Thursday, June 22, 2006

Indian Man vs. Indian State

You ask anyone on the street what is the source of problems with India and more than half of them will attribute it to the Indian politicians. The breed of Indian politicians has been blamed for every problem in this country.

I seem to differ with most of them. Not that I do not agree with them to some extent, but by blaming and accusing these politicians an Indian citizen is continually renouncing his/her responsibility. By blaming ‘them politicians’ we find a scapegoat to blame. Instead of owning up the problem we seem to conveniently place it on some entity called the ‘system’, as if it is something alien to us. I believe that this attitude doesn’t allow us to own the problem to rectify it. I for one believe that problem is with the Indian man- the common man, who looks, resembles and is actually one of us. My opinion is echoed by this saying: Like man, like state – Plato.

Contrast this with a popular Indian saying which many in India seem to believe: Yatha raja, thatha praja (as the king, so the subjects)

This saying conveniently places the blame on the king (or the Government in our case) and thereby we happily live our lives hoping for this king to change himself so that we can follow the suit.

Is it the people? Or is it the Indian System?

Is it us? Or is it them politicians?

Who is to blame for bad roads, rampant corruption, delayed trains, garbage on the streets, casteism and communalism, discrimination based on caste, religion and sex, and for everything bad with our society? Is it me or is it that damn politician?

I tend to take a stand that it is the Indian man who is corrupt, keeps his street unclean, and does not follow the law, and that the Indian System (or the Indian Government) is a mere personification of these ills of this common man. To rectify the system, he has to rectify himself. The change starts at him. It starts with the ‘man in the mirror’.

When a policeman stops me, I would rather pay Rs. 200 which goes into the policeman’s pocket instead of actually paying the Rs. 600 fine which goes into the Government kitty. I want this policeman to be corrupt. I hate it when he is not corrupt because the whole procedure is tedious. I have to wait till he writes me a ticket and then pay Rs. 600. If he is corrupt, it makes my life easy. I can get away in one minute by paying him only Rs. 200. Is it the system or is it me?

My father has an interesting story to relate. He wanted to tell me how we are legitimizing corruption and other ills of society. The story (which is true) goes this way:

(Start of Story)

A father wants to get his daughter married off. He interviews the first candidate who is an officer in a Government Office.

Father: “How much do you earn?”

Guy #1: “10,000 per month”.

Father: “How much do you earn ‘over and beyond’?”

Guy #1: “I am an honest officer. I don’t take bribe”.

The father lets that guy go telling himself how he can give away his daughter to a fool like him who earns so less and is not practical enough to adapt to this society. The next guy he talks to is a clerk in a Government Office.

Father: “How much do you earn?”

Guy #2: “3,000 per month”.

Father: “How much do you earn ‘over and beyond’?”

Guy #2: “I ‘manage’ to make 20,000 to 25,000 per month”.

The father is happy with this guy and marries off his daughter with him. During the wedding a friend of the father asks how much the new son-in-law earns and this father replies proudly that he earns “3,000 but ‘manages’ 25,000 per month”. The friend is happy and congratulates the father for finding such an excellent son-in-law and asks the father – “Can you help me find a similar boy for my daughter?” And this father and his friend are educated middle class men.

(End of Story)

What my Dad wanted to convey through this story is how we, as a society, are legitimizing the corruption through our words, actions and setting examples. Another aspect that is frightening (in my region) is how the rich people become popular when their house gets raided by Income Tax officials. It has now become a status symbol. “Oh! Do you know that they have been raided recently?” is spoken more in tone of jealousy and envy than what one would imagine. And the son or daughter of the house that gets raided suddenly becomes attractive for marriage. It is a matter of pride to get married into such a house. Even the dowry for the guy or the girl goes up skyrocketing. In most cases, the dowry amount is spoken with a sense of pride and achievement. The father who gives dowry is proud to tell it to showcase his capability and the father who receives it measures his son’s achievement based on the dowry he rakes home.

There are many such stories, and no politician is coercing them. The most corrupt official of our region is given such great welcome by the temple priests (while shooing away all other devotees) that one starts wondering if there is any place in India that is free from this sycophancy and praise of corruption.

The people who build new homes would like to use up as much land as possible to make the living space as large as possible. If one encroaches onto the street or bypasses all norms of construction, it is seen as an achievement. The other guy who wants to build home takes their advice to see how he can also flout the rules. If it so happens that the officials are very strict, they all complain, and make sure that official is transferred (by using their clout with politicians).

Of course, one could start giving examples of how the politicians are corrupt and that it is them who start this whole process of degeneration. I am not sure where we would go by blaming these politicians. We have been blaming them for over fifty years now and nothing good has come out of it other than perpetuating the degeneration. How come we elect those who seem to be most corrupt? Having no choice of candidate is not a good reason. We had more than 10 elections so far- couldn’t we elect someone who is not corrupt or come up with a political party which is not corrupt? I don’t think that such candidates do not exist. I think such candidates get 100 to 500 votes and lose their deposit. Given a choice the common man of India votes the most corrupt candidate. No wonder Jayalalitha of Tamil Nadu comes back to power again and again.

My opinion on this- (I know it is an extreme form and the reality is grey and not as black and white as I suggest) - it is the common man of India and not the Indian Government which should be blamed for bad state of India.

“Like man, like state”. I stand by it. I can’t change the politician. But I can change myself. A better and responsible man will bring in a better and responsible state. Blaming the state is tantamount to shirking one’s responsibility and, for all practical purposes, will not solve anything.

