Monday, November 29, 2004

Draupadi's question

Times of India, Nov 28, 2004

Every Indian child knows that Yudhisthira loses everything--his kingdom, his brothers, himself and even his wife, Draupadi-- during the epic game of dice in the Mahabharata. Duryodhana then orders Draupadi brought to the assembly to humiliate her. She refuses and sends the messenger back to find out if her husband lost her first or himself. The implication is that if he had lost himself first then he was no longer free and couldn’t stake her. Draupadi’s prashna unsettles everyone in the assembly. It forces them to think about dharma, about right and wrong, and who has the authority to decide this. This is the central theme of the Mahabharata. They confront too the Faustian question about what it means to wager one’s soul, says Alf Hiltebeitel in his admirable book, Rethinking the Mahabharata: a Reader’s Guide to the Education of the Dharma Kings.

Draupadi has been on our minds recently ever since the Congress spokesperson compared her to the equally defiant Uma Bharati, who walked out of the BJP conclave just before Diwali. Draupadi’s question is relevant to our governance as well, and why so many public servants behave as badly as the Kauravas. Manmohan Singh knows this only too well, which is why he keeps promising that improving governance is his first priority. Well, the nation waits, and impatiently, to hear how he is going to redeem his promise.

What makes Draupadi’s question admirable is her concern for dharma, for doing the right thing. There will always be nasty types--Shakuni, Duryodhana, Duhshasana—but good institutions are designed to punish them and to reward decent behaviour. Why then does the opposite happen so often? To find out, read Arun Shourie’s new book, Governance and the sclerosis that has set in. Each day we look to the government for justice, for solving our basic problems, but insolent bureaucrats respond by cloaking these behind miles of red tape. Instead of attending to us, Shourie recounts how 4 departments took 12 months of endless meetings to decide if an official may use green or red ink in place of the usual blue or black for noting on a file. He gives new meaning to Franz Kafka’s bureaucratic nightmare, and one official I know hung his head in shame and wept after reading the book.

Similarly in the epic, no one answers Draupadi’s question. The most moral Yudhisthira--incapable of telling a lie yet addicted to gambling--he remains silent. Vidura, a most sympathetic character, also endangers dharma when he doesn’t speak up. The good Bhishma gets away by proclaiming that dharma is subtle (sukshma), and hence not easy to know. True, it is often difficult to tell right from wrong. This difficulty seems to hang over the entire epic, and Yudhisthira is still trying to fathom it till the end. This is also why I prefer the Mahabharata--it is about our lives, about good people acting badly. The Ramayana, on the other hand, is tiresome—an ideal king, his ideal wife, his ideal brother, ideal subjects; even the villain is ideal, says Iravati Karve.

A few weeks ago I warned Mr. Chidambaram, our finance minister, that his excellent work in policy reform might come to nought by the bad behaviour of a few income tax, customs and excise officers. Hence, I pleaded with him to devote his considerable talent and energy to improving systems and processes in his revenue departments, and bring more transparency in the citizen-official interface. As for our officials—they too should stop and ponder over Draupadi’s question, over dharma, each time they plan to entangle us in their red tape.

Monday, November 15, 2004


Times of India, Nov 14, 2004

Ever since May 13, when the Left rose from the dead, we have heard constant carping about inequality and other talk reminiscent of our pre-1991 days. It amuses visitors that we are debating what was settled long ago with the death of communism. A thoughtful French academic observed the irony — while India talks about the poor, China talks about getting rich. He said, "While you debate if growth is pro or anti poor, the Chinese get on with the job, deliver growth and lift millions out of poverty. The Chinese must chuckle at your CMP — it's a sure way to keep Indians poor and India weak. If the same money went into productive investment rather than subsidies, you would create sustainable jobs and raise your growth rate. Why can't your government courageously tell the Left to back off, unless they also provide a method to deliver subsidies without losing 80 per cent on the way?"

It is true that many of us are sickened by the inequality in our society. We dislike the vast differences in the life prospects of our fellow citizens. We are even uneasy over nature's unfairness. Why should a prettier face get rewarded during the marriage season? Why should a person who happens to be born brighter also earn more? Neither's reward is as well-deserved as say a person who works hard. Looking back, communism's great appeal was its promise of equality. Certainly our path of democratic capitalism since 1991 leaves much to be desired. But it doesn't mean all our social and economic arrangements are unsatisfactory. It only means that our path does not live to an ideal. While equality is desirable, most sensible Indians will agree that the quest is hopelessly idealistic.

