By Jayant Bhandari
Many years back, a relative in India was trying to transfer a property that he had bought. He had failed to offer a bribe, had rubbed the fragile ego of a bureaucrat the wrong way, and now an inked-note on the file was pre-empting the transfer.
The bureaucrat was enjoying a certain kind of pleasure from making my relative run around in desperation.
To hurry things up, my relative decided to take help of a Minister in the government. To my utter surprise, the three of us went to the bureaucrat—I had thought the bureaucrat would come to the Minister’s office. After much pleading, we were told the property could not be transferred.
A note had been made in ink and now it was not possible to undo the damage.
The property, we were told, would not be transferred.
A cash contribution to the Minister for “electoral campaigning,” despite that there were no elections in sight, had been wasted.
A few months later, we again ended up in the same bureaucrat’s office, but without the Minister. On this occasion, a bribe had been pre-arranged. The transfer was quick.
With a nice bundle of cash having exchanged hands—and with all of us feeling mutual warmth, friendly and accomplished in a kind of Stockholm Syndrome—my relative asked the bureaucrat how he could transfer then and not before.
With an evil laugh, the bureaucrat showed us dust covered tens of volumes of laws and heaps of amendments. He said that he could avoid the transfer using one rule but could do using another.
I learned very early in life that the real power is in the hands of the bureaucracy. The politician knows that he is in office only for a few years and then he will need to go back to the bureaucrat with folded hands.
The politician is mostly an uneducated, simplistically minded goon—rough, abusive, and scheming, but lacking in imagination and understanding of how things work. He excels in only one thing, the art of demagogy, of having that innate understanding of how to bring the populace to his side using their base instincts. Otherwise, he must depend on the bureaucrats for everything. It has been known that several of India’s Prime Ministers did not even know about the existence of certain provinces. In terms of brain power, the politician is no competition for the bureaucrat, who is often very well-educated and meritocratic in the conventional sense.
How to deal with a bureaucrat
Bribing is an art. You give it too early, and you can be assured that your work will not get done; if the bureaucrat even recognizes you again.
Every bureaucrat wants a bribe whether he “deserves” it or not. So you must identify who you should attend to and who you can ignore. This is never easy, with tens of people with the same sounding designation.
You cannot ignore a bureaucrat once you have given him attention, even if you later realize he wasn't of use. You must keep him happy here-on or he will go out of his way to trouble you.
You give too little bribe and you will embarrass the bureaucrat. You give too much and everyone will know you are easy and will work towards making your life difficult, to extract more. Like a group of scavengers, they will be all around you, making you run around them.
I once had a notice that an arrest warrant would be issued against me for not filing certain documents. I had sent those by registered post. The bureaucrat conveyed to me, that he can always claim he misplaced those documents, after I am brought to the court after a day in prison.
If you fail to offer the bribe in time, a note will go in your file that will make the situation very difficult. You will then be punished. It will not just be about money now; you have hurt the bureaucrat’s ego.
Knowing the senior guy is never enough. If you ignore the junior guy, you are in trouble, for he will do something somewhere which can make you run around for years. It pays to remind yourself that you are nothing, a lowly, insignificant being—this is how you should act. Pay respect to every bureaucrat as you pass him by.
Those well groomed in bribing will start by paying the guard before entering the building. Who knows when you might need whose help for what purpose?
The bureaucrat is constantly comparing. If you give him less than the other, he will see that as an insult.
If you talk with one bureaucrat and then another, the former would be offended. The latter would be flattered but he wouldn’t help you, to avoid envy between the bureaucrats from surfacing.
You have to develop an instinct on how to bribe, how to talk, and what euphemisms to use. You need to understand that the bureaucrat is not just after money. He wants respect. He suffers from horrendous personality issues. You must learn what drives him.
It is not higher vision of life or a feeling of accomplishment that drives the bureaucrat. You must understand the base instincts and dark sides of human beings. He is mentally and spiritually sick. His sickness shows on his face. If you worry that he has an iota of the former, you will waste time and money not knowing how to start a conversation.
If you erroneously believe that he might be driven by higher motives, you will be talking a language that he does not understand. He does not pity, so don’t waste time trying to rouse it. You will only confuse him. When he is acting too busy, it is worth asking him directly what he wants. Else you tell him euphemistically, with a smile and pleading voice, “We will take care of you.”
