Taking back India’s levers

Midnight,August 14,1947: “... The ambition of the greatest man of our generation has been to wipe every tear from every eye.

Written by Sanjeev Aga | Published: February 19, 2009 12:53 am

Midnight,August 14,1947: “… The ambition of the greatest man of our generation has been to wipe every tear from every eye. That may be beyond us,but as long as there are tears,so long our work will not be over.” With these words,Nehru charted metaphorically the central purpose of our state. And for several years a young post-colonial democracy did indeed,substantively,stay the course. With the advantage of hindsight it can be argued that some steps turned out on the wrong side of history; what is inarguable,however,is that in the formative years of our nation,it was the state that delivered purpose,energy,and imagination.

Cut to the 21st century. The elements of the state — the legislature,the executive,the judiciary,and to the classical trinity in India one must add business — have all grown bigger. Yet,notwithstanding heroic individual achievements,the state,as a collective entity,is now a parasite. Governments are usually ineffective,if not downright venal. Most legislators look after themselves or at best others like them. The judiciary atrophies. Business leaders parrot that the Satyams are a one-off. Even as 30 crore Indians go to bed hungry every night,the estimated illegal wealth of Indians stashed overseas exceeds half our GDP. Far from wiping tears from every eye,our state now brings tears to our eyes. 

India has perceptively been described as a “kleptocracy”. In Webster’s,kleptomania is “an obsessive desire to steal,especially in the absence of economic necessity.” Diseased individuals are found in every society. But when such pathological behaviour becomes commonplace “kleptocracy” might be usable. The characterisation is harsh,perhaps cynical,perhaps exaggerated,but perhaps more true than untrue. No condition can be remedied unless the central diagnosis is squarely identified.

The central problem of our society is corruption.

This is hardly news. It still begs the question of what is to be done,within the four walls of parliamentary democracy,individual freedom,and the rule of law. Popular debate has generated many impulses: greater transparency in government,sharper governance in corporates,speedier trials,banning electoral candidates with criminal cases. But,once again,these miss the central point. The levers of power in our society,taken as a whole,are no longer in the hands of persons of character. And unless they can be taken back,every attempt at reform will prove sterile.

On the face of it,this prescription appears woolly,imprecise and impractical. It is not so. It is instructive to remember that our own state was not always thus. Even today,there are enough ministries,government departments and institutions,large corporates,sections of the judiciary,and of the media and the arts,which would do any nation proud. They deploy millions of Indians,drawn from the very same cross-section of society. And are yet so refreshingly and strikingly different. An analysis of the common behavioural thread running through such role-model organisations can provide insight.

Any representative large organisation consists of an incorruptible minority,an incorrigible minority,and a majority of floaters,those who go with the tide. When the upright are assertive,organisations bloom. When they cower,the corrupt take over. Like a first-past-the-post election,small swings cause landslides. And such organisations can rapidly descend into kleptocracy.

The apathy and retreat of the upright is our second central problem. It is also the key to the solution.

Far too many brilliant and upright politicians allow themselves to be used as ornaments for their political party. Far too many bureaucrats are individually honest,but quite at peace with a perverse action so long as they can attach it to an instruction from their political masters. Upright business executives will take responsibility for personal behaviour,but readily rationalise poor corporate behaviour. The judiciary herds together,instead of culling their black sheep. Media personalities pounce upon soft targets,but give a wide berth to the powerful — in fact fete them at functions.  

Such servility is quite unnecessary. It is a conditioned colonial reflex. The upright have an exaggerated fear of the power of the corrupt.  No heroics are called for,as the example of well-run organisations will evidence. All that is required is that the upright do not crawl when they are not even asked to bend. Even if a small critical mass grows a backbone,it will trigger a big swing in societal ethos. 

A new generation of Indians,unburdened by insecurity complexes,will inevitably drive this change. It does not await a messiah. That said,the leader of our government and the leader of the opposition,both thinking persons of exceptional personal integrity clearly ill at ease in the prevailing milieu,should be reflecting whether the trust of a billion Indians is not cause enough to break open their self-imposed handcuffs of pseudo-political compulsion .  

The writer is MD of Idea Cellular. The views expressed are his own

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