Only 3% Indians pay their taxes. Many guys take dowry. Most of us violate rules when it comes to traffic or building our homes. We like to bribe our way through and feel proud that we have defeated, or beaten, or maneuvered the system. The guy who gets ahead in the line to buy tickets considers himself an achiever and has no qualms about flouting basic norms of decency. The parents who, somehow, using political clout, bribing the officials, etc, put their kid in a top school take pride in it and are envied by other parents. Please don’t bring politicians into this. They are not forcing any of us to get corrupt son-in-laws, take dowries or bypass norms to build big houses. We have a choice to be honest and we just don’t take it.

There is an ad on TV from Pears soap. The mom uses a mirror to reflect blinding light onto another kid to help her son do better in a cricket game. It is supposed to be funny. I don’t find it funny. On the other hand I find it very offensive. Also, I feel sad, not because Pears has made such an ad, but because we all watch it and find no fault with it. We have legitimized wrong things through such small words, actions and setting examples.

[BTW, I don’t buy Pears soap and I don’t intend to buy one either]


  1. I couldn't agree with you more. Here is what happened with me.

    I needed Passport to appear for GRE. I went to the passport office with the form filled out, all the documents as per listed in the form, copied, notarized, with 1 extra copy of the whole package. I stood there in line for 3 hours. I watched many who 'managed' to bypass the line. But I was firm I won't bribe. After 3 hours when my turn came,

    The lady at the counter: You needed 2 extra copies and not 1.
    Me: The form lists that only one copy is required.
    The Lady: The form has expired and the new form lists that you need 2 copies.
    Me: I got this form just yesterday from this office, if you give me an old form, that is not my fault.
    The Lady: I don't have time to argue with you. I will not take your application without 2 copies. If you want, you can talk with Makwana saheb.

    So I waited for an hour to talk with Makwana saheb. He said, he will take the application form from me, provided I pay him 1000 Rs. I refused.

    Next day I came back and stood in line for 3 hours again. And the conversation goes -

    The Gentleman at the counter: Sir, why did you bring two copies, we need only one.
    Me: Sir, this lady next to you told me yesterday that new requirement says I need to submit two copies.
    Gentleman (with a smile): Did she ask you to go meet Makwana saheb?
    Me: Yes. But I refused to pay 1000Rs.
    Gentleman (still smiling): Okay, here, I am taking your application. Go pay fees at the first counter and come back to me with the receipt.

    Waited for 3 months and my GRE date was nearing. Passport didn't show up. I literally had to run from office to office to find out where the passport was and everywhere I was asked to pay. I refused. 2 months later - after a lot of struggle, I got my passport without paying the bribe.


    Morale of the story, yes if we collectively are willing to take on the system, the system will change. It is us, Indian citizens, common men, are more responsible. With that being said, Politicians are equally responsible. No doubt about it.

    Thought provoking stuff...


  2. Thank you, Munir, for sharing your experiences.

  3. Sujai,Nice to read your article! Keep writing. You are one of the very few sources of inspiration in the indian blogosphere.

    Munir, appreciate your guts, man! Not compromising your values for the system. thanks for writing !

  4. Now, the fact is that IF NO ONE PAYS Rs 1000, then the passport will be given the same day (or after 2 days) to every one.

    This is where the common man is responsible for corruption.

  5. "We get the government we deserve".

    I've seen educated well to-do people chuck garbage on the road, kick street dogs, put pumps on their water supply...

    Makes me angry, really very angry.

    You know why women in India can't trust the cop on the road- because no man will step up to protect her either. We've become a country of 'save my skin- throw the next person under the bus'.

    We need more protest, more outrage, more honesty, more soul.

    Starting right here- with me.

    Like always- great post Sujai.

  6. Sujai,

    This, as usual is a nice article and I think what would make this post complete is your thoughts on, "Why you think the Indian Common man is the way he is?"

    Maybe a subsequent post of yours could treat that issue.

  7. Sujai:

    In a way your contention is correct that we get the rulers we deserve. However, as with anything else, it is possible to go to the other extreme by saying that the common man is mainly responsible. I have two points to make:

    1) Indians abroad behave in a much more decent and lawful manner than in India. Nothing has changed here except the system.

    2) Here is a quote from Harvard International Review by N. Vittal, former Chief Vigilance Commissioner of India:

    Corruption in India follows a vicious cycle, but the root of the problem lies in the corruption of the political system. In a democratic government, every political party needs to raise funds, and the sources of such funds greatly affect the motivations and actions of the politicians who benefit from them. Without transparency in the fundraising process, corrupt money begets corrupt political actions.

    - Vivek

  8. Vivek:
    I wrote an article titled 'Trying to find beauty in India' where I discuss how Indians suddenly change the minute they land in India.

    What triggers Indians to behave the way they do?

    I don't think it is got to with the system. When Indians are abroad, they are a minority living with a majority that seems to follow the rules, and therefore they comply. Once they become the majority, they create their own rule-less system.

    This is true in all regions (outside India) where Indians form a majority.

    Going to Edison, NJ, (where Indian population is overwhelming) will only substantiate this. Once you enter that place, all rules are broken. The same people who would stop at STOP sign outside this area, suddenly stop ignoring the STOP signs, would NOT yield and create a traffic jam too ;-)

    Coming to N. Vittal, he is talking about something that he is concerned with. He is right in his own way.


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