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The 'unconflicted' Indian
An Indian is a hyphenated creature. For him there is no conflict of interest, there is only maximisation or juggling of interests. He can use kinship to further his business, or use one business to manipulate another.
Words are fascinating especially when they travel. As travelling facts they acquire new properties and even new personalities. One thinks particularly of English words in India. They acquire an Alice in Wonderland quality where one keeps wondering whether they ever mean what they say.
The idea of conflict of interest has a kaleidoscopic quality. I have heard a fairly literate politician complain that the expression was a misfit in India. He said, I am a parent, a businessman, a party official, a husband, a trustee of a few communities. For me all these are the same thing. When he spoke I realized Indians lived in the world of and. Any Indian is always three things strung together, a hyphenated creature. For him there is no conflict of interest, there is only maximisation or juggling of interests. One uses kinship to maximise business, one uses one business to manipulate another. In a world where public and private merge, the idea of conflict of interest is seen as a "hyena" term. It is a word used to stalk people.
Conflict of interest is part of the consensual and legal package of modernity. It is only when society rationalises and becomes more functionally systematic, when there is separation of roles and responsibilities that conflict of interest becomes an act of corruption. One has to draw lines between roles and functions. In a more narrow sense it comes to signify a clash of interests between two sets of functional or public roles. The recent Rajat Gupta case was an anthropological curiosity in this context. Rajat Gupta was the Indian enactment of the American dream, his career spanned IIT, Mckinsey and Goldman Sachs. For Indians in India he could do no wrong. Even when he was accused of conflict of interest most Indians treated it as a minor misdemeanor. Corporate dons like Mukesh Ambani and Adi Godrej recited elaborate certificates for him suggesting that conflict of interest was a minor flaw in an otherwise seamlessly successful career. What few noticed was that the lawyer investigating Gupta was also an Indian. The two role models competed for attention with two separate value frames. For Preet Bhrara, Gupta's leaking of information to the fund manager Raja Ratnam was an act of corruption. For Gupta it was an act of ethnic complicity, a sleight of hand trick permissible to a migrant.
Ours is a society suddenly interested in conflict of interest. The media present it as a curiosity, when it has been a way of life. Mahendra Singh Dhoni is not the first of these cases;memory goes back to Shastri, Kumble, and Gavaskar. Gavaskar has a long series both as a commentator and chairman of many cricketing committees. The question was clear. Can one be an independent commentator and a committee member and perform both tasks with equal integrity? It was the board that gave the answer. BCCI vice president Rajiv Shukla claimed that the board did not dictate what Gavaskar spoke. What he forgot to mention was that Gavaskar was always restrained or reticent about his comments about the board. Conflict of interest can be both overt and covert. By separating roles and responsibility we eliminate such a temptation. Independence is guaranteed through division of labour.
The problem can become sentimentally complex. Consider the case of India Cements. Under Srinivasan it was not just a company but a joint family which sustained and paid for cricketers like Laxman and Dravid. It encouraged minor league games while it also helped create IPL. It had a posse of cricketers who owed some kind of allegiance to Srinivasan. The question is does one expect any of the cricketers to challenge or testify against Srinivasan.
One sees the sentimental papering over even among judges who accept cases involving corporations where they or their kinsmen hold shares. The norm that bureaucrats must resign from committees and companies before they accept certain appointments seems to be honoured only as a default. Political sociologist Ashis Nandy created a storm when he said the Indian elite had made a fine art of ignoring conflict of interest.
I remember being very impressed as a student at Delhi School of Economics when a well-known historian withdrew from examination committee because his nephew was a student. What was even more impressive was that his colleagues approved of his decision. Such examples, I must admit are rare.
Media interest in the subject suggests that we are treating it as a new phenomenon. The newness stems from the fact that as we become more bureaucratised, contractual a separation of roles becomes fundamental. Such a separation is key to the corruption conundrum. The law expects us to conform to this code but whether our culture agrees to this norm is an open question. It calls for new forms of propriety that we need to ritualise and work on.
The writer is a social scientist.
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