Tag Archives: India

WWWIG-1 Envious and Righteous Anger

It has been famously observed that getting Americans to fight a class war is an extremely difficult, bordering on the impossible. This has been ascribed to the fact that almost all Americans, regardless of their material circumstances, place themselves among the middle-class. While this is no doubt true, I believe that a more precise explanation can be found in the difference between two feelings that I label envious anger  and righteous anger respectively, and what Americans feel the two varieties of anger over.

An American, when he encounters a rich person, does feel anger, but this anger is tinged with envy – that is, he wishes that he, instead of the other guy, was rich. A businessman who has been bested at the game by his competitor does feel anger, but a large part of this anger is directed inwards – he gets angry at himself for not playing the game well. The anger that you feel when you lose a fair game is different from the anger you feel when you believe that the other guy has broken the rules, or when you believe that the rules have been rigged in favour of the opponent. That is the point at which you feel righteous anger, and when you do, you do not wish to replace the object of your anger. You consider the other person to be a lesser human being because he is violating fundamental norms.

Now, two caveats must be put in place here. First, human beings are complex beings. It is not always possible to clearly distinguish the two forms of anger. A person who has lost a fair fight may try to whip up righteous anger by alleging wrongdoing. Second, the two forms of anger are as much social and cultural phenomena as they are human emotions. The two kinds of anger exist in every human being and in every society, but just what we feel angry over is socially and culturally determined.

And this brings us to India. Let’s start with a commonplace observation about Indians – that we are loath to stand in queues. In queue-loving western societies, people stand in queues even when there is no obvious queue to stand in and even when there is no one to enforce the norm that one must wait one’s turn. When these norms are violated, people react with righteous anger.

In India, queues rarely happen unless there is external enforcement, and even then people continually find ways to get to the head of the queue. Others in the queue may object to those who cut to the front of the line, but these objections are laced with envious anger rather than righteous anger. They are reacting to the queue-cutting in the same way that a businessman reacts to a competitor’s moves. It is important to show some anger, because if they don’t, their objections won’t be effective, but there is also no point getting into a righteous rage about it, because in slightly different circumstances, they would have done the same thing.

As must be obvious, queue-cutting is only a particular instance of a general attitude towards rule-breaking. And rule-breaking, in turn is associated with a desire for status. Indian attitude towards people of high social status is very similar to American attitude towards wealth.

Beyond a point, Americans will not tolerate soak-the-rich policies, because deep down, they believe that the rich deserve their wealth. More importantly, they empathize with the rich, and hope that they or their children can be rich one day.

Indians, likewise, believe that a state of status inequality is the right way to order society. This does not mean that they believe that the social hierarchy is rigid and unchanging for all time. In particular, this does not mean that Indians accept their place low down in the hierarchy any more than the fact that poor Americans accept wealth inequality as a given means that they accept their low income. Indians accept hierarchy as a given, and they want to improve their place in the hierarchy. Because it is only natural that rules do not apply to those high up in the hierarchy, the best way to assert your high status is to break the rules yourself. As everyone wants to move up the hierarchy in India, everyone breaks rules when he can, and uses rules to put down others when he can.

Every so often, Indians get into some sort of outrage over the treatment of one of their high-status people at foreign airports or some such. These high-status people have to pay lip service to the fact that we are ostensibly a democracy that has nominally adopted equality before the law, so they come up with explanations for why they deserve special treatment. The usual tack to take is to claim that they are not demanding special treatment, but that they are only feeling the pain of the common people: “If this is the treatment we get, imagine what a common person will go through” is the usual justification.

The other, closely related line of attack is to argue that not providing special treatment to the individual high-status person is actually an attack on the entire identity group the person represents. The surprising thing is not that the high-status person makes these arguments. The interesting thing is that Indians actually agree with their leaders who make these arguments, but only when the leader’s identity groups match their own. So when a Shahrukh Khan or an A P J Abdul Kalam gets frisked at a foreign airport, Indians’ identity as Indians takes over, and they treat the frisking as an insult to all Indians. Within India, when a Mayawati is given special treatment, Dalits stand behind her, while everyone else pretends to be outraged at the special treatment.

These arguments over special treatment do not represent a fundamental fight for equality. They just happen to be status competition by other means.  Competition for status happens not only between individuals, but also between identity groups – caste, religion, language, nationality, etc. The excesses of our leaders, the instances of rule-breaking and self-aggrandisement, are actually public goods that they are providing to their followers. Indians do feel genuine pride when leaders they identify with indulge in the same status seeking rule breaking behaviours as their competing group’s leaders.

