Sunday, July 31, 2005

Status Anxiety

Times of India, July 31, 2005

The only discordant note in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s otherwise triumphant trip to the US was his pleading for a permanent seat in the Security Council. I have never been comfortable with this unseemly campaign. Hankering after superpower status is a sign of our status anxiety and lack of self-confidence. Besides, a seat should never be a national goal. It is like a medal in a race; the goal is to win the race; the medal is only a by-product. So, let us focus on genuine achievements like building a prosperous and compassionate society. Let us reform vigorously, lift the poor, improve governance, and our status will change on its own.

Manmohan Singh's gracious speech at Oxford, on the other hand, showed self-assurance (reflecting the nation's growing confidence) as he gave Britain credit for bequeathing us wonderful liberal institutions. Hence, the carping of Left academics was astonishing. I have long admired Irfan Habib and Partha Chatterjee — their writings have meant so much to my education. I can only attribute their criticism to the Left's own status anxiety after Communism's fall, which was also on display in its extraordinary cheek to advise the PM not to sell out India to America. But then, good manners have never been the Left's strong suit.

Anxiety about one's status is understandable. Like nations, all human beings feel a secret and powerful need to be noticed. It hurts when we are ignored. If people praise us we feel important; when they avoid us we feel worthless. The attention of others matter because we are uncertain of our own worth. We fear that we might end up a 'nobody', and want desperately to be 'somebody'. "Our sense of identity is held hostage to the opinion of others", says Alain de Botton in a superb book, Status Anxiety. We may not admit it, but the truth is we all seek to be loved by the world.

When we are babies, we are loved whether we burp or scream or break our toys. But this idyllic state changes as we grow up, and are soon surrounded by snobs who have great capacity for inflicting pain. Snobs are social climbers, dedicated to flattering the influential and ignoring the humble. Very rarely have I come across someone who was immune to status blues. A notable exception was the noble and penniless Fanny Price, Jane Austen's heroine in Mansfield Park. Most of us are like Duryodhana in the Mahabharata, who suffers from extreme anxiety at Yudhishthira's grand celebration to confirm his suzerainty. He feels diminished by his cousin's rise in the world. He is envious by his host's magical palace. Without sycophants around him, suddenly he feels alone. Just one amongst many illustrious guests, he loses all confidence.

This is not how we would want our children to grow up as citizens of a confident, proud nation. Fanny Price rather than Duryodhana ought to be our model of behaviour. We should pursue our goals single-mindedly, with a quiet confidence, without worrying so much about what others think. My aunt used to say, "You'll waste a lot less time worrying about what others think of you if only you realised how seldom they do." Of course, we deserve a permanent seat on the Security Council, but at this stage of nation building, this should not be our priority. Let us first put our own house in order. Let us vigorously reform our economy, lift our economy's growth rate, raise the poor, and fix the depressing state of governance. This is what will eventually make us a superpower and worthy of the coveted seat.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Bunty and Babli’s fresh talk

Times of India, July 17, 2005

When VS Naipaul appealed earlier this year for a more contemporary discourse in India, he had obviously not seen Bunty aur Babli, Bollywood’s first film about liberalisation’s impact on small town India. Naipaul was referring to the stale quality of debate among Indian intellectuals whose minds are stuck in post-colonial rigidities at a time when young Indian minds are decolonised and India has moved on.

Despite this liberation I am still troubled by our moral discourse, which fails to distinguish between being ethical and religious. The frustrating word, dharma, adds to our confusion because it can mean both. Too many visit temples in the morning but commit perjury in the afternoon. Too many shrug at our massive governance failures with, “What can you do? We live in Kali Yuga”. True, every civilisation harks back to a Golden Age without moral flaws. It’s also true that Indians are deeply religious and God has always settled right and wrong. But I was deeply dismayed recently at my failed attempts to convince students at one of Delhi’s best colleges that dharma and moksha are separate projects and religion is often a distraction for morality. The students believed that truly spiritual persons had to be moral.

I gave the example of a god-fearing person who is about to betray someone’s trust. She might argue, “Well God won’t like it, but then he is forgiving, so I might still gain in the end.” All of us agreed that this is not how a moral person reasons. She simply says, “It is betrayal, so I wont do it.” A good person doesn’t do wrong because of fear of God but out of a sense of duty. Plato, in the Euthyphro, explains that religion gives mythical authority to a morality that is already there. Religion doesn’t create ethics but it captures moral ideas in a symbolic way that engages our imagination. Unhappily, religions have too often sanctioned bad moral ideas—the Hindu caste system, women’s inferiority among Muslims, or Catholic opposition to birth control. Thus, it is best to keep religious and moral spaces separate.

