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We are all Dhritarashtra

By Shreekant Sambrani
October 16, 2012 12:36 IST
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The one overweening concern of most Indians -- leaders of statecraft, captains of industry, matinee idols, paragons of professions, and common citizens alike -- is the future of their progeny, says Shreekant Sambrani

Unlike some leading commentators on current affairs, I make no claim of having studied the Mahabharata first hand. My familiarity with the great epic, such as it is, is entirely derivative, with an enormous debt to Irawati Karve's magnum opus, Yuganta (1969). Yet I am tempted by the turn of events this last week to offer a hypothesis on that slender base. I have long believed that as a society, we suffer from a Dhritarashtra syndrome. Simply put, it says, "my children, right or wrong." This is at the root of most of our malfeasance, public as well as private.

The father of the Kauravas was denied the Hastinapur throne because he was born blind although he was the older son. He nursed this grievance all his life. But his greater blindness was of a moral kind, caused by his obsessive love and concern for his sons, especially Duryodhana, the eldest. He remained silent when Dushasana shamefully disrobed Draupadi in court. He rejected the Pandavas' plea for a fair share of the kingdom, or even a reduced one, because Duryodhana claimed it all. He ignored the advice of his wise half-brother Vidura and the mediation efforts of Krishna. 

The one overweening concern of most Indians -- leaders of statecraft, captains of industry, matinee idols, paragons of professions, and common citizens alike -- is the future of their progeny. No effort is too large, no scruple too strong, in our relentless pursuit of a safe and secure future for our children. We are not prepared to entertain even a suggestion that this obsession could harm them, the very objects of these efforts. The tuition mills of Kota produce near-zombies some of whom enter the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology, entirely unprepared for true, rigorous education.

Business Standard recently documented how the cottage industry of degree factories produces wholly unqualified engineers. Yet they flourish, thanks to the monomania of parents. Society bears the real price: the none-too-strong education system becomes even more debased. When successful doctors hothouse their children into medical careers regardless of their suitability, the healthcare system deteriorates. Lawyers and judges forcing their children into their profession sometimes compromise the legal system. Sound businesses run into the ground because an indulgent promoter foists a favourite child as the successor, devaluing professionalism in the process. If the successors quarrel among themselves, as they often do, disintegration accelerates. The resulting acrimony leads to soap operas acted out in family mansions and courtrooms. The sagas of the Mafatlals, the Kirloskars, the Shri Rams, the Ambanis and even The Hindu media house are only too well-known. 

Our business environment still offers considerable discretion to officials at various levels. The time-honoured practice is of influencing the parent through assuring their children's future. This art was mastered not just by wily Indian business houses alone. At the height of the Harshad Mehta scandal, the portfolio management scheme of a leading multinational bank was suspected of using insider information. The bank was known to recruit the children of senior government officers on very attractive terms. The matter never progressed beyond the rolling of some heads, but the odour lingered.

Politics may be the last refuge of scoundrels, but is the preferred occupation of not just the next generation of leaders but their entire extended clans. Governance and equity are subverted to ensure smooth succession. It is now commonplace to nominate a departed leader's child or spouse to the vacant seat. The "sympathy wave" that follows it is glorified as public endorsement, no matter how antithetical it is to a democratic polity. Problems of leadership and succession in the recent past have afflicted a wide spectrum of parties, including the Nationalist Congress Party, the Samajwadi Party, the Dravida Munnettra Kazhagam and the Akalis. Such feuds fuelled by personal ambitions not always backed by proven competence often bring to a standstill what little passes for administration.

Politicians in power often condone (if not actually encourage) many questionable ventures of their offspring. Jagan Mohan Reddy's meteoric rise in business during the tenure of his father YS Rajasekhara Reddy and his rebellion after being denied what he considered his birthright by inheritance may be the most overt such instance of the recent past, but similar cases at different levels cutting across regions and parties have now passed into folklore. Even the otherwise ramrod-straight Morarji Desai had to live with son Kantilal's murky dealings. A remark I have heard about Narendra Modi being immune to corruption because he has no son to hand over the reins was probably only half in jest.

Our Gordon Gekkos know only too well how to manipulate the system. A powerful real estate baron worth many thousand crores does not really need a neophyte entrepreneur from the all-powerful first family to gain access to the political exception-making machinery. But by indulging such a person, he buys with loose change solid-gold IOUs wrapped in insurance in places that matter.

We cite admiringly Warren Buffett's dictum that his children should not enjoy privileges because of the accident of their birth. We know that the Adamses and the Bushes of the United States, the Pitts of England and the Papandreous of Greece were all chosen leaders of their countries not because of their lineage but through a democratic process. Back home, Jawaharlal Nehru's disapproval of Indira Gandhi being named Congress president in 1959 did not set a precedent even for his daughter. She amply signalled her intent regarding the succession. After her assassination, the family-loyalist president of the republic chose to wait for her son, ignoring the custom of swearing in immediately the senior-most minister as the (caretaker) prime minister. 

What is thus aberrant behaviour in other societies is the norm in democratic, egalitarian India. Competence is secondary as long as the name is right. And we all acquiesce in this game. We question the suitability of various prime ministerial candidates in 2014, except one. The largest party's choice is a foregone conclusion and accepted as such by even the most liberal thinkers. 

Perhaps long years of deprivation and a complete absence of any social security net have made us covetous and caused the extreme enamourment of our children. But when patrimony easily trumps integrity, moral corrosion spreads to the entire social fabric resulting in collapse of ethical values, the very glue that holds a society together.

Dhritarashtra, enraged by the killing of his sons, attempted to crush to death Yudhishtra in his embrace. The cast-iron statue Krishna had substituted for Yudhishtra crumbled in the old man's grip. Dhritarashtra was denied entry into heaven for this mortal sin. Our many Dhritarashtras in all walks of life should not be blind to this harsh lesson of the Mahabharata.

Shreekant Sambrani taught at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and helped set up the Institute of Rural Management, Anand

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Shreekant Sambrani
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