Should bribe giving be legalised?
They are both "partners in a crime", and it is in their joint interest to keep the exchange hidden from law. But, Prof Basu argues, if you make bribe giving legal, the interests of the giver and taker collide and it is highly likely that the giver will blow the whistle and the bribe taker will get caught. One caveat: this will work only in checking what Prof Basu calls "harassment bribes" - holding back income tax refunds, property paper work and the like in return for graft - which is widespread in India, "breeding inefficiency and [having a] corrosive effect on civil society".
At a time when India is fiercely debating corruption after being hit by an avalanche of scandals, Prof Basu's radical prescription has predictably kicked up a storm. India's communist politicians - usually suspicious about new ideas - have trashed it as a "dangerous and unethical proposal". "Making it legal to pay bribes," said a communist functionary, "would undermine the values of honesty and integrity. Indeed, it would make people who don't pay bribes look like fools."
It is another matter that it is exceedingly difficult to find Indians who haven't paid a baksheesh in their lives.
Other critics like leading journalist P Sainath offer a more nuanced rebuttal. Bribery, he says, will exist as long as scarcity exists. There is an acute mismatch of demand and supply of government services. Making bribe giving legal will in no way curb bribery in sectors where scarcity exists, he argues. Indeed, Mr Sainath says, it will raise the stakes - making for more expensive bribes or the victims "facing heavier demands". "After all," he writes, "the bribe taker needs to be compensated for the higher risk he runs."
However, I found the highly respected development economist and social activist Jean Dreze's critique most compelling and informed. At the root of Prof Basu's thesis is the assumption that the bribe giver will blow the whistle and put the bribe taker in prison. If that does not happen, what is the use of decriminalising bribe giving?
Prof Dreze picks on this and feels that the chances of the bribe giver blowing the whistle against the taker are slim considering the "huge litigation costs, possible harassment and little chance of getting justice - not a far fetched assumption". A perfectly valid observation considering that India's judiciary crawls at a snail's pace.
The real choice, says Prof Dreze, is between not paying a bribe, and paying a bribe without blowing the whistle. "It is perfectly possible that many people would choose the former if bribing is illegal and punishable, but the latter (paying a bribe) if bribe-giving is legalised," he says.
Clearly the onus is on the bribe giver to nail the taker. How does he or she do it? Prof Basu suggests that the bribe giver will "try to keep evidence of the act of bribery" - a secret photo or jotting the numbers on currency notes handed over and so on - so that "immediately after the bribery" the giver can turn informer and get the taker caught. This is easier said than done.
Do you think Prof Basu's proposal legitimises corruption? Or should it - with some tweaks - be given serious thought?