India@75: A nation in the making

Subroto Bagchi: The Moral Dilemma

With no regard for ethics, Indians may well succeed, but India will not. Is that what we want?

Published: May 22, 2012 06:43:27 AM IST
Updated: May 11, 2012 05:02:02 PM IST
Subroto Bagchi: The Moral Dilemma

Subroto Bagchi
The Man:
Up until March, when he was made the chairman of Mindtree, Subroto Bagchi had one of the coolest job titles in the whole of IT industry—gardener. His role was to nurture the top 100 leaders of Mindtree, a company he co-founded with eight others in 1999. He says the only way you can get obedience and compliance is on a platform of morality.

The Oeuvre: Wrote four books, each one of them spelling out rules for success, drawing on the lessons from the lives of professionals and entrepreneurs. He also writes the hugely popular column Zen Garden for Forbes India.

X-Factor: Imagination, confidence and communication.

The Message: We should stop being blasé about integrity in public life.

The Hypothesis
If a society and its government fail, can business succeed? There are no easy answers. After all, in failing societies and poorly governed countries, business does take place. Sometimes it may even flourish.

So What?
The right to govern is a moral right. It cannot be demanded, it is merely given. You cannot govern anyone by force; not even your own child. The only way you can get obedience and compliance is if the child sees you on platform of morality, not a platform of force. Physical power does not resurrect a failed parent. That precept is true of any political system as well. When politicians and bureaucrats choose to abdicate moral ground, business simply loves the concomitant result.

I want to start with a very basic question: If a society and its government fail, can business succeed? There are no easy answers. After all, in failing societies and poorly governed countries, business does take place. Sometimes it may even flourish. In a country like Rwanda, there are people buying and selling items of everyday living as much as medicines and armament. In bombed out Iraq, where the government vanished, there remained a currency and trade; people did business with each other. In Afghanistan, business continues because people must live. Business, by its very nature, seeks out opportunities in everything. The larger question really is whether we want to be in a situation where societal and governmental failure need not worry us business folks because we will be there like roaches after a nuclear holocaust; whether we want to be amoral because the job of business is not to lay down the moral code.

Last year, I spent four weekends with a group of sixteen-year-old school students. I sought them out while writing my latest book, MBA at 16, to get a sense of what they thought of the world of business and what they wanted to know about it. The most important question they had for me was whether business could exist without being corrupt? Later, when I was exchanging notes with the vice chairman of the school, an educator of great vision and capability, I told her about the question and asked her if teachers came across such questions from young people as well. She told me about a very serious debate that was going on among a group of students on morality and a few of them, tenth graders all, asked—what was the big deal in going to jail for a few months for making a few crores? The debate was taking place during the height of the 2G scam. The view that a jail trip was a rite of passage unsettled me hugely and I have not yet come out of my anger and sadness that we, the present lot, have led the most promising generation in Indian history, to come to such reasoning.

Many years back, after coming back from office, I found my two daughters, both school girls then, fighting bitterly. The younger one levelled a complaint of bad behaviour against the older girl as the two came fighting down the staircase. I was standing at the bottom. As I intervened, I firmly asked the older girl to apologise. She said no, she wouldn’t. In a moment of misplaced anger, I slapped her. She looked at me in the eyes and screamed, “NO”, turned her back and stormed up the staircase and locked herself in her room for the rest of the night. So here was my 12-year-old daughter who had openly disobeyed my instruction and the physical punishment did not deter her from rejecting my authority. I was distraught all night. It was a miracle that the next morning, she did not hold it against me. But in slapping her, I understood for the rest of my life, a fundamental precept: The right to govern is a moral right. It cannot be demanded, it is merely given. You cannot govern anyone by force, not even your own child. The only way you can get obedience and compliance is if the child sees you on platform of morality, not a platform of force. Physical power does not resurrect a failed parent.

That precept is true of any political system as well. When politicians and bureaucrats choose to abdicate moral ground, businesses simply love the concomitant result. As a nation, the problem before us today is that society, bureaucracy and politicians see nothing wrong in what they are doing and in that context, today’s 16-year-old is asking what is wrong in going to jail for a short time, if the return-on-investment is lucrative enough?  

