No Moral Outrage
Posted on 1-November-2012
An important politician in India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, was reported some time ago as exhorting officials in his state not to indulge in large scale corruption; small fiddles were all right, he is supposed to have said. Much more recently, an Indian government minister, Beni Prasad Verma speaking in defence of his party colleague and another Indian government minister, Salman Khurshid, accused in the media of having, through misstatements and wrong accounting, misused public funds meant for helping the physically handicapped, was reported to have said that it was ridiculous to suggest that an Indian government minister could indulge in the misappropriation of small amounts of money like seven million rupees; if he he had been accused of misappropriation of hundred times that amount, that would be something to talk about. Neither of these reports were credibly denied, nor were reports about Khurshid's malfeasance. The political fortunes of the Uttar Pradesh minister, Mr. Beni Prasad Verma, and Mr. Salman Khurshid have not been affected by any of this. In fact in the latest rearrangement of India's council of ministers Mr. Salman Khurshid as the new foreign minister has become India's face to the world and Mr. Verma has retained his job while the Uttar Pradesh minister, uncle of the present head the Uttar Pradesh government, retains all his power and influence. When the media first reported these utterances and deeds, there were excited titters and then the media and the people moved on to the next attention grabbing story.
None of these stories are minor, isolated happenings in India's present political atmosphere. They are part of a general pattern. Ever since mid-2010, if not earlier, exposes about mismanagement, defalcation and plain thievery of public money by Indian government ministers and politicians close to the ruling establishment, such as the gentleman in charge of the organisation the 2010 Commonwealth Games have have been made with remarkable frequency. In some cases, such as in the stories of mismanagement in the organisation of the Commonwealth Games, public controversy was triggered by outside agencies like the Commonwealth Games federation. In others such as thievery over the allocation of radio frequencies to telephone companies, the first credible revelations were made by India's Comptroller and Auditor General. More recently, anti-corruption activitists highlighted with additional details stories, earlier reported by newspapers, about how Robert Vadra, the son in law of Sonia Gandhi, whose word is command for the Indian government as well as for her political party, had through influence peddling and with the help of the Congress (Mrs Sonia Gandhi's party) head of the government of the state of Haryana, had increased his wealth several fold through shady transactions in real estate. The Comptroller and Auditor General of India has more recently brought out financial irregularities in awarding coal mines for exploitation to private entrepreneurs very cheaply. More stories of misdeeds by government ministers, sometimes in collusion with private entrepreneurs wielding great influence over the government and its policies, have been surfacing almost every day. In all cases, the response of Manmohan Singh, whose sleeve, on which he wears his reputed personal honesty and integrity, is looking more and more frayed, has reacted similarly: silence or denial, followed by appearance of action without follow up and then silence again in the hope that the scandals would die away. On many occasions Manmohan Singh has even appeared to have decided to brazen his way through these scandals, secure in the knowledge that his government cannot possibly fall before the next general election, due in 2014. It is true that court cases were started against people supposedly responsible for misappropriation of money in the Commonwealth Games and against two Tamilnadu politicians involved in the telephone scandal. These cases will take years to come to any closure. Yet the man heading the Commonwealth Games Organising Committee as well as the two Tamil ministers are already on the way to gradual rehabilitation. And Manmohan Singh who was fully cognisant of the goings on in the telecommunications ministry or coal ministry or at the Commonwealth Games Organising Committee, remains unfazed, supremely indifferent to what the people of India have increasingly begun to think of him: weak, ineffective and morally rotten with no convictions and no goal other than completing his second five year term. In any other modern democracy, a government as corrupt as this would have gone a long time ago.