Our ancients did separate them when they said dharma is one of the four aims of life. “What counted was a person’s conduct not his belief”, Professor Radhakrishnan used to say. James Fitzgerald recently pointed out that the meaning of dharma changed during the writing of the Mahabharata. Earlier, it meant observing Vedic rituals and doing visible deeds endorsed by society. Gradually, it changed to mean a personal (and universal) sense of right and wrong in order to become a better and refined human being. This happened probably under pressure from the newer ethics of yoga and Buddhism. Much later did Dharma come to mean religion, as in sanatanadharma, in the 19th century, and this has caused the confusion.

The West too separated religion and morality only in the18th century Enlightenment. This led the Russian writer, Dostoyevsky, to ask, “If God is dead, isn’t everything permitted then?” Delhi University’s students also sensibly asked me, “If God doesn’t decide your duties, then who does?” My answer is that we have to learn to depend on ourselves, on our humanity, and our capacity for empathy. Neither do I despair like many Indians over declining moral standards because I see undeniable gains around me: in our increased sensitivity to the condition of women, the Dalits, and the environment. These have been hard fought victories, and we should feel proud of them. Like Bunty and Babli I don’t think it matters where you are born or your faith; what you make of your life is all that matters.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

When masks fell off

Times of India, July 03, 2005

The sad story of how our callous regulators lost us a world-class university, which I narrated two Sundays ago, has resulted in new discoveries. One of the happier ones is a metamorphosis in the All India Council of Technical Education (AICTE). Not only have corrupt officials gone, but it is committed to regulate non-intrusively via the power of information. Last month it posted its initial findings on its website, and all hell broke loose as the masks of important men fell off. Students could now cheerfully begin to distinguish between the good, the bad and the ugly. Not surprisingly, many ugly colleges turned out to be those run by important public figures–ministers, MPs, and wives of powerful officials. The MPs from Andhra, led by a minister, even laid siege on the AICTE’s offices. And more masks are set to fall this month when new data will reveal which universities operate above halvai shops, and which ones charge Rs 50,000 in fees but pay its professors Rs 5000 salary and don’t possess a working toilet.

What do you do when keepers of the law become its oppressors? Since I knew one I decided to confront this eminence grise. He was polite and solicitous in his opulent home in Lutyens’ Delhi. With a straight face, he replied, “What can you do--we live in Kali Yuga?” I chuckled like Markandeya in the Mahabharata. The more mantriji talked the more he sounded like hypocritical Dhritarashtra half heartedly disapproving of Duryodhana’s wicked plan to trap Yudhishthira in the crooked dice game. Soon he began to blame AICTE, which is another law of nature–the guilty will always blame others. Ah, the self-deceptions of great men!

The Right to Information Act is the best thing to happen for improving our day-to-day governance. Our officials should learn from AICTE’s example that the Right to Information doesn’t mean that you must only respond reluctantly to citizens’ queries. It is your duty to pro-actively publish information. Information is also the best ally of markets, who need it like oxygen. The rotten colleges will now either improve or competitive forces will shut them down. If Drona had access to the Internet he would have known that the report of Ashwatthama’s death was only a wicked rumour–a crooked scheme to demoralise him.

The prize for India’s best regulator must go to the Directorate General of Shipping which regulates maritime training institutions. It is one step ahead of the AICTE–not only does it believe in non-intrusive regulation, but also in raising quality. It has asked three highly respected and independent rating agencies, CRISIL, ICRA and CARE, to grade both public and private maritime institutes (and their courses) and post the results on its website. Of course, some institutions don’t need ratings. Hyderabad’s famed Indian School of Business is neither accredited nor rated, but the market so respects its worth that its graduates earn a mean starting salary of Rs 10 lakhs a year. It’s a true testimony to autonomy.

The era of Rs 15 college fees is over as the government has finally realised that higher education is a “non-merit good”. Hence, universities desperately need private funds. But these will only come if colleges are given autonomy—if they are liberated from licence raj, corruption breeding case-by-case approvals, and court induced price controls. The state’s only job should be to ensure mandatory disclosure. Competition and information will take care of the rest. Students will be able to make an informed choice of their college based on ratings by independent agencies and the fees. Now, here is a model of higher education for India’s future!