In recent weeks, the gentleman’s game of cricket has been rocked to its foundations by charges and confessions of match-fixing. A commission of inquiry set up in South Africa has confirmed the fall from grace of former captain Hanse Cronje, once the epitome of professionalism and dedication to God, country and cricket.

I recall the story of a man who had been robbed. He duly filled out a formal complaint, in longhand and triplicate, at his local police station. An hour later, as he was walking out of the station, he heard cries of a man being “questioned” by the police. Suddenly a bleeding and badly beaten man rushed out of the interrogation room, clutched the complainant’s feet, and pleaded desperately for help.

“Please help me, sir. Only you can save me. I am the unfortunate wretch who picked your pocket. You have written that I robbed you of 10,000 rupees. You know it was only 1,000. Sir, I have already given that amount to my captors. I have no more money. If you do not tell them the truth, they will surely kill me today.”

The point of the story, said to be true, is the corruption of all three parties: the victim (intending to cheat on insurance), the police and the pickpocket.

I also remember my father saying shortly before his death how in our home state of Bihar — the most violent and lawless in India — police officers disliked being posted to districts with little crime. Their earning power being directly related to crime levels, they set about deliberately fomenting lawlessness. They could then extract bribes from victims before registering crimes, and from criminals on pain of arrest.

It used to be said when I was growing up in Bihar (in a lawyer’s family) that the British judges took bribes from both sides and then gave judgments on the merits of the case. Indian judges took bribes from only one side and then felt honor-bound to find in that side’s favor. As corruption became more pervasive, the joke ceased being funny.

Corruption feeds on controls. The permit-license raj of the old socialist system spawned an inefficient regulatory regime, cripplingly high compliance and transaction costs, a corrupt bureaucratic system and a rent-seeking political system. The wealth-consuming public servant treated the wealth-creating businessman with contempt.

Government salaries divorce the status of officers from their income. For the bright young person with drive, initiative and self-belief, the private sector offers more attractive salary packages and greater scope for rapid career advancement. Since independence, civil servants have suffered relative deprivation of material rewards as businesses have prospered. Since they are in a position to affect private-sector decisions worth millions of rupees, most give in to the temptation to transfer some of the free-floating money to their own pockets.

Political interference, reduced attractiveness of service and declining morale have all combined to whittle away officials’ will to remain honest. India is notorious for its influence-peddling politicians, money-seeking bureaucrats and bribe-dispensing entrepreneurs. Bribery is so thoroughly institutionalized that most people engaged in the transactions are aware of the scale of the charges and the lateral and upward percentage shares in the illicit rent.

The market for public office can be quantified in the marriage market in Bihar: The dowry will reflect the illicit-earning potential of the bridegroom’s public-sector job. Officers recruited into the elite civil and police services command the highest dowry. They then rise to positions of authority and are required to enforce laws banning dowry.

Similarly, a state Cabinet minister in Bihar will expect a kickback in proportion to the earning potential of the posting of a police officer to a wealthy and high-crime district. In turn, squabbles between politicians for portfolios reflect the latter’s earning potential rather than policy preferences. In Bihar at least, the chief demand on a state Cabinet minister is not to make policy but to exercise discretionary authority in exchange for “due consideration.”

Another explanation for venality in public life is the refusal to set realistic standards of public behavior. The salaries of lawmakers, civil servants and judges are not commensurate with their status, responsibilities and powers. They are required to be wedded to the Gandhian ideal of selfless public service, forgetting that it took a lot of money to keep Gandhi in the style of poverty to which he was accustomed.

Graft is said to lubricate the wheel of government in India, to bring the costs of services in line with market prices. Is bribery an efficient mechanism for rationing goods and services in short supply? Even from the point of view of economic logic, public corruption is bad because it encourages inefficiency. Managers have built-in incentives to distort and disrupt markets because this increases their market power.

The biggest cost is political. Petty corruption is especially endemic at the lower, clerical levels of administration — precisely the point at which the ordinary citizen comes into daily contact with officialdom. People are forced to pay bribes for securing virtually any service connected with the government, even that which is theirs by right and law. People naturally tend to judge the entire structure of government on the basis of direct experiences with the agents of government. It would be difficult to exaggerate the revulsion felt by ordinary Indians toward the ubiquitous and institutionalized venality of public life.

In Japan and South Korea, former prime ministers and children of presidents have been jailed for corruption. In India, not one senior politician of the many who have been implicated in scandals — and they are numerous — has so far been convicted.

A shift from a culture of corruption to one of accountability is absolutely vital to India’s regeneration, stability and prosperity. On the evidence so far, South Africa may have the better future. A nation whose sporting heroes are ashamed of having let down their game and their country has more to commend it than one whose players resort to brazen defiance.

The saving grace for India is that it was the Delhi police who first revealed the South African connection. Left to themselves, free of political pressure, Indian officials can be competent and honest. There might be hope for the country yet.

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