Last month, I went to a private engineering college to understand the challenges faced by the industry in getting right talent. A very transparent young administrator gave me the run-down. The qualifying marks for an engineering seat is 45 percent. There is a test, albeit to determine how bad the student may be so that the amount of donation can be inversely settled. Once the matter is settled, whoever has referred the prospective student to the college gets a cash-back of anything from Rs 8,000 to Rs 20,000. It could be a tout or fellow villager, a school teacher, whoever brings the kid, gets the cash. On the spot. This is not one-off; this is standard operating procedure for 90 percent of engineering colleges. What happens when the kid cannot subsequently cope? No issues, large companies come with fishing nets and take them all and if someone gets left behind, he/she has to pay the placement officer some money and that person slips the weakling in to the next large fishing net. After a few months, the employer sacks the guy and he goes wherever but the family is happy that the kid got “campus placement”. The placement officers are not forgotten by the fishing net folks; they are taken on junkets to places like Dubai and Thailand! Students in their high school and college begin to build a world view and then they enact it. If we are blasé about the issue of integrity in public life, as we are today, what would happen to the nation?

Earlier, I talked about the cathartic example of my slapping our daughter. My show of force had failed to achieve anything. In reality, it turned against me. That night it occurred to me that if a spurned parent were to repeat the violent act, such an action, instead of getting compliance, could lead the child to seriously deviant behaviour; she could run away from home, take to drugs or kill herself. The entire night, I was sleepless and remorseful.

Today, when we see governments fail in the forests of Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and the North East, it is a slapped child turning away. My daughter returned to me the next morning, forgiving me for the indiscretion, because at some level, I still had a moral right over her. But the lesson for me was not to take that for granted and not to push my luck.

So parliamentarians wave currency notes on the floor. A chief minister files a Rs40-crore income-tax return and the tax authorities just accept the explanation about her source of income; that she was given the money in small change, as tokens of affection, five rupees and ten rupees at a time by her followers. Serving generals usurp housing meant for war widows. Assembly men watch porn during a debate in the house. A spokesman for one party gets filmed on tape while fornicating in his office and the army chief accuses his ex-deputy of trying to bribe. Indians may well succeed, India will not. Would that be good for us? Do we want our children to be citizens of a failed state?

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(This story appears in the 25 May, 2012 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Subramanian Nampoothiri

    sir a large number of likeminded people are fraught with the same question and dilemma. What I feel as possible today is not fighting the corrupt system directly but build up an individual or family based vision of meaning full life ( the whole life cycle upto the death of the individual) around which shall hover all their goals and projects in life which will enable them to clearly steer their life through turbulent waters and also to define the social fabric which can support to develop and sustain a meaning ful lifestyle for the individual. When more people subscribe to such schools of thought society will get transformed without violence and bloodshed.

    on May 5, 2013
  • Jay

    Mr. Bagchi, the premise of your self-deduced precept is terribly askew. If you liken the relationship between the government and a country's citizens to that between a Parent and a Child, it is the citizens of a nation that give birth to politicians and bureaucrats; not the other way around. It is unfortunate that children use the example of a corrupt politician or a bureaucrat as justification for their own incongruence, or for future means to achieve an end. Education on morality begins at home. If parents do not invest time in their children, broadening their value system from particularism to universalism by debating the pros and cons of different courses of action and its consequent effects; while in its stead focusing on the definition of success and happiness solely on the basis of how much one can earn for oneself, then actions and behaviour will be judged within the context of this outcome alone. In the meantime, we go ahead and unabashedly cheat all systems, private and public, because our society values 'street smartness' over all else. I‚€™m not surprised then, that young children want to ape us. What we see with 16 year olds today, is an entrenchment of an already existing set of values. A corrupt politician or a bureaucrat is more visible, thanks to our media'€™s incessant tirade against them, than the rampant corruption that exists in our society (and, oh how we love to brush our own negatives under the carpet). A politician, in India, who achieves a desired outcome by using corrupt means, reinforces a dominant set of social values and behaviour; but doesn't initiate it. A good upbringing is what enables children to weigh behaviour and alternate courses of action against a structured set of values to make a moral choice, whatever it may be. A Bureaucrat or a politician - i hope we are mature enough to understand, given our tendency as Indians to box people into narrow silos, thus creating dramatic 'in-groups' and out-groups' - is as much a child of a citizen from our society, as the 16 year olds you interviewed.

    on May 28, 2012
  • Rajan

    Mr. Bagchi lost me at the point when he slapped his daughter. I am supposed to take advise from someone who beats up his children? One note from Mr. Bagchi: morality is relative; starvation is absolute.

