Business Standard

Dharma in the public place

Nothing is quite perfect in the world and certainly not human beings, as the Mahabharata reminds us. Our tendency to latch on to bad news at the expense of good news is unexcelled, and we tend to lose all balance in our judgements and miss out on the small victories of the day. Lalit Modi, the creator of the Indian Premier League of Cricket (IPL), has gone from being public hero to public enemy and this turnabout causes us some discomfort. If only we realized that dharma in the public place is different from private morality, we might be spared the confusion.    

On moral luck and human vulnerability

I was in Mumbai on that December night in 1984 when tragedy struck in Bhopal. I was head of an American multinational’s Indian subsidiary, a company not unlike Union Carbide, whose managing director also happened to be my friend. We were among a few foreign companies that had stayed on and had toughened under the punishing conditions of the ‘license-quota-permit raj’. I was in shock over the horrific human tragedy but my sadness came from another thought, ‘what if it had been me’? I placed myself in his shoes and wondered if I would have acted differently?  Probably not, and I thought about human vulnerability and how unbelievable lucky I was.

Private Affluence, Public Squalor

 Recently on Karan Thapar’s program on television, a ‘stylish left wing’ commentator (SLW for short, a useful acronym that I owe to Saubhik Chakrabarti) said with a straight face that our troubles with the Maoists originated in our neo-liberal economic model and our post-1991obsession with growth. She then went on to lecture us about the callousness of the new middle class whose chief passion is vulgar consumption, and there is growing disparity between the rich and the poor. 

IPL and Capitalism

 The recently concluded Indian Premier League (IPL) has been a non-stop party that lasted for six weeks to which everyone was invited provided you wanted to have fun. It brought magical nights to millions across India, a respite from their drab, desperate lives. It was filled to the brim with desire--for cricket and Bollywood, for chatter and glamour, for tomfoolery and unrequited sensuality, and for high rolling betting. (There was even satta market on the beleaguered Lalit Modi’s fate as the league commissioner, and the returns from every rupee on Mr Modi surviving were Rs 5.50 last Saturday.)

Don’t close down budget schools, give them graded recognition

Unrecognised private schools, which cater to the poor in the slums and villages of India, have been under threat for a long time. With the passage of the Right to Education Act the threat is now real. The new law specifically calls for these schools to be closed or recognized within three years. In 2008, the Delhi High Court in 2008 had also wanted to close roughly 10,000 such schools in the national capital.

Remember, the money doesn’t belong to you!

At a lunch party in Delhi recently I was confronted by a woman in a pink sari who effectively pinned me down while she lectured to me on the importance of corporate social responsibility. No one came to my rescue for ten minutes and I began to fret. I wondered how to get away from her without causing offence. Then I remembered some advice from a Bengali friend who had mentioned that in such situations a white lie is one’s best ally. So, I glanced over my overbearing tormentor’s shoulder as though someone had distracted me. I whispered loudly, ‘Coming, coming!’ to the imaginary person. Then I lied brazenly to my oppressor, ‘Ah, what a pity, I am being dragged away’ and I moved on shaking my head reluctantly.

Relax, capitalism is not the problem

 The epic, Mahabharata, thinks that human beings are fundamentally flawed and their faults make the world ‘uneven’ (vishama). As a result they are vulnerable to nasty surprises. Duryodhana is the chief purveyor  of ‘uneveness’ in the epic, but the others also contribute to it in good measure—Yudhishthira cannot resist gambling, Karna suffers from status anxiety, Ashwatthama has a revengeful nature,  Dhritarashtra is prone to excessive love for his eldest son, and so on. These human defects drive the epic towards calamity. Like the Mahabharata’s characters, investment bankers on Wall Street, rating agencies, and even regulators suffer from similar failings, and it is these dangerous infirmities that brought the global capitalist system to its knees in 2008.

Business Standard, New Delhi, Sept 17, 2009, by A.K.Bhattacharya

If US President Barack Obama had listened to Yudhishthira, the eldest of the Pandavas in Mahabharata, he would not have behaved the way he did when he had to deal with the greed and indiscretion of America’s top investment bankers.