So, this is the first in my seven-post series on WWWIG – What’s Wrong With India’s Governance. What I have just described is the first and most basic reason for why India’s governance has been difficult to fix. In five subsequent posts, I will speak of five more reasons and in the last post, I will sum up. The next posts will be titled:

WWWIG-2: India’s Model of Democracy
WWWIG-3: The Jagirdari System
WWWIG-4: Downward vs. Upward Accountability
WWWIG-5: The Legal Irrelevance Theorem
WWWIG-6: The Eternal Adolescence of India’s Mind
WWWIG-7: Summing Up

Now, for some necessary disclaimers.

Obviously, many of these blanket statements I’ve made in this posts and will make in subsequent posts are generalizations. Generalizations do not have to be true in every single instance, but they have to be valid enough to support the point I am making. Not every Indian has the attitude I described, but enough do to have an impact on Governance.

Yes, much of what I am describing is changing, and hopefully much will have changed for the better in 10 years. What I am describing is the baseline from which to measure change. Also, how much of the change is real? How much of the current anti-corruption struggle represents a genuine cultural change and how much of it is simply power-struggle played out by the same fundamental rules? How do we know the difference?

Do not point to me instances where members of the American upper class act as if they are above the law, or instances where they actually get away with such behaviour. I am aware of them. They do not invalidate my argument. My argument is that American society as a whole is not comfortable with letting them get away with such behaviour. Likewise, do not point me to data that proves that American income and wealth mobility is not as much as the average American believes it to be. For purposes of cultural attitudes, what matters is the beliefs, not what actually happens.

The Gatekeepers to India

It is said that our country is divided into an India and a Bharat. I hate this terminology because it is unnecessarily pejorative towards “Bharat”, but let’s go with it for now.  These two nations are often identified with Urban and Rural India respectively, but sometimes the borders are not so clearly geographical. Some people say that the border is in fact between the rich and the poor. I believe that there are in fact two nations, but the line of separation is different from what is commonly assumed.  On one side is India, a nation that exists in spite of government hindrance.  On the other side is Bharat,  a country that would not have existed in its current state without the overbearing presence of government.

Guarding the frontier between the two countries are the Gatekeepers. They are a loose coalition of politicians, government offiicials, NGOs and other activists, caste and community leaders, local strongmen, industrialists, and the like. The Gatekeepers may have access to the levers of government, the capability for violence, or both, to achieve their end.  The Gatekeepers guard both countries against each other. To the Indians, they say that they are protecting them against the hordes from Bharat. To the Bharatiyas, they say that they are preventing the evil Indians from encroaching on their domain, and ensuring that the wealth created in India is equitably distributed.

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A Rant About Poverty Numbers

The good Pragmatic Desi asked me to write about the release of the latest poverty numbers from NSSO. I do want to write a follow up post to my Pragati article. But the bad news is that I have accumulated a lot of heavy reading material in preparation for that follow up post which I need to read. The good news is that a long weekend is coming up, and I hope to get the reading and the post out by then.

But in the mean time, here is a rant.

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The Moral of the Corruption Tale

Gaurav argues that the only discernible  moral from my tale of corruption is that Indians are corrupt.  Well, that is a good enough summary, but I need to fill out an entire blog post, so here I spell out the lessons I drew from that incident.
The most striking aspect of the tale, to me, was this: B, who was undoubtedly a well-meaning man, saw nothing wrong in misusing the CBI to achieve what he considered were morally justifiable ends. But if misusing public resources to achieve private aims is what is considered corruption, how were B’s actions any less corrupt than A’s?

There is a tendency in India to think of incorruptibility as a personal quality roughly equivalent to “lack of avarice”.  We believe that corruption is caused by a hankering after material wealth, and consequently, the tendency is to hold the saintly man, preferably with no family to lead him astray, as the model from which good governance will flow.   Sometime back, I read a story on how Nitish Kumar was transforming Bihar. I do not remember the source now, nor the exact words, but there was a line on how honest a man Nitish was. Apparently, industrialists who went to him with bags of money (presumably as donations to the party fund) found that Nitish did not even look at or touch the money when they tried to hand it over, but asked them to keep it in one corner.  Now, without detracting from Nitish’s achievement in making Bihar governable, which is indeed a considerable one, Nitish’s own personal “cleanness” makes no difference to the fact that the wads of notes that industrialists contribute to his party funds distort policy-making, just as B’s own personal honesty made no difference to the fact that his actions ensured that a person who ought to be arrested and in jail was out of it because it served the cause of a private dispute.

This tendency to think of corruption in terms of personal characteristics is a consequence of the saintly idiom in Indian politics. Gandhiji contributed significantly in establishing this, but he was by no means responsible for originating it. This mode of thinking has had many deleterious consequences on our polity.  One of them, which has thankfully reduced in severity, is an Indian inability to distinguish between a dishonest man and a person who, having made his money honestly, enjoys the good things in life.  This inability was fueled by, and in turn contributed to, the antipathy towards free-market policies.  Whether it is liberalization that changed this attitude or generational change, this particular attitude’s trend is downwards. Other consequences, however, remain. We tend to search for the incorruptible person to run our systems, and our fantasies of a perfect society display a disturbing willingness to hand over dictatorial powers to such a person.