Unattainable ideals create their own problems — too often they give someone a stick to beat others into submission.

This is the unhappy story of the 20th century. Hannah Arendt famously said, "You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs; but you can break a great many eggs without making an omelet." She was referring in part to 20th century's attempts to create an egalitarian society. All of these grand revolutions failed spectacularly, killed millions of people and caused great sorrow. Fortunately, we in India escaped the most violent outrages, but we did pay a great price in missed opportunities during the lost decades of Nehruvian socialism and the Licence Raj. Now we are more humble in our attempts to cure nature. No one talks about abolishing private property, because we know people's personal motivations will not shrink that far.

So, let's forget this talk of inequality unless we are willing to produce great crimes or suffer great costs in its name. The idea of a world in which all good things exist is not only unattainable but it is dangerous. Those who allow themselves to come under the spell of dogma, religious or secular, become victims of myopia and in the end become less human. Spontaneity is the fundamental human quality, and it's not compatible with ‘total solutions', as Isaiah Berlin said. Yet, we cannot just give up: I think we must do everything we can to reduce hunger, fight against injustice, and resist state-induced suffering, such as torture and wars. While not ruling out the unlikely possibility that human motivation might change one day and we might end the tyranny of inequality, today I think we have to "reaffirm unambiguously that open markets and rules based trade are the best engine to lift living standards, reduce environmental destruction, and build shared prosperity." Bill Clinton said this and he was right.

Monday, November 01, 2004


Times of India, Oct 31, 2004

An attractive lady from Shanghai showed up in Delhi last week in a Chinese delegation and told us proudly about her government’s mission to teach English to every Chinese by 2008. She was confident they would succeed, just as they would win the most medals at the next Olympics. I tried not to feel envious or fearful. Although, I didn’t think learning English would be so easy, I couldn’t help but admire the ambition. I consoled myself with a hope that in India the market might succeed in teaching us English where our government had failed

One of the cheerful things happening around us is the quiet democratising of English. It has, of course, been our ‘power language’ for 200 years, but it was always the pursuit of the classes. Even after Independence, mothers yearned to teach English to their children, thinking it a ticket to the middle class. But its spread remained limited, as the middle class was tiny--as late as 1980, it was only 8 percent of the population. Now, of course, the middle class is around 25 percent and it’s growing rapidly. By 2020, in more than half our states the middle class is expected to reach 50 percent of the population. Moreover, with call centre jobs at the end of the tunnel, Indians of all types are rushing to learn English.

Unlike my generation, today’s young are more relaxed about English and think it a skill, like learning Windows. No longer does it fly the British or American flags except in the minds of the Left or the RSS. Bollywood, television, advertising, cricket—indeed, all our mass culture is conspiring to take English to the masses. Hinglish has become the language of our bazaar. Gone, too, is the ranting against English by swadeshi intellectuals and politicians. Although English is now an Indian language, the ‘English teacher’ is the main impediment to its spread. Which reminds one of RK Narayan’s charming novel of the same name. This sad, Chekhovian tale of gentle humour about the ‘sweet and bitter fruits of life’ is still a worthy read.

Today’s English teacher earns big sums giving coaching classes, even in small towns, for there is a link to jobs. Generally, when there are profits to be made, the market responds by increasing supply, but this is not happening fast enough. Hence, call centres report that 97 out of 100 candidates get rejected--which is truly heart breaking! I am surprised that cable channels haven’t discovered this entrepreneurial opportunity because the BBC made good money teaching English to the Chinese on television, topping up with revenues from books and CD Roms. In India, NIIT is struggling to teach English in the bazaar with the aid of technology through its famed franchisee model. Rajendra Pawar, its CEO, says that teaching English is proving more difficult than teaching programming for a language is embedded in culture and needs constant use. This is why Japanese kids still can’t speak English after 150 years of trying ever since the Meiji Reforms.

In India, the Central Institute of English and Foreign Languages in Hyderabad is the institution officially charged with spreading English. I spent half a day there recently, and found that it had not had a Vice-Chancellor for two years. Under these circumstances, I cannot think of a better use for the two percent Education Cess that we are all paying than to pass it on to private schools to create English teachers, especially to teach Dalits, and nip at the same time the insane demand for extending reservations to the private sector.