I believe the investigation technique Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple used can help us understand the AgustaWestland bribery allegations. Miss Marple drew on the knowledge of people in her village — their character and behaviour — in solving puzzles (of crime) that she somehow found herself working on. Some thirty-five years ago, as a scholar researching UP’s land consolidation programme, I found myself trying to solve the puzzle of why a programme that I had observed in great detail over a year’s time, which I judged was properly administered by hard-working officers, had the reputation of being one of the “most corrupt” programmes in UP.
The explanation, I learned, was that the belief of many that nothing got done without corrupt payments was due to “the middleman” (the dalal), and that the dalal made use of his knowledge that the programme was properly run in order to “milk the ignorant farmers,” as one officer told me. (The full detail of my own assessment is in the scholarly article I published in World Politics in 1987, “Middlemen in Third World Corruption: Implications of an Indian Case”).
Adopting Miss Marple’s persona, and taking note of the conventional wisdom that “everyone knows that the land consolidation programme is corrupt,” I asked a simple question of myself: in whose interest is it to exaggerate (or even invent) the corruption that occurs?” Surely not the people who give bribes to officials, nor the officials themselves. The dalal, on the other hand, saw the chance to make money if everyone believed that officials had to be bribed to get a fair result, and if on the whole the process was fair, and the dalal knew that while ordinary farmers didn’t.
Then the dalal could promise to deliver bribes to officials, taking his “cut,” of course, and would be pretty certain of the result, even if the officer was honest. Indeed, I was told that dalals gave a guarantee: “if the officer takes the money, and doesn’t do the right thing, I’ll personally return the money to you.” If in fact the officer did not take bribes, and yet did the consolidation process according to rule, the dalal could make a lot of money, even if he had to return the bribe offered to the farmer in, say, half the cases.
The dalal preyed on the farmer, for whom the very complicated process of determining shares in his land, valuing it according to a scale based on comparing it to other plots in the village, and then “carving out” a new holding in a different place was entirely opaque, even magical. The dalal knew what was going on, and also told the farmer that he knew the officers well, and could negotiate the bribe amounts, and would keep it all secret, of course. He offered the farmer knowledge, access, and the willingness to dirty his hands, all for a modest commission, with a money-back guarantee.
Officers of the land consolidation department told me stories of how dalals would approach them in a semi-public way (with farmers watching), whispering perhaps some innocuous something, to give the impression of having a close relationship.
I could see for myself how baffled many farmers were by how the process was done, and could well understand how they would be tempted by the dalal’s money-back guarantee. The land consolidation officials spent a lot of time explaining the process, always in public, and two levels of the formal appeals processes — on land title, on the valuation of the land, and on the final re-allocation of the land — were held in the village, in full public view. Many went out of their way to demonstrate their lack of a special relationship to villagers — one Settlement Officer that I spent literally weeks observing consistently refused offers of tea from villagers; he would take only water.
But that didn’t add up to much, given the prevalence of the belief that all officials are corrupt.
How does this help me understand the AgustaWestland helicopter bribery scandal? In my scholarly article, I spend some time discussing more complicated bribery patterns, ones that involve a chain of middlemen, with the bribe-giver at one end, and the decision-making official at the other. The corrupt officer typically relies on a “right-hand man” to take actual delivery of the cash, while the bribe-giver is employing the dalal. There will often be other links in the chain: the gate-keepers, the touts, the lower-level officers who do the actual paperwork, etc. Each of them expects a “cut” from the bribe. And further: it is in the interest of the dalal, muddying the waters, to exaggerate the number of people he has to pay off, even giving them names, and often being unclear about who the final recipient might be. After all, the proof of payment was to be in the result: the new land holding at the end of the land consolidation process.
So I can believe that bribes were paid in the AgustaWestland deal. And that there was a middleman, or more likely several middlemen, involved. And at the same time I can believe that the result — an excellent piece of machinery purchased by the military — was perfectly logical. Most important, I can believe that the waters were muddied with the names of obviously influential people, even when those people — who might even have been consulted, whose advice might even have been accepted — were innocent of taking any of the money. I suspect Miss Marple would agree.