Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Habit of Being Honest

Atanu Dey on India's Development

A few days ago, a Pakistani singer by the name of Rahat was caught smuggling around $130,000 out of India. It does not matter what the prescribed penalties are for such an act but the interior minister of Pakistan called up the Home Minister of India, P. Chidambaram and thanked him for facilitating Rahat’s release. Thanks to Mr Chidambaram’s intervention in the matter, it all ended well for the singer. But not for the country.

I could not help but marvel at that incident, and it brought to mind another incident. That one also involved the breaking of a law by an expatriate and a call from an official of the home country. That matter ended differently. In the difference in the outcomes of those two apparently trivial incidents lies the explanation for the enormous differences in the fortunes of two states.

It was 1994. An American expatriate in Singapore was convicted of vandalizing property. Not a big deal in the overall scheme of things — an 18-year old doing what teenagers sometimes do — but the law in Singapore was clear on the matter of vandalism. The sentence was four months in jail, S$3,500 in fines, and caning — six lashes on bare buttocks.

The US president, Bill Clinton, appealed for clemency. Two dozen senators wrote to the Singaporean government for mercy. But the sentence was carried out. Michael Fay was convicted of a crime and he paid for it, which was the law of the land. (The lashes were reduced to four from six — out of respect for the US President’s appeal.)

Singapore and India are entirely different states. Though both were neck and neck economically around 50 years ago, today Singapore is a prosperous state while India is pathetically poor. In global rankings of corruption in nations, India ranks as one of the most corrupt and Singapore one of the least corrupt.

In Singapore, the powerful and the powerless are all equal before the law. In India, depending on who you know, you can get away with murder — literally. In Singapore, they have rule by law, and in India we have rule by people.

Yesterday Indians had the most impressive demonstration of how deep-rooted corruption is unavoidable in a system where things are done according to the whims and fancies of those in power, and not according to rules. The prime minister of India deflected all blame away from himself for the many multi-billion dollar corruptions he has enabled by saying that he is helpless.

What that says is that in a tussle between the law of the land and powerful but corrupt people, the corrupt win and the law is powerless.

What Mr Singh demonstrated is not just his personal moral turpitude but also that the nation is morally bankrupt. The people know that the corrupt rule the roost and yet they tolerate it. Honest people with any sense of right and wrong would be outraged enough to force the legal system to punish the guilty. But Indians don’t care and the corrupt flourish while the country sinks deeper into unimaginable poverty.

Alfred North Whitehead once observed that “Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking of them.” If you ponder that for a bit, you see that to perform important operations without thinking about them requires learning, the acquisition of habits through repeated performance of that operation till it becomes second nature.

Honesty is a habit. Dishonesty is also a habit. There is a social compact which says that I recognize that you are dishonest, and you are at the top of the heap for now. It says that I aspire to someday get to your position and when I do, I will so exactly what you do and make my personal fortune. So I have to allow you to do what I hope to do myself when I get there. I cannot begrudge you what you do since I hope to there someday myself and do what you do.

We Indians tolerate corruption because we aspire to make our fortunes the same way if we ever get that chance.

There’s a cost, however. When you look into the eyes of the next malnourished child begging at a traffic light, you should know that it is your acceptance of gross corruption which enables that injustice. You make this state of affairs possible that the economy is so compromised that it accepts the starvation of children as a matter of fact.

We are all collectively responsible. We have not developed that habit of rule of law that makes a caring society possible. We have made it possible for the corrupt to flourish because we are ourselves corrupt.

What is it that distinguishes a person who is an alcoholic but knows that he is one, from another who is as much an alcoholic but steadfastly refuses to acknowledge his problem? The former has the possibility of seeking redemption but the latter will continue to sink further into oblivion. Who knows how long it will take for us to admit that we as a collective are dishonest and as a consequence of our collective dishonesty we are poor.

It is all karma, neh?

Related Posts:

The Ownership Society. October 2005.

The Tangled Web — Part 3. June 2007.

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