A few months back, a friend from the university days called up. I was a trifle intrigued because he rarely bothers calling though we live and work in the same city. The friend, a senior executive in a leading corporate house with stakes in the lucrative mining sector in the state, started with small talk about my profession, family and all the usual stuff friends meeting after a long time talk about.
Just as I was beginning to wonder if this was really what the friend had called me for when he came to the point that he actually wanted to discuss. He asked if I knew a prominent RTI activist of the state. I said I knew him very well. The said activist was apparently proving to be a thorn in his company’s designs to mine iron ore without being shackled by ‘irritants’ like mining and forest laws by filing RTI application after RTI application on the company’s illegal mining operations. The friend bragged that he had managed to hold up an answer to a RTI query so far by pulling the right strings, but readily admitted that he could not keep postponing the inevitable indefinitely. Coming to the ‘business end’ of the talk, he asked if I could have a ‘chat’ with the activist and persuade him to desist from going after the company; in short if I could ‘fix’ him. He suggested a meeting with the activist where the proposal could be discussed.
I tried to reason with him saying the said activist is not the kind who would cut deals. But the friend would have none of it and persisted with his proposal for a meeting. For good measure, he added that we could meet before the meeting with the activist and work out some ‘arrangement’ – not just for this deal but a ‘long term’ one!
I was stunned by the sheer audacity of the proposal. Here was a friend, who knew me for three decades, actually offering a bribe to ‘fix’ a troublesome activist. I could understand his firm belief that the activist was up for sale since he did not know him personally. But how could he even think of proposing to buy me off to do his bidding? I felt like giving him a mouthful and banging the phone on him. But I could do nothing of the sort and told him, sheepishly and vaguely, that we would meet ‘one of these days’.
Despite my timidity in telling him on his face what I thought of his ‘business proposal’ though, I guess the friend got enough hints about my discomfiture with the whole idea and never called me back to fix the meeting before the meeting. I doubt if he would really go ahead and arrange the meeting at all. But you never know. In the shameless world of corporate India, every senior executive is convinced that everybody and everything has a price tag.
Had the proposed meeting came about, I have no doubt that it would have been arranged at one of the many swanky hotels in town where the booze and food bill for two could be upwards of Rs 2,000. I also know for sure that my good friend would not have spent the money from his pocket. All corporate houses have a specific ‘head’ to account for such ‘miscellaneous’ expenses. That it was small change for a leading corporate house goes without saying.
But a few years ago, I had learnt the hard way that there are no ‘heads’ in the company’s books to account for even this measly sum if it is a cause less ‘worthy’ than giving a treat to a journalist. The occasion was a film festival organized by a film society of which I was one of the founder members. I had gone to this very friend to request him for a small sponsorship. Starting with Rs 5, 000, I scaled down the amount to just Rs 2, 000. But dozens of calls, several visits and written submissions later, I drew a blank. I lost considerable face in the bargain as the other core members found it hard to believe that a journalist of my seniority and standing could not manage a sponsorship of a few thousand rupees, especially considering the fact that this executive was a friend as were several others in other corporate houses. Though no one said so on my face, some of them perhaps thought I did not try at all. Others doubted my standing in the pecking order.
Though I was mighty angry at the time when the friend made the ‘indecent proposal’ to me, the anger has now dissipated and given way to a painful realization that he could hardly be blamed for doing what he did. After all, aren’t there many in my tribe – not just in Lutyen’s Delhi, but in our very own Bhubaneswar – who don’t have any compunction about putting themselves up for sale in the political and corporate bourses? Indeed, it would not be a travesty of truth to say that the corporate and political fixers and retainers now outnumber those who play strictly by the book.
In this dismal scenario, is there a hope in hell for an honest journalist? Despite the gloomy scene all around, I believe there is because no one, no matter how powerful or rich he is, can force you to trade your integrity. All that one has to do is to resist the temptations for the good things in life, live within one’s means and occasionally endure the taunts of friends and family for being a ‘good for nothing’. Is that such a big price to pay?