Railway Board member Mahesh Kumar's arrest on charges of attempting to buy his next posting may have surprised many outside the government. Not in the top echelons of India's civil service that has often been a mute spectator to their colleagues pulling strings or paying up for lucrative or important assignments.
"It is rare for someone to be caught... They must have been amateurs," a government official, who has helped out colleagues with their appointments and was familiar with the functioning of some middlemen, said.
The bitter truth, he insisted, was that a large number of top appointments in public sector undertakings are made for a consideration.
There are middlemen so well-entrenched in the bureaucracy that they have held up appointments files for weeks and months if the money has not been paid.
Like this public sector bank official who wanted to be appointed chairman. He was in talks with fixers for the post but backed out after the finance minister - unaware of the behind-the-scene maneuvers - announced at a bank function that he would become the next chairman.
A file that should have been cleared in a matter of days, took months. "It would just get stuck at every stage, clarifications were raised but it finally got sorted after some money was paid," the official said.
A Central Vigilance Commission official conceded that they had heard of such instances but evidence was hard to come by in such cases of collusive bribery.
The official said they had come across a new trend in recent years that did not require the aspirant to have deep pockets.
Private companies that deal with the public sector undertaking offer to incur all the expenses.
The arrangement is that the new PSU chairman was free to discharge his responsibilities professionally in all other cases except when it relates to this company.
The irony is that one of the key reasons for the rot in the system is the desire to promote merit.
"We all talk about a merit-based rather than seniority-linked promotions but haven't been able to create a system that can measure merit in a transparent and consistent manner," a senior government official said.
"So merit gets replaced by discretion," he said. And the fixers move in.