Saturday, August 07, 2010

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.

The good Vidura tells us in the Mahabharata that in judging a king’s action he looks to results. If it benefits the people, it is an act of dharma. Hence, a ruler would agree to ‘sacrifice an individual for the sake of a village and a village for the sake of a nation’. Vidura is half brother and royal counsellor to the king of Hastinapur and he speaks from the experience of managing a state. In agreeing to sacrifice a person in order to save many, he has drawn a distinction between public and private dharma, a pragmatism that is uniquely suited to public policy. The English thinker, Jeremy Bentham, went on to make this criterion famous in the 19th century via his Utilitarian slogan—‘the greatest good of the greatest number’.

Our confusion in judging Lalit Modi arises from our inability to distinguish between public and private acts. Like Yudhishthira in the epic, we get into a muddle because we bring in intentions. Mr Modi’s problem began in March when the IPL decided to expand from eight to ten teams. The winning bids came from the Sahara group for Pune and the Rendezvous consortium for Kochi. The affair came out in the open on 11th April when Mr Modi revealed in a tweet that among the shareholders of the Kochi group was one Sunanda Pushkar from Dubai, who had received Rs 70 crores in ‘sweat equity’ and been seen in public with the minister of state, Shashi Tharoor, who had introduced her as his fiancĂ©e. There was public clamour. Who was Ms Pushkar and why did she receive stock options worth Rs 70 crores? And if this was Mr Tharoor’s share, what did he do to deserve it?

Mr Tharoor twittered back accusing Mr Modi of sour grapes because the teams he had backed had lost the auction. Mr Tharoor claimed that he was merely mentor to the Kochi franchise without any financial interest. Ms Pushkar explained that she was an events manager in Dubai who planned to promote the Kochi team and it was common for professionals to get ‘sweat equity’ instead of salary at the start. Neither the opposition nor the government were convinced and Mr Tharoor resigned as minister. In three weeks Lalit Modi was suspended as IPL commissioner.

Sources close to Mr Tharoor allege that after the auction, Mr Modi tried to coerce the Kochi winners to back off—offering them $ 50 million to do so. Since they were adamant, he allegedly appealed to them to shift their franchise to Ahmedabad. Mr Modi counters that 75% of the Kochi capital was from Gujarati businessmen who wanted to stage the matches in a Gujarati city. Besides, the Kochi stadium was incomplete and likely to be embroiled in environmental issues for years.

Other allegations were made against Mr Modi—he was benami shareholder in the Rajasthan team and his relatives had a stake in the Punjab and Kolkota teams; $80 million was paid as ‘facilitation fee’ by Sony/MSM to the World Sports Group to compensate the latter after the contract was renegotiated but the money allegedly went into dubious bank accounts. Lalit Modi’s extravagant life style did not help—a private jet, a yacht, a fleet of Mercedes Benz and BMWs. But Lalit Modi was always a high roller. His father apparently gave him $ 5000 to buy a modest car when he was a student in America, but the young man promptly gave a down payment for a Mercedes Benz. He was also convicted on a drugs abuse.

Mr Modi retorts that he comes from a wealthy family and what has his lifestyle to do with it? Since he does not suffer fools and pettiness, he quickly made enemies with the minions at BCCI who were consumed with envy over his success. But they admit that IPL would not have been born if the flawed Mr Modi did not possess a rare talent for execution. When faced with adversity in its second year, he shifted IPL’s entire structure to South Africa within weeks, and without a hitch. If he had not snatched autonomy from the small mins of the BCCI, the IPL would have ended as Ranji trophy’s pale copy where they sometimes forget to bring a ball.

The only explanation for Mr Tharoor’s supposed gains is that that businessmen in India still place great faith in the power of politicians to influence outcomes, and in this case 4.5% equity was the price to ensure that their bid won. The losing consortia may also have had their political mentors. It is another reminder of the ever present danger of crony capitalism in a free market democracy.

How do we judge the moral failures of the IPL? Vidura would balance the good against the bad. He would point to the magical nights that it brought to tens of millions of cricket fans on TV; the new cricketing talent it unearthed; the Rs 600 crore that the government earned in service and income taxes; the staggering $4.13 billion in brand value it achieved; and the indefinable value of rare, flawless execution in a nation that is in agony over the Commonwealth Games. Against this Vidura would weigh the negative deeds of Mr Modi and unhesitatingly agree that the law must take its course, and Mr Modi punished for wrongful acts.

But in his personal judgement Vidura would be ambivalent. As he would in judging ambiguous figures like Dhirubhai Ambani, Pratap Singh Kairon, and the Pandava heroes in the epic. Let me illustrate. A few years ago a child almost drowned on a beach in Goa before a young man jumped into the sea and saved it. A few days later the hero confessed to a reporter that he may not have jumped if no one had been watching. He did it, he said, to impress his friends, and particularly one girl in their college party. The reporter said, ‘In that case, you are not such a hero!’ Vidura, however, would have looked to the result and said, ‘But the child was saved! Dharma was done. Why worry about his motives? But Yudhishthira would have jumped in even if no one had been looking. He would have done it as his dharma, as a duty to ahimsa, to save a life.

It is because we confuse intentions and consequences, ends and means, that dharma is sukshma, ‘subtle’, according to Bhishma. In Lalit Modi’s case we bring in his motives—‘he got tempted by greed’; he needed to feed his ego and extravagant lifestyle’ etc. We must remember: ‘The child was saved! What difference does it make if the hero was trying to impress a girl?’
Gurcharan Das is the author of ‘The Difficulty of Being Good: On the Subtle Art of Dharma’


Payoj said...

As always a very nice article...I though got a bit confused towards d end...Why would Vidura oppose Modi's actions in the public domain...Did they harm anyone? By meaning to give the IPL status to an established major city in India, which made business sense, which would have only increased the revenues and brand value, how and in what way was he unjust to the public? By convicting Modi, he might even put at risk, IPL as a whole...

I would also like to read your views on dharma and karma regarding the other Modi...

Nitin Goyal said...

Lord Krishna was supposed to have a very lavish personal lifestyle as well - many palaces, many queens and wives, however I do not think we look to judge him that way for all he taught us. Even his public Dharma has been questioned by the way he handled the battle of Mahabharata - Bhishma, Drona, Karna, Duryodhana were all fooled as much by his guile as much as the superiority of the Pandavas. Not sure what the judgment is in these cases.........

In the case of the guy jumping into the water, what if he had kept quite about his original motivation? Are we also very black and white in our actions when we comply with dharma - are we truly selfless? Even the act of being righteous can be said to be compromised by our selfish desire for self-praise or self comfort.

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