    on May 25, 2012
  • Sanjeev

    Dear Subroto Bagchi sir, Long back in a public event I heard you talking about "Power of Communication". I feel in the current enviornment, all we need to do is a deep introspection whether we communicate or not. Our potilical system, social institutions and family have enough room for communcation or not. The moment we see, parents are communcating with KIDs, we communicate to our relatives and neighbours on a regular basis, we will see the differences. Some one said long time, communication does not only act as carrier for message but it connects to heart too. In bad time, the first thing we do stop talking and hiding things. Every one does... and thats what our generation will learn too... Best regards, Sanjeev

    on May 25, 2012
  • Asif Iqbal

    Very well said by the gentlemen. Morality is the root that leads to a rightly guided Heart and mind that can deliver noble action.An immoral society is always towards downfall no matter how much automated their world is with machines and softwares. Great civilazation and Empires have fallen when they themselves shook the pillars of their moral values. Why a society or subject gets an unjust and cruel ruler(Indian Politician in our case).Is it a punishment or a Test? There is something called as introspection. You decide what you deserve.If you are good then your bad circumstances is indeed a Test. I dont know every Indian. But I am an Indian Youth and I doubt my morality. I desire to be like those where even the Sun sets.Where marriage is costlier than fornication. My symbol is entertainment. I desire luxury. I have full time to watch IPL,relax at multiplex,hoteling but no time to be sailor of a sinking ship.I dont need a girlfriend because I must be have had one.My idols are people from a world where nudity is a profession. And I want everything fast because dont know when I die. Its time to get back to our faith for a time when we all stand before God, who creates nothing without purpose. Do We? None of the creaton is benefitting from Human. Neither the animals, Trees, rivers, SUn , Moon, Soil. God made everything for us and we have been made for Him. And we love everything except Him. A manufacturer designs the manual and protocols for his products.So does God. This is why He sent His messengers and Books to guide Human race. To preach Morality. A summary of what Morality Islam teaches,has been told to us by the last and final messenger Muhammed of Arabia.(Peace be Upon Him). It has four areas. Ibadaat(Worship): Rights toward your creator. Absolute Belief, Obedience and Expectation from Him and Him alone. Muamalat(Transaction): Honesty and Justice in your dealings, be it business, Service or any transaction. For eg. If I take money for 8 hours then I have to give 8 hours. Masharat(Society) : Be good and caring in your society that inlcudes in priority towards Parents, Brothers/sisters, all relatives, neighbors, colleagues, country men, Human. Akhlaq(Morality): Striving towards purification of heart. 95 % of this inlcludes the action of your Tongue.And a mental struggle at times of difficulty with Patience and perserverance if the best among all struggle. Faith leads to success.

    on May 25, 2012
  • Jerry

    I don't! And I won't let myself or kids get corrupted. I also would try and reach as many youngsters as I can and encourage them to think and question status quo and not be cynical. You have heard this before, but our upbringing and tolerant nature are the cause of all this. We get what we deserve when we elect such people into power and take things as they are. In most countries around the world, even the smallest favor (cash or kind) to any government employee is grounds for termination and imprisonment - for the person accepting the favor and the person offering it. How do we allow the chief minister's explanation of having received tokens of affection in the form of gifts or service? We're taught to never question authority. The "authorities" are actually public servants, and it is the DUTY of every citizen to question. For people who haven't got sufficient exposure, the mindset remains one of feudalism and colonialism - passed down the generations. Once we start understanding democracy - that we're not living in a colony ruled by anyone - we'll start making progress. Until then, it is just a promise based on ancient history of greatness...

    on May 25, 2012
  • R George Panakal

    Thank you for a very well written article. In a country like India, we have no dearth of moral values. However, morality is defined and shaped by a multitude of factors, and differs from individual to individual, culture to culture, religion to religion, and so on... Now the imperative question here is who defines \'morality\' for a people like us? Each of us has a different set of values and beliefs. For example, what my father would call gambling is stock market investment to someone else. Even wise sayings we\'ve read and heard in school have an equally accepted contradiction (example: Look before you leap. Vs. He who hesitates is lost.). The sad fact remains that we still do (or try extremely hard to do) what is right based on our set of values and beliefs, but this does not guarantee that it will be perceived as moral by everyone else. In our magnificent diversity, can we resolve to adhere to a common moral code? If yes, who decides that?

    on May 25, 2012
  • Vinod

    Very well written. The debate amongst students of taking in jail time for money is alarming. I do hope some of it is only teenage bravado and not deep seated intentions.

    on May 22, 2012