story about the British PM and the Tory Co-Treasurer had not broken yet.

The obvious points I refused to make were that corruption robs the nation of funds, cheats the poorest of their national inheritance, drives a few good men and women from entering politics and national service.

And then there followed this past week allegations of ‘cash for access’ in the UK. This is the British way to do it. You make the payment first, not to the Minister, but his party, then have to jump hoops and hope there will be some access and influence which may possibly eventually lead to decisions somewhere in your favour which may lead to money being made, not by you, but your employer. In fact, you probably never even get the influence, just the perception and hope of it. Your own weakness and desire to corrupt is being used against you. It’s like doing a deal in a den of thieves.

The layering, like with money laundering, makes it harder to trace cause and effect. This is power laundering. It exists. And it is corruption nevertheless. It does not rob the nation of funds, doesn’t cheat the poorest, or drive good people from politics, but it is corruption – British style. Subtle. Not as crass as the unsophisticated Indians or Irish. So why is it corrupt? Money has after all always provided privilege, why not in politics? Are we, the people, not just being hypocritical?

When I was a member of the UK India Roundtable, my colleagues included Uday Kotak (founder of Kotak Bank) and Hemendra Kothari (Chairman of DSP Merrill Lynch) and our role was to make policy initiatives to the British and Indian Prime Ministers. The three of us would stand around a table, speaking in Guajarati, about what would be good policy. Were we corrupt? Of course not. Yet we had access. The same access the Tory Co-Treasurer had promised donors to the PM. Had Mr Kotak and Kothari not made lots of money, would they have had access? No. Money has always bought access. We just sleep easier at night, when it is layered away and not obvious and crass.

So the next time someone defends Indian corruption (or Irish) on the basis that there is corruption in British politics too – let us remember when billions are diverted from the Indian exchequer because assets were sold at undervalue – the poor die in India – they are being robbed of their national birthright, their inheritance. That is the difference. The rest is just hypocritical self-riteous indignation for opportunistic personal gain.

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