When I read Indian press reports last month that Infosys co-founder and outgoing chairman Narayana Murthy was advocating that giving bribes to officials be made legal so that the bribe-givers could freely report the corrupt officials who accept the bribes, I let it go. It sounded like one of those stupid things that people say without really thinking it through, and it seemed unfair to make a big deal about it. Surely, I thought, Murthy would recognize the outrageousness of advocating such a thing, and he would fairly quickly acknowledge that he shouldn't have said it.
Unfortunately, it's been nearly four weeks, and Murthy, whose last day as chairman is Aug. 20, has done nothing to retract what he said or to back away from that position. That he has stood by the idea of advocating the legalization of bribe-giving is extremely troubling, especially when it's considered in the context of the corrupt practices that Infosys is alleged to have engaged in with respect to its visa- and tax-related activities, and its treatment of the employee who blew the whistle on those activities. I'll get to that in a moment.
First, it needs to be made absolutely clear that Murthy is not in any way advocating the legalization of bribery in India. To the contrary, his position on legalizing bribe-giving was advanced as a means of combating rampant corruption in India, and in recognition of the need to consider innovative ideas to fix the problem. Moreover, Murthy is not the one who came up with the idea. The notion was floated this spring by Kaushik Basu, the chief economic advisor to India's Ministry of Finance and a professor of economics at Cornell University. But Murthy's full support of the idea is clear. Here's an excerpt from a July 21 Times of India article:
"If bribe giving, and not bribe taking, is made legal then the bribe giver shall indeed cooperate with the authorities to expose the bribe taker," Murthy said. "This seems to be an interesting idea and I think it should be implemented," he added. He said graft had damaged India's growth prospects, adding that "the double-digit growth that has eluded India could have been ours if we had combated corruption."
It's difficult to know where to begin in challenging such an ill-advised concept. Let's start with the glaringly obvious. Let's say I offer a bribe to an official to get a lucrative government contract, and the official accepts it. If I report the official, the official goes to jail, and I don't get the contract, but I'm free and clear. If I don't report the official, I do get the contract. So even if my original intent was to entrap the official, how tempted am I going to be to just keep my mouth shut and enjoy the good fortune of my lucrative government contract? Beyond all that, there is absolutely no incentive for me to refrain from at least trying to bribe the official, because if he refuses to accept it and reports me, I'm golden. After all, I was just doing my civic duty, trying to nail corrupt officials. I can try bribing somebody else. You think corruption in India is bad now? Try putting a policy like that in place.
But more to the point with respect to Murthy, a willingness to attempt to solve a problem by means of making an illegal activity permissible bespeaks a mindset that has to have permeated Infosys' corporate culture, given Murthy's stature in the company. Yes, doing something that's underhanded may not be pretty, the thinking would presumably go, but if you can do it and it solves your problem, then the end justifies the means. How big of a leap is it to conclude that it was the same institutionalized mindset that considered it permissible for B-1 visa holders to be sent to the United States to perform work that's illegal under the B-1, given that it saved the company so much time and so much money in fees and taxes associated with the proper H-1B visas?
There's something else that makes Murthy's advocacy of this idea particularly distasteful. It's that the idea centers around a dependence on whistleblowers to identify and report wrongdoing. You offer an official a bribe, the official accepts the bribe, and you blow the whistle on the official. The official goes to jail, and you have whistleblower protection.
The irony of the founding father of Infosys advocating such a plan is striking when you consider what's happened to Jay Palmer, the Infosys employee who believed that he would be protected by Infosys' whistleblower policy. His case has nothing to do with descending to the level of doing something underhanded to ensnare someone, as the idea advocated by Murthy would do. Palmer was simply a loyal employee who allegedly witnessed wanton and repeated illegal visa and tax activity at Infosys, and who filed a whistleblower complaint to expose the activity as he was advised to do. As a result, he has been ostracized, vilified, made to suffer serious financial hardship, and publicly branded as a liar by Infosys.
So, Mr. Murthy, I, for one, don't buy into the idea that you advocate. I do, however, buy into the idea that your advocacy of it speaks volumes about the company you're leaving on Saturday, and about your legacy as the person under whose watch all of this was allowed to happen.