I am not very corrupt. At least not so corrupt as many others. I really want to do some good for my people. But it is not easy. The situation is complex. Not many understand my plight. My people just want results – better roads, low prices, good healthcare and so on. If i don’t deliver, they won’t re-elect me. My party high command cares a hoot about my ideals and the demands of my people. They have a party ideology & their own priorities, and I have to toe the line. I am caught in a bind.
I was swept into the political whirlpool in my college. I was an idealist then, delirious after reading and debating the great masters & their ideas. I was appalled by what was happening around me. The country was a political circus run by buffoons. The aging leaders had no clue of ground realities, the sweeping scientific ideas & innovations taking the world by storm, the aspirations of the youth and so on. Their ideas and methods were ancient & futile. We, the young new blood, wanted to shake up the establishment. We did a little bit of that, but my rational mind realized quickly there was no future in pursuing a political career. I refocused on my studies, landed a good job and did well for myself. But the idealist was still lurking inside me, rearing his head now & then. I got involved in a few civic & political action groups, lobbying for change. A political big wig noticed me, showed avuncular interest, and soon I was sucked into the whirlpool of politics again. Some nasty politicking within the party prior to a bye-election hoisted me as a candidate. I won. I got a shot at shaking up the status quo and do some good.
My naivety got a severe jolt. The first few months were a revelation. I knew the inside world of politics was dirty & corrupt. But, still, what I encountered came as a rude shock. I decided to stick to my agenda and ideals.
My first task was to deliver on the promises I made to my people. Topping the list was providing safe & clean drinking water to my constituency. I met the public water utility officials and requested them to provide piped water connection to my people. They said their budget for the year was already frozen and there was no money for a new project. I escalated the issue and the head of the utility promised to relook at their projects and priorities. After a few months of silence, I met the head again who repeated the excuse given by his junior staff earlier – no money. I met my local party chief who advised me to be patient and promised to take up the issue with the water minister & chief minister (CM). My party was in power and I was hopeful to get this project done for my people.
A few months went by. My people were getting impatient. I was getting angry. At the next meeting with the chief minister, I raised this point even though it wasn’t on the agenda. The CM gave me a patient hearing and asked me to meet him later. The CM was a shrewd man, an old hand & able administrator. He was known to be a straight shooter. I managed to get a slot on his calendar after a few weeks. I met him at his office and, as he waved me to a seat, he called in one of his personal secretaries. I was a first time politician and he was a seasoned hand, having seen many political battles over many decades. I admit I was in awe.
He said my pet project cannot be accommodated that year, though he was all for it. Other elected representatives have also asked for drinking water projects for their own constituencies, in addition to other demands such as roads, hospitals, farm subsidies, and so on. The government already had its priorities and he couldn’t reallocate funds for my project. But there was an alternative and his secretary would help me with that. I respected the CM and decided to give his idea a shot.
Later, I sat with his secretary, a smooth-talking career bureaucrat who knew his way around the government maze. He said the government was running short of money and all new projects were on hold for a while. My project demanded a sizable outlay and if the government diverts funds for my people, other elected representatives would be up in arms. He said the best alternative was to rope in a private company as a project partner to the public utility company. The private company would fund the project, build & operate the water pipelines, and work on a profit-sharing model with the government for a decade or so. After that, the public utility would take over pipelines. It sounded good and practical. He put me on to a few bureaucrats in the water ministry and utility to flesh out details. They did a study of my constituency, invited a few private companies to work out technical options & financial estimates, and finally announced a tender. A whole year had gone by, but I was euphoric. There was progress. It was a fair size tender and a few other elected representatives were even envious I could move a project of this nature.
Then, all hell broke loose. An investigative journalist published a series of fiery reports in a leading daily, alleging large-scale corruption in the tender. He cited unknown sources who claimed the whole tender process was a sham. A few ministers and senior bureaucrats were hand-in-glove with one of the private companies invited to bid for the tender. Large amounts of money had already changed hands. The tender was designed to favor that private company. And, shockingly, I was named as the prime beneficiary in this mammoth corruption scandal. The CM summoned me. He gave me a piece of his mind. He said I had mismanaged the project. The government’s image was at stake. I was given 2 weeks time to set things right. His secretary would help.
I was flummoxed. Here I was, trying to do some good for my people. I agreed to partner with a private company as the government didn’t have money. The entire government machinery worked at a feverish pace on the tender. Now, I was being accused of large-scale corruption & mismanagement.
The secretary was unruffled. Perhaps he has encountered scores of scams like this. He advised me to get into a huddle with senior officials at the water ministry and utility. He said it was likely that some corruption was involved on a project of this nature & scale. No point asking him why he didn’t warn me about this before. He advised that the head of the water utility, the bureaucrat with whom I had a slight tiff before, was an important man to befriend. The water minister was another important man I need to hobnob with. He further advised me to be flexible, though I little understood then what he meant. He saw me off with a smile, giving me hope & confidence. I left his office, feeling not unlike a prime accused granted bail.
My political career & reputation was at stake. The press was having a gala time, unearthing intimate details from my past, making up stories, and painting me as ruthless & ambitious. My people were questioning their choice of having elected me. Other schemes, policies & ideas I had either mooted or supported were being tainted. My party colleagues were wary of being seen in my company.
