Thursday, June 25, 2015

Prespective: Uncle Lalit, Aunty Sushma, Vasundara Ma'asi

A unique concept is developing - converting professional relationships into `family' ties, nowadays, Indians are creating conflict of interest at all levels of society.

From Donald Trump to Richard Branson, from Vijay Mallya to Lalit Modi, buccaneering, system-gaming, high living billionaires are the stuff of urban legend. The righteous scream for Lalit's head and secret admiration combusts with shrill jealous moralism that Lalit is brazenly rich, boasts about his many connections and is seen partying with Paris Hilton and Naomi Campbell.

While thousands of Indians live in almost similar glass houses, dream of gaming the system and well-networked mini Lalits proliferate across India, we are content that a public stoning of Prime Time's Public Enemy No 1 is going to solve the deep-rooted problem. We hypocritically cling to the adage that to be rich and create fantastically successful cricket tournaments are criminal acts, yet we conveniently overlook the fact that conflict of interest at all levels of society is hardwired into our cultural and institutional DNA.

Extraditing Lalit or securing the resignations of Sushma Swaraj and Vasundhara Raje may make for a neat end to the TV drama but unless we understand the institutional nature of the problem, the malaise will only grow. And the malaise is that as a cultural trait we Indians convert professional relationships into family bonds and thus create conflict of interest at all levels of society. How many times have you heard the phrase: Mr VIP is like my own brother?

Lalit has the whacky chutzpah needed to create a massively successful private sector property like the IPL. All the moralistic handwringing about cheerleaders being anti-Indian culture and pure cricket being replaced by casino cricket has been buried under the tidal wave of public enthusiasm for this intercity tournament.

There is hardly anything morally wrong about big money coming into cricket, provided of course that the money is clean. Lalit had the audacity to thumb his nose at UPA when he shifted the IPL to South Africa in 2009. He also has the audacity to openly declare his close relations with various politicians.

And here is where the problem lies. In our culture we too quickly transform public relationships into private ones and professional relationships into family bonds. For us anyone with whom we should have a close professional relationship is instead a feudal attachment of either `didi' or `dada' or `tau' or `chacha'. Seeking to make public institutional relationships into private family relationships is the bane of our social life. The dada-didi, chacha-tau syndrome means that loyalty is always to the `family' relationship and not to institutions.

Prurient moralists scream that Swaraj and Lalit's dinner at a London hotel is a criminal act when it emphatically is not.Where the conflict of interest comes is that Swaraj clearly acted on the belief that her `family' ties with Lalit and her loyalty to an old close relationship over-rode her institutional public responsibility as minister.

The same goes for Raje. There again a close `family' relationship was seen as more important than her public and institutional role. In fact the dada-didi, chacha-tau syndrome proliferates across our public life; it is so widespread that we don't even recognise this serious conflict of interest which is so culturally ingrained. After all, aren't VIPs duty bound to look after their families well?

Politicians have meddled in the BCCI down the decades, realising the enormous wealth and influence at its command and have sought to enter the IPL, attracted not only by the big money but also because of their so-called penchant for cricket. But do Republican and Democrat politicians in the US also hold important positions on baseball leagues or soccer clubs? Are Labour and Tory politicians office bearers of the MCC?

In India businessmen and politicians are united in a boys club of big money and big power, all of it legitimised in the name of cricket. And if it's not cricket, it's real estate, it's educational institutes, coal allotments and telecom licences where largesse is handed out. In this dance of cronies, the state itself becomes a family enterprise, the Il Familia of Don Corleone, where only individuals matter, not institutions.

There is thus hardly any incentive to clean up the system, hardly any incentive to bring in professional managers or enforce regulations or ensure that black money pitfalls are cleaned up, because all deals are in any case done on a personal basis. Louis XIV's declaration, `I am the state', echoes eerily with Indian democracy of the 21st century where many Sun Kings and Sun Queens have converted the public realm into their private families.

The privatisation of the public realm means that institutions that belong to the people to ensure the public good simply become the family property of individual politicians or businessmen and the state itself is parcelled out between gangs of politician-tycoons. In an odd twist, in the economic sphere, while massive public sector white elephants urgently await privatisation, it is public life instead which is being busily privatised by the netas. Swaraj and Raje see nothing wrong in extending favours to Lalit in their official capacity, because after all he may either be their bhatija or bhaiya or chacha.

As a society we're trapped in creating honorary brothers, sisters, uncles and aunts instead of establishing modern relationships on the basis of professional responsibility and merit. In western societies, strangers on the street are hardly called chacha or dada. While this may be a heart-warming desi trait for some, it creates a feudal mindset by which private bonds must be honoured at the cost of professional duty. Until we find systemic ways to stop the privatisation of the public realm, a syndrome in which Lalit, Swaraj and Raje are all participants, conflict of interest will constantly occur. The Great Indian `Parivar' is a blessing but also a curse.

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