Saturday, 9 April 2011

The Morally Upright Aren't Always Right

Like I said in my previous post, I have been observing this current anti-corruption crusade with some amusement and lot of cynicism. But now I am getting a tad worried.
People are just not willing to hear any criticism of Anna Hazare’s fast, the tactics employed by the worthies of the India Against Corruption movement or even objective analyses pointing out flaws in the Jan Lokpal legislation they are proposing. Business Standard carried an editorial, which had what could be called a needlessly provocative (though I found it very clever and apt) headline, The Hazare Hazard. The next day’s papers had three or four letters from readers criticizing the edit. The letters did not go into the merits and de-merits of the idea of ombudsman or of the legislation these activists are proposing, but were shocked that Anna Hazare was being criticised at all. Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s piece in the Indian Express has also invited a lot of flak.
I wonder how many people who are speaking up on social networking sites, fasting in sympathy with Hazare, shaving their heads, demonstrating and much else even know the broad contours of the Bill.
I haven’t and so I am not going into the Bill itself, Mehta’s article, this other piece by Rajiv Desai delve into those aspects.
I’m making a larger point – the unquestioning adulation we have for certain public figures who are either morally upright or highly efficient or both, because of which we are not willing to concede that they could be wrong sometimes. We are just not willing to accept that people we idolize can be flawed or that the wisdom or suitability of their actions can be questioned. And this adulation tends to make some of these public figures believe that what they say or do shouldn’t be criticised at all.
I am not even going into the whole Gandhi phenomenon here (not that I think Gandhi should not be criticised and he himself never wanted to be idolised). I am talking about much lesser mortals.
Take Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. No one doubts that he is honest. He knows that. So that is why he believes he should not be held responsible for all the scams that were taking place under his nose and which he could have, but didn’t, check.
Or take E Sreedharan, chairman of the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC). I got this sms from a friend after she saw pictures of Sreedharan with Hazare: “Sridharan in a-c bandwagon. How laughable! How he fought against rti applying to dmrc! How closed his account books r!”
Neither she nor I believe Sreedharan is corrupt. I admire him for his work on the Konkan Railway and then on the Delhi Metro. But I completely agree with the contents of her sms.
How can he cheer for a movement for more transparency when his organization functions with complete lack of it? After the collapse of an under-construction metro pillar in south Delhi in 2009, resulting in the death of six workers, someone filed a Right to Information application seeking details of the design and layout of the structure. DMRC refused to part with the information and took the battle up to the Delhi High Court which finally said it had to supply the information.
I have had personal experience of the complete lack of transparency at DMRC. While working on a story, I had requested some information from DMRC and an interview with Sreedharan. Some of the information I had requested was very basic which should have been there on the website but wasn’t. I was shocked at the kind of stonewalling that ensured. One woman from the public relations team called me and wanted to know whether I was doing a positive or negative story. “Don’t tell me it will be an objective story,” she said with a sarcastic laugh. When I refused to tell her in advance what kind of  a story it would be, the wait for answers got longer and the interview with Sreedharan never materialized. Finally, after much pursuing I got some information but innocuous ones. I never got details on cost overruns (which were reported in the press), cost per km and response to some criticisms by critics of the Metro concept. There was a certain arrogance in the refusal to reply to questions from a journalist who was trying to do a balanced story.
If Sreedharan has become a demi-God of sorts, we are all responsible for it. Remember the shock when he offered to resign in the wake of the pillar collapse? Everybody rushed to stop him and he finally took it back. If the Delhi Metro comes to a standstill without Sreedharan, who is to blame? Shouldn’t it be Sreedharan himself, for not doing proper succession planning?
Also recall the controversy over the model of the Hyderabad Metro project. Sreedharan raised a stink over certain aspects like real estate development. Perhaps he had a point. But I suspect that people got swayed less by the merits of his argument and more by the fact it was Sreedharan who was opposing it. It didn’t help that on the other side was a corporate house.
What puzzles me is that this is happening in India, the cradle of Hinduism which encouraged intellectual debates and questioning of established wisdom. But somewhere along the line, that intellectual tradition has taken backseat to one where you don’t question certain people, especially those who are more educated and knowledgeable than you.
The worst manifestation of it is in the kind of following godmen and godwomen command – blind devotion. I can understand if an illiterate and poorly educated person behaves this way, but why do highly educated people also do the same? Why don’t they read or reflect on things themselves instead of taking as Gospel truth something a morally upright person has said?
Honest and morally upright people can be wrong. It will be better for themselves and for the nation if they and everybody else accepts it.

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