I called for the suggested huddle with the concerned bureaucrats. I spent nights pouring over tender papers and project reports. I met the head of the water utility. I tried to be friendly and sought his support to resolve the issue. He was gruff. He said he was just executing what the ministers and elected representatives like myself want him to do. He hinted the water minister might be of some help. I had met the water minister before just once briefly, to seek his blessings for the project idea and tender. He was encouraging then, offered support of his ministry, but didn’t get involved further as the study & tender progressed. I sought an appointment and met him again. He was a transformed man. He also accused me of mismanaging the project. He said he wanted to cancel the project, but since the CM had given me the benefit of doubt and time to resolve the issue, he is sitting tight. He was not helpful.
I wasn’t sleeping well.
I studied the background of the private company which was supposed to have given me lots of money. The family name of one of the promoters sounded alarmingly similar to that of the water minister. I looked him up. Yes, they were from the same part of the state and possibly related also. I arranged for a secret meeting with the promoter. Over dinner, he confessed a few bureaucrats had approached him, offering their support to tweak the tender in his favor, and seeking huge sums to compensate for their efforts & risk. He was under the impression they were acting on my behalf. He hinted that many junior & senior staff at the water ministry and utility, besides a few ministers & party officials, were in on the deal, without giving away names. He was disturbed his business was being dragged into muddy waters because of this project. While worrying about his tarnished reputation, he showed no signs of repentance or guilt. He urged me to set things right & leave his business alone, thanked for the dinner and left.
A few months went by. Things cooled down. The press was diverted by other scandals & scams. Public memory is short-lived. But, I didn’t give up. I wanted to rework the tender. A new team of bureaucrats from the water ministry and utility was on the job. I was more hands-on this time. The head of the water utility became a good friend and showed personal interest in the project. I met the CM a few times to keep him updated, and his earlier gruff manner thawed a bit. The tender rolled out smoothly. I met the press, civic groups & my people periodically, partly to keep them updated on the progress of the tender & the project, partly to have my ears closer to other channels of information, gossip & rumor, and also to burnish my reputation. I was a more savvy politician.
Almost 2 years after I was elected, the winning bid was announced. The project, which would need another 2 years to finish, was slated to begin shortly. All stakeholders – my people, bureaucrats & ministers, the CM, various civic groups etc. – were happy. I was still a junior politician, but a promising junior politician.
One morning, I found a bag with lots of cash at my doorstep. A letter inside thanked me for my help and hoped I will continue to serve my people well. My first impulse was to rush to the nearest police station with the bag. But 2 years of tough lessons urged me to pause & think. No doubt the help being alluded to is the water pipeline project. If I take this money to the cops, my political career will hop on to a roller coaster. I may or may not come out of that unscathed. Moreover, the project will be scrapped again and my people will never forgive me. If I take the money to my party bosses, I will probably become a laughing-stock, assuming I am already not one yet. If such big money is being given to me, the party and probably others have already been paid off bigger sums and they have been laughing behind my back all the while. I took the bag inside. Life moved on. I never mentioned the bag to anyone.
The project was completed successfully. The CM launched it. He was all praise for my efforts & diligence. I hit the headlines again, this time riding on positive sentiments. The press forgot the past and embraced me as the promising & upcoming politician to watch. My people were beaming as they shared photos of smiling faces on social media, drinking piped, clean & safe water at their homes. The water minister was overseas, but called to congratulate me. The head of the water utility became a family friend. Other elected representatives consulted me for their own projects.
My party bosses chose me again as the candidate for the upcoming elections. The party, people & press were on my side. My re-election was more or less confirmed. We discussed what the margin of my victory would be.
I ran into the investigative journalist, who had previously almost ruined my career, at the press club. I was polite, wished him well and sought to move on. I was surprised when he requested for a private conversation. Over a drink, he praised me for my acumen. I kept quiet not wanting to engage him. I was curious to hear what he had to say. He said he has been tracking me and a few others for the past few years. He said he knew huge amounts of money changed hands during the second tendering of the project. He was puzzled there were no traces. He again complimented my shrewdness and asked how I pulled it off. I remained silent. He continued. He had heard about 40% of the project cost was embezzled. He was sure various bureaucrats, ministers including the CM & the water minister, the head of the water utility, our party bosses etc. were all paid off. He has been trying to collect hard evidence for over a year. He was frustrated as nothing turned up. He has almost given up. His bosses want him to be more productive and have asked him to work on other lesser scandals easier to crack. He again applauded my audacity, paid for his drink and left.
I was re-elected. My party bosses were elated. I was nominated as the water minister. The CM wanted me to replicate my earlier project success, this time on a grander scale, across the state.
I got the message. I was being groomed earlier, without my knowledge. I was idealistic, driven, knowledgeable & efficient. I had good qualities, but still an uncut diamond. I was being polished and shaped. I didn’t know it myself. Nobody told me. Perhaps my education was not even explicitly discussed. It just happened. A ghostly mentoring.
Now, I know a little about how the machine works. I am still learning. I guess the learning never stops. If you stop learning, you are forced to retire. If you continue learning, you continue to get the opportunity to do a little good for your people. I say a ‘little good’, because I never know the full costs and ramifications. I suspect nobody knows. The costs of doing good may frequently overweigh the benefits. It is a complex system of people, parties, politicians, bureaucrats, businessmen, and many other stakeholders. It changes & adapts constantly. We try to shake it up, now & then. A scam breaks out. Investigations happen. Systems & checks are put in place. But, the machine is like a juggernaut. It is unstoppable. You can’t change it.
What about my ideals & my people? Have I forgotten them? No. I try to do what I can. I can’t control the machine. I have a little control on myself and my actions. I am less corrupt than others. The money still flows in. I try to find useful outlets for it. I can’t deliver on all the promises I make, but that doesn’t stop me from trying.
If I want to do a little good for my people, I have to respect the machine and work with it.
I sleep well now.