Last week a writer-friend, Vivek Tandon, called me to discuss what should actually be done to combat corruption. He thinks we need a ‘Truth and Reconciliation’ commission — something along the lines of what they did in South Africa after they finally got rid of apartheid. In the corruption context, this would mean people being given a chance to confess their corrupt acts and redeem themselves.
They would return their ill-begotten money (whatever remained of it), perhaps pay fines, but would not be jailed for corruption-related crimes dating back to… Well, the state would fix a cut-off date, and no further acts of corruption would be tolerated.
I’m not yet sure about the workability of such a commission... Still, I like the idea of Truth and Reconciliation. It assumes that corrupt people are human; that they want to return the morsels they have wrongfully stolen from the mouths of malnourished kids; that millions of bribe-takers lie awake at night, longing to confess but afraid of being sent to jail. Can’t fault the idea for a lack of optimism.
Corruption is often unforgiveable, especially in poor nations, but Tandon argues that corruption is an intrinsic part of the culture we grew up with. We are taught to use ‘contacts’ to ‘get work done’. That’s how we get confirmed train tickets, or driving license we don’t deserve, or construction contracts, or environmental clearances. We are taught that only idiots pay taxes. Just like millions of us spit, spit, spit everywhere, undeterred by the law or exhortations in the name of public health. People do it not just because they get away with it but also because they have always done it, and seen others do it.