This raises a disturbing question: why is there no widespread moral outrage against those who are at the apex of political power--and there are political parties other than the Congress in power in many Indian states whose record of honesty is not much better than that of the Congress ? People listen with avidity to stories about corruption in high places and have reacted regularly in the past at election time voting one set of rogues out, tragically to be saddled with another. There are local protests galore in the country against injustices by public authority but organising a countrywide, united movement for cleansing the existing political system, is extremely difficult and has been possible only once in the history of independent India, in 1974-75 under the leadership of Jayaprakash Narain. The explanation may lie in the regional, castewise or religious cleavages in Indian society. Often regional, religious, caste or clan loyalties override considerations of ethics and morality. But also Indian society is by and large extremely permissive in matters of morality and by extension in matters of legality. A cavalier attitude towards the law, in matters small and not so small, and an equally cavalier attitude towards law enforcement on the part of those whose responsibility it is to enforce laws are almost a hallmark of public life in the country. Laws and moral standards are held up in any society by a combination of general acceptance and by society and government compelling their observance. And both are lacking in India. For large numbers of people--especially people who can wield power or influence of any kind--flexible and convenient interpretations of moral principles and the law are the norm. Rule of law, law enforcement and equality before the law are matters to be talked of in Presidential, Prime Ministerial or other formal orations or to be discussed in the dozens of seminars organised in Delhi on any given day or in middle class urban salons. They do not and are not expected to have much impact on daily lives. People who themselves in their personal lives think nothing of getting to their objectives by any kind of crook are to a large extent inured to, if not also tolerant of, wrong doing not only by their rulers but also by their fellow citizens.
It is tempting to look for a Weberian explanation of the relatively low importance given by Indians to ethics, morality and the law. I shall give in to that temptation and attempt one. My starting point is to suggest that since Hindus are and have always been the overwhelming majority in India, the dominant cultural ( in which are included religion and moral standards) strain of Indian culture is Hindu and therefore a Weberian explanation must needs be based on an examination of Hinduism. For most Hindus, there are three texts that work as sources of moral values: Manu's Dharma Shastra, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The Dharma Shastra is a comprehensive text but only that part of it which deals with ritual, ritual purity, the upholding of the varna and the ashram system and similar matters has passed into the social imaginary. The rest of it is known and discussed only by Brahmanical scholars. The main characters in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are held up as models of conduct. But for them there are no absolute standards of right and wrong. Ramachandra uses a rather dishonest subterfuge to slay Bali. His father submits to sexual blackmail and denies to Ramachandra the throne that he was convinced was his by right. Lakshmana, Ramachandra's younger half brother followed Ramachandra into exile, thinking nothing of abandoning his young bride Urmila for fourteen years. In the Mahabharata, the family patriarch, Bhishma, an upholder of truth and honour and morality, and Drona, the teacher of the Kauravas and Pandavas, another upholder of Dharma, watch mutely and without demur as Draupadi, the wife of the Pandavas is disrobed in open court. Yudhishthira, another paragon of virtue wagers his wife in a game of dice in the hope of winning his kingdom and the same Yudhishthira is persuaded by Krishna, himself God incarnate, tells an equivocating lie to Drona so that a distracted Drona can easily be slain. These are just a few of many such instances. Besides unlike the rather rakish but forgotten Greek and Roman gods, characters of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are very much part of modern, living Hinduism. A Hindu, especially an upper or middle caste Hindu, is able to cite some old text or some supposedly ancient tradition to justify almost any act of injustice against a fellow human being, or almost any immoral or illegal action. On the contrary in all of Hinduism there is not the same stress placed on the simple moral rule known as the golden rule--do not do unto others what you will not have them do unto you--as in some of the other traditions including Buddhism and Jainism. A people brought up on such values can but rarely look on some basic moral principles as absolutes and therefore they can only rarely feel unqualified moral outrage at all kinds of wrongdoing. But in modern, complex societies morality and the law, applied and upheld invariably and unchangingly are necessary glues. Societies with weak moral standards and indifferent observance of the law inevitably become dystopic. That is the danger India faces at the moment. It can do with a great deal of anger at wrong doing by its political, business and intellectual elite and by the citizenry at large. Moral permissiveness will just not do. Indians can also do with a great deal of introspection about how they can introduce higher standards of morality and greater respect for the law in their public behaviour. Tall order?