Byline By M.J. Akbar : Hyderabad Blues
Something does not quite gel in this extraordinary tale of hawala transactions by a certain Hasan Ali Khan, once of Hyderabad and now of Pune. It is difficult to correlate billions of rupees, let alone dollars, with the languorous leftovers of an exhausted Nizam nobility in the same sentence. Unlike so many nameless Mumbai and Delhi business and political VIPs who must, right now, be shivering in their sleep, I have never had the privilege of meeting Mr Khan, but my psychograph suggests that he is much more likely to send a cheque for Rs 20,000 to the wife of an income-tax officer, which then has the temerity to bounce, than to wallow in billions. It is obvious that Hasan Khan is involved in something outside his grasp or class; he was an intermediary, an agent, and this was not his money. The scraps of such transactions must have kept him content.
Hyderabad is still full of characters who have dropped from the decay of an effete class and saved themselves from social extinction with a soft landing on the margins of the race course. The asset side of their balance sheet, both fiscal and social, is dim: they survive by selling the past, either their inheritance, or their memories. The charms of both have been overtaken by time. If they had homes they have either rotted or, with better reason, been dynamited; if they had businesses, then, exceptions apart, only those that were sold still live. Decline has been accompanied by a rigid personal and public religious morality, which is a paradox, since their parents were far more relaxed: perhaps this is a form of atonement for wasted lives.
However, such morality never prevents a flutter at the race course or the flush table; nor does it come in the way of a fluid attitude to the famous twins, bribery and corruption. The one indisputable plus of this class, though, is an exquisite sense of tehzeeb: they are walking, and often bowing, examples of extraordinary grace and superb manners, redolent of an age that once illuminated many chapters of our nation’s social history. Such qualities make them affable, and lift them seamlessly to the highest echelons of the business and political elite. For most of this sinking aristocracy, tehzeeb and a proud sense of honour are a safety net: decay does not quite collapse into degeneration.
Hasan Khan is an exception, because he made an early reputation for white collar crime, a forged signature here, a fudged car there. In time he changed both wife and city. This did not affect his social circle, or his social circulation. He was apparently quite the lad on the Pune race course, up there among the studs of the grand boxes. There is, alas, not that much distance between grace and disgrace. When the law arrives, unexpectedly of course, the VIPs who used cutouts disappear behind the protection of connections, and the agent is left to fend for himself in the glare of the spotlight. Suddenly, the suave charm crumbles into the brittle dust of police files.
One wing of government has denied that the hawala sums were as much as Rs 30,000 crores, a figure that floated through the media, or that Swiss banks (an almost inevitable component of such a story, despite the fact that Swiss banks are no longer as rigid about secrecy as they are famous for) were involved. But that is not really the point. What is it about such colossal figures that media, or the public, never pauses to ask whether it can be true? We have become so inured to corruption of every kind, at every level, that every figure is accepted without question: ‘Rs 30,000 crores sent out by one individual? Must not only be true, but is probably an underestimate’. Who makes up such figures and passes them on to media, which then proceeds to make them a public truth? How long does that truth remain a reality? Till the media’s interest is shifted by another story. What happens then to a Hasan Khan bandwagon? Nothing much, in all probability: he is bailed out by the powerful interests on whose behalf he was working, and is again visible at glittering parties, oiling his way across the floor (in the immortal phrase used by Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady). The crooked businessman will return to the podium to give lectures on honesty, and flail against the evils of Delhi; politicians will return to their desks to think up new laws with which to punish businessmen.
If it is any consolation to anyone, that both tribes have an example on exhibit. The horse whisperer from Pune has more than his match in a Member of Parliament from Assam, M.K. Subba, who has simply bought his way into India’s ruling party, Congress, and ruling institution, Parliament.
One man’s crime is a problem; but what we have now in India is a crisis.
Corruption is not just the luxury of the rich. It is also the aspiration of the poor. In so many cases, success is defined by the size of the take. The jobless dream of government jobs where the bribe is the highest. Corruption is a pack ritual, with small communities — take the police thana, for instance — protecting one another and sharing the loot on a carefully calculated pro rata basis. If you break rank and culture, you are in danger of being dismissed as an untouchable. There is no class which is immune from corruption, or ready to place any barricades. Corruption is no longer an issue which affects voters.
I thought once that a market-driven private sector would provide at least a partial solution. The logic went something like this: if profit was the only motive of a listed company driven by share prices, then there would be at least some social benefits to compensate for the many liabilities. Profit does not have caste or creed. Many of the old business mandarins, protected by political patrons, indulged in rampant casteism and communalism when they hired. Bias is always wasteful, and cannot compete with competence as the sole criterion, and therefore selection in jobs would be less partisan. But, as the hawala case shows, you cannot dam the inventiveness of a private sector businessman intent on thieving from his own business, particularly when there is an obliging middleman waiting at the door to shift the swag around.
So how come, if we are all guilty, anyone gets caught? Fortunately, we are not all guilty, although most of us might find a place in the category. Does luck have anything to do it? A little, perhaps. If you are standing in the way when a law enforcement truck happens to roll around, you have only kismet to blame for getting hit. The more relevant answer may lie in limits: while corruption may be pervasive, it is not yet limitless. There is a law, and while it is realistic enough not to chase every minnow, it does need to bait and reel in a big fish to send a message to the sea. Hasan Khan is not that big fish; he was operating on the surface. The sea will get a message only when those lurking at deeper levels are in the net.