Understand his dark side, and you will prepare yourself to hit the bull’s eye.
You want to sympathize with him about his “hard life” and why he “deserves more.” You must do a dance and drama. It does not matter that you might be dying of hunger. Express your gratitude.
When you offer him a gift, very subserviently—almost falling to the ground, with folded hands—you say something like, “Sir, this is for the kids and my sister-in-law.”
The good thing is that every bureaucrat’s personal short-comings, which are what drives him, are the same. They are clones. You learn how to deal with one and you have learned how to deal with everyone.
The above are isolated suggestions. You must stew them together, in right proportion, to make a winning recipe. The more bureaucratic a country, the more a well-prepared stew of how you deal with the bureaucrat decides your success; not your real contribution or wealth creation.
Those honed in this recipe even manage to get their work done by being condescending towards the bureaucrat, a very rare art. This requires being a supreme sociopath, with an instinctive understanding of base people.
The vicious circle of corruption
Bribing and navigating the corridors of Indian bureaucracy is an art, an art that converts you—through the process of constant compromises you make—into a spineless, scheming person, despite that all you might try is nothing more than trying to get what you fairly own. You lose your sense of perspective.
When you visit a government office anywhere, you must leave your self-respect at the gate. From the guard at the gate to the most senior officer, the game is all about status. It is a drama in which everyone wants to look important. Virtually every time I have been to a government office, absolutely everywhere and everyone talks with a pleading, supplicating voice. He must look self-effacing, and meek.
What a waste of years of my life it was, learning merely to deal with the system. But it is by far the most important skill one can learn in India. The best brains out of the top international universities are sent out to Delhi to liaise with the government, to find loop-holes, and to make sure relationships are in place for the time when trouble strikes.
Those who think that corruption is merely a cost of doing business don’t really understand its real nature. Were it merely a cost, India would have been a much richer country. It hugely drags down development.
India is a wretched place: hunger, pollution, garbage, poverty litter it. GDP per capita is $1,626 and half of the population lives off 15% of the country’s GDP. You do the math. I spend quite a bit of my time in India and even I cannot imagine what this math means.
My very young or poor Indian friends tell me that the horror I write about India does not really give the full flavor of the ground reality. I agree. But they cannot write, for their brain gets fried in their existence in non-stop hassles.
Corruption destroys resources, wastes time, and worst of all reduces human beings to lives of—for lack of a better word—cattle, or worse. It is utterly dehumanizing.
The above is only the tip of the iceberg
I am constantly amazed by human beings’ capacity to ignore what is right in front of them. Interactions with the bureaucrat are always demeaning and gross. But somehow Indians still think they got “independence” in 1947 and feel proud about it.
I am constantly amazed at how virtually everyone accepts being demeaned on a constant, daily, and hour-to-hour basis. This sucks out his soul and spirit even before he could learn its possibility.
The fuller truth is much deeper, sadder and difficult to express.
Alas, what he goes through at government office is merely a visual representation of how social life, personal interactions, inter-people transactions work in India. Mostly—actually always—he lacks an understanding of what is right and what is wrong, for he is not rooted in rationality. His choice is being numb and pre-irrational—to make it easier to accept the concept of might-is-right and to avoid feeling the pain about being demeaned and having to feel chronic anxiety. Without “reason” you cannot value character for you don’t have a way to weigh, and understand what a virtue is and what a sin is.
Hence, everyone everywhere respects the bureaucrat, even if there is obviously no need. He is the hero figure in all social functions. In an irrational culture, might-is-right is the virtue.
These days I mostly watch what I see as a documentary, knowing full well that visible corruption and the heavy-handed government would disappear the moment that Indians became rational. From reason, real virtues emerge. People will then start to see what is right in front of them.
Fighting the government does not work. Voting does not help. You remove a corrupt person and a new corrupt person will take his place, always and invariably. There is no need to fight the concept of the government. One should instead influence change in how the individual thinks and perceives, to make him rational. Under the glare of reason, the bureaucrat, and the politician will wither away.
Jayant Bhandari is a Vancouver-based writer. Looking for civil life, he visited
Vancouver 10 years back and then decided to immigrate. He runs a yearly
seminar, Capitalism & Morality, in Vancouver.