India: Diwali time question – to gift or not to gift?
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India: Diwali time question – to gift or not to gift?

Why do people give gifts to others? When gifts are given to a professional associates, is it a part of a quid pro quo arrangement?

These questions have been churning in my mind because this is the ‘gift season’ in several parts of India. This is the way it has been through my entire professional career, though the ‘business of gifting’ is now more organized and includes those earlier not in its sway.

Partly, the opening up of the economy in the 1990s precipitated frenzied taking and giving of gifts. In the mid-1980s, PR managers of hotels and handful of companies that existed and who felt the need to interact with journalists came to newsrooms with boxes of cakes or chocolates. Those who were present gorged themselves on them. Too bad that there were many who missed out but they made do with narratives on consumption on return.

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A boy buys lanterns in preparation for the Hindu festival of Diwali. Pic: AP.

Business journalism had not picked up then. Economic Times, despite being a white government bulletin, was the market leader even then – not that there was much market to lead. But it was fun – there was no element of quid pro quo and goodbyes were always accompanied by promises for Christmas.

Things began changing with Manmohan Singh’s first budget. Corporate gifts became routine during Diwali, politicians began cultivating journalists and in turn were ‘obliged’ by industry. This was the only time of the year that the Indian middle class toasted to almonds, pistachios and cashew nuts.

As a bystander to this business of gifting I have seldom seen employees satisfied with gift received. Most companies are also not large hearted looking at gifts as an unavoidable chore.

For more than a decade, professional obligations have perforce made me a small contributor to this business of gifting. A small list is drawn up every year and we take effort to identify what’s to be bought for whom. Not having a retinue of people delivery is done ‘in-house’. While this is physically taxing and emotionally draining at times, it also gives fresh insights.

I keep adding entrants to the small group of people who refuse gifts for reasons of principles. On the other end of the spectrum, the list burgeons every year and more and more people join the club of those who mean: “give me more”.

What is the morning-after story? Equations do not change – with neither of the two types. The act of giving or taking a gift is momentary. The act underscores professional bonding without any expectations. At a time when bribes are running to crores of rupees and notional losses in lakhs of crores, any suggestion that gifts worth a few hundred or thousand rupees could influence decisions is foolhardy. Manmohan Singh has asked people to donate to the PM’s Relief Fund instead of sending him gifts. That’s fine given the position he is in, but if this becomes universal it will take away the fun from festivals.