THE HI­MALAYAN HEIST

India Today - - BY WORD - M.J. AK­BAR

Why do in­tel­li­gent peo­ple com­mit mur­der? Ha­tred, envy, greed may be fa­mil­iar pri­mal mo­tives, but de­sire re­mains many phases away from deed un­less you are an idiot, or de­ranged. Mur­der­ers are not sui­ci­dal, or they would end their prob­lems with a dif­fer­ent form of death. Clever peo­ple kill is be­cause they think they can get away with mur­der. The dream of a per­fect mur­der thrives in life and fic­tion. A rul­ing class has a com­pla­cent vari­a­tion: Since it con­trols the sys­tem, it imag­ines it is be­yond ac­count­abil­ity.

We may never know which tip­ping point drove the ris­ing stars of Chi­nese pol­i­tics, Bo Xi­lai, polit­buro mem­ber and supreme com­mis­sar of Chongqing, and his wife Gu Kailai, to mur­der their friend, a Bri­tish businessman, Neil Hey­wood, whose body was found in a city ho­tel on Novem­ber 15. For 12 weeks they got away with mur­der. They pre­vented an au­topsy. They or­dered po­lice to at­tribute death to al­co­hol poi­son­ing, although Hey­wood did not drink much. They si­lenced Hey­wood’s Chi­nese wife with threats and per­haps money.

Noth­ing would have con­tin­ued to hap­pen but for a bizarre in­ter­ven­tion. In Fe­bru­ary, Bo’s once loyal vice mayor Wang Li­jun sud­denly ap­peared at the Amer­i­can con­sulate in Chengdu and told as­ton­ished Amer­i­can diplo­mats and in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials enough of the truth and the cover-up. The Amer­i­cans did not give him asy­lum, but en­sured that he was handed over to Bei­jing rather than Bo’s hench­men, or he too might have died of “al­co­hol poi­son­ing”. The cover pro­vided by the Com­mu­nist state to a polit­buro mem­ber, whose me­dieval self-en­rich­ment and tyranny had been pro­tected and im­plic­itly en­cour­aged by the state, was sud­denly un­sus­tain­able. The Com­mu­nists did not stop their crooked com­rade be­cause they wanted, but be­cause they were forced to.

Bo Xi­lai was not a law unto him­self; he was the law unto an oli­garchy that has feasted, with a rav­en­ous ap­petite, upon the pros­per­ity of the na­tion. There is not enough space to go into ra­pa­cious de­tails of how Bo, Gu and their im­me­di­ate and ex­tended fam­ily looted their coun­try; but trust me, In­dian cor­rup­tion sud­denly be­gins to look like small pota­toes. Fig­ures fil­ter­ing through so­cial me­dia, con­sid­ered re­li­able enough for quo­ta­tion by re­spon­si­ble news­pa­pers, in­di­cate that Bo and Gu fer­reted away at least $800 mil­lion to safe havens out­side China. They made this money through a con­fec­tion of fake jobs, and un­com­pli­cated, old­fash­ioned bribery in cash or through shares of com­pa­nies which got con­tracts. Hey­wood was a courier for their loot; they fought over the cost of cash-and-carry. Their son Bo Guagua’s cham­pagne and Fer­rari life­style in Bri­tain and Amer­ica was public. No fel­low polit­buro mem­ber raised the del­i­cate ques­tion of where his funds were com­ing from.

No one raised an eye­brow, be­cause you would run out of eye­brows if you be­gan rais­ing one at ev­ery in­stance of high-level Chi­nese cor­rup­tion. State me­dia has re­ported that one rail­way of­fi­cial, Zhang Shugang, stole $2.8 bil­lion and squir­reled it out of China. A Chi­nese bank has said that some 18,000 of­fi­cials had dis­ap­peared with $120 bil­lion. This is merely what has been ad­mit­ted.

Com­par­a­tive fig­ures for In­dia are still in that neb­u­lous zone of sus­pi­cion and spec­u­la­tion, but we can safely con­clude that the cor­rup­tion virus is free from ide­o­log­i­cal con­straint. The last two decades have been good for both demo­cratic In­dia and au­thor­i­tar­ian China, push­ing them to the top of in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion. Now the two-tim­ing tiger and dou­ble-faced dragon are of­fer­ing fresh tem­plates in cor­rup­tion creativ­ity, to the joy of a clus­ter of western banks where their loot is parked.

In both China and In­dia, the po­lit­i­cal class has watched wealth be­ing cre­ated at an un­prece­dented pace, to an unimag­in­able ex­tent, and de­cided that it wants its share. The sys­tem is silent be­cause it is com­plicit. It be­gan with of­fi­cials be­ing on the take; they are now on the make, as never be­fore. An IAS cou­ple liv­ing in Bhopal has been dis­cov­ered with many hun­dreds of crores raked from de­fence and other deals; the hus­band was once both sign­ing a deal and re­spon­si­ble for vig­i­lance. The da­coit was in charge of the po­lice sta­tion. Both In­dia and China have fig­ure­heads at the top who trot around the world’s cap­i­tals of­fer­ing saga­cious com­ment, and oc­ca­sional ad­vice, while be­hind their de­lib­er­ately in­dif­fer­ent backs merry hell goes on.

The sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence is that democ­racy pro­vides In­di­ans the chance to pun­ish on an in­dus­trial scale, in elec­tion. Across the Hi­malaya, all that public opin­ion can do is speak in Chi­nese whis­pers. Chi­nese pun­ish­ment is piece­meal, de­liv­ered un­der com­pul­sion, when a scape­goat is needed to ap­pease mass hunger min­i­mally. Me­dia, silent un­der or­ders, switches to a cho­rus un­der or­ders.

One mur­der, said the wise ac­tor-philoso­pher Char­lie Chap­lin, makes a vil­lain; if you kill mil­lions, you be­come a hero. If ev­ery­one is a crook, no one is guilty. But there is one sil­ver lin­ing of re­as­sur­ance. Even in China, it is still dif­fi­cult to get away with mur­der.

SAU­RABH Singh/www.in­di­a­to­day­im­ages.com

One mur­der, said the wise ac­tor

philoso­pher Char­lie Chap­lin, makes a vil­lain; if you kill mil­lions, you be­come a hero. If ev­ery­one is

a crook, no one is guilty.

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