Monday, January 19, 2009

The Selfish Indian

It is both depressing and ironic that a company named “Satyam” is involved in the biggest corporate scam of recent times in India.  The shocking revelations by former chairman B Ramalinga Raju added significantly to corporate India’s gloom this new year. Thankfully, Mr Raju may be forced to face the consequences of his actions although he seems to be resorting to the usual tricks such as suddenly developing severe medical complaints to avoid time in jail. But hopefully the law will take its course this time. But the powers that be are asking if that will be enough? Whether making an example of Mr Raju will repair the dent in corporate India’s shining image? But shouldn’t the question be why something like this should happen in the first place? Why would the senior management of one of India’s biggest financial success stories resort to fraud? Or even bigger questions like, was this whole scandal inevitable considering our Indian nature?

A book I read recently, Games Indians Play by V. Raghunathan, uses game theory and behavioural economics to understand the reasons behind the way we do things. It raises some interesting observations. Occurrences and behaviours that we consider part of modern Indian society, when put under a scanner, should really shame us. For example, our complete lack of public hygiene, the impunity with which we cross red lights at traffic signals, our complete disregard for corruption at all levels in our society. Mr Raghunathan in this delightful book suggests that the problem lies in our inherently selfish nature. His theory is that most Indians use their famed intelligence to assess any situation to see how it can be beneficial to them. Now this by itself is not a problem, the problem arises when it is associated with a complete disregard for the rule of the law. The author in his book says most Indians have a low degree for self regulation and will take the easy less painful solution to any problem. Thus urinating in public or littering is simply done because we can and we know that everyone else does it with no real personal consequence. We totally disregard how this behaviour affects society at large. Similarly cutting a red light is alright because we know that cop most likely will not be on duty, or even if he is will not be bothered enough to catch and fine us, or even if he does apprehend us will accept a bribe lower than whatever fine we would be required to pay. So its a win-win situation over all. Here both the cop and the person cutting the red light are behaving selfishly and ignoring with impunity their larger responsibility to society.

While we may disagree with the basic premise of the book that most Indians are inherently selfish, it is hard to ignore the fact that all of these behaviours are part of our daily lives. In some way or other all of us have at one time or other done some of these things, thinking that its not our individual responsibility when no one else seems to bother.  Surely some of these problems will be controlled if only we had effective implementation of the law. But that is again passing the buck. If on the other hand each one of us decided we will follow the law, in letter and spirit, or that we will not litter, or display better traffic etiquette, imagine how much of a difference it would make almost immediately to society.

Most nationalities are associated with a derogatory adjective; the prudish Brit, the snobbish Frenchman, the arrogant/ignorant American. Generally for us it has been the sly Indian which all things considered isn’t so bad. It would be infinitely worse if that became the selfish Indian.


Raj said...

Nice and frank depiction of the Indian Mentality..Although I am proud to be an Indian,there were times when I felt embarrassed and hurt at the way we take things for granted.

The other thing to note is that the same Indians are the most law abiding people when they settle down in other countries.I guess its because of the fear of facing the law since the law and order system is strict and not corrupted as in India.

Sanjeev Nair said...

I totally agree with u have said about Indians being law abiding citizens as soon as they settle abroad. I've seen that change many times at the airport immigration counters abroad and back in India.