The second aspect of the story to note was the reaction of the association’s members. The membership was split in its support between A and B, but there was no dispute over facts. None of A’s supporters thought him to be an honest man. Indeed, it never occurred to them that there was anything wrong with looting from the public purse.  What tipped the views of his supporters in A’s favour was the fact that A did a good job at the association – and yes, they knew that he took a cut there too.
For that matter, A’s opponents weren’t particularly concerned about the public money either. It was his avarice and his behaviour at the association that they were concerned with (Of course, as we have noted, B, the supposedly honest man, wasn’t that concerned about A’s corruption)
This is an important point, and unless we address it, we are not going to get rid of corruption. For us, the government’s money is “out there”, something external to us. It exists to be looted. The job of our representatives is not to be incorruptible and govern impartially.  It is to be corrupt in our favour.  We are strongly opposed to corruption when indulged in by our opponents, because they are denying our side the opportunity to do the same thing.

That brings me to the Jan Lok Pal idea, which is essentially a fantasy that we can get rid of corruption without addressing the systemic problems that cause it. I will write about it in a subsequent post.

(Update: Aadisht pointed out that I mixed up A and B in the last few paragraphs. Fixed that.)

A Little Tale of Corruption

This story played itself out back when I was a teenager.  The two protagonists, let’s call them A and B, were locked in a dispute. The dispute was about how the affairs of a particular association ought to be run. Now, it is somewhat important to mention that the association in question was a caste-based association, and the specific caste in question is Brahminism. However, I feel some regret having to mention this, because this fact will prejudice the minds of many of my readers. I, therefore, ask them to try and ignore the caste-based nature of the association and treat it like any other voluntary association of citizens. The import of the story and the morals to draw from it will not change significantly.

With this caveat in order, let us return to the story of A and B. Now, as it happened, both A and B were government employees. A was known to be extremely corrupt. Not a file passed through his desk without a bribe having to be paid to him. His extra-income showed up, not in his lifestyle, but in the assets that he was known to possess. He had no flashy taste in clothes and he had no unbrahminical “bad habits”. His wife, a genuinely good woman, wore much less jewellery than the ordinary middle-class woman at weddings. However, it was well-known that he had accumulated a lot of money. He had used it to buy up houses and stock up enough in his benaami bank accounts to last his descendants seven generations.


B, on the other hand, was known to be an honest man. He had never taken a bribe in his life, and his family’s lifestyle reflected this as well. For long, they lived in the same Central Government Quarters that his employer provided, and while his family did eventually achieve its ambition of buying  a modest house, at the time of the story, they had been unable to achieve it. B was widely reputed to be uninterested in wealth – and rumour has it that he was also uninterested in family life, believing himself to be cut out for higher pursuits, one of which was the association that is the subject of our story.


Let us now turn our attention to the subject of the dispute between the two men. We will not get too much into detail, but suffice it to say that the rights and wrongs of the dispute were exactly what one would expect from the character sketches of the two men we have drawn above. A had monopolized the affairs of the association, and it was widely thought that he took a cut from the association’s budget. To be fair to him, however, it was also widely thought that the association was in fact being run well, and its members regularly reelected him. B was proposing a change in the association’s by-laws that would bring in more transparency and bring in some degree of fresh blood in the association’s managing committee.


The dispute between the two men got personal, as these things frequently do. Apparently A struck the first blow – the details of which I do not remember. In response, B retaliated by calling in his contacts – he had many – and getting the CBI to open an investigation of A’s affairs. (“CBI” was the term used in the conversations I listened in on. It might have been some other investigative wing.)  The CBI carried out a series of raids on A’s property.


The response to the raids among the association’s members – and here I think it is relevant to point out that almost all of them were middle-class, educated Brahmins – was mixed. Some thought that A had got his comeuppance. Many others felt that B had gone too far in involving the police in an internal dispute.


In any case, these raids shook up A and made him ready to open talks with B for a possible compromise. After  extensive discussions, a “compromise” was reached, which can better be described as a surrender. A agreed to the rule change that B wanted – and B used his contacts to call off the CBI raids and hush up the investigation.


I will end this story here.  There are of course many lessons to draw from this, and if  I start off on them, the size of this post will double, so I will leave those for a subsequent post. But I must mention that this story tells us almost everything we need to know about the Indian’s attitude towards corruption, and the Indian’s conception of honesty.  Of course, we will get a Jan Lok Pal  who will fix everything.