Recently, a federal cabinet minister in the Indian government, Pawan Kumar Bansal, was charged with taking a bribe of $160,000, via his nephew. The bribe was allegedly paid by an official of his own ministry. Were Bansal, within his own limited sense, rational, he would have started mobilizing his friends and bribing the news agencies, to avoid legal entanglements. Instead, he was found feeding a goat that was about to be sacrificed. It was a ritual to seek divine intervention.
To be elected a member of Parliament, Bansal must have been well perceived in his constituency, which is among the richest and most educated in India. The voters must have found him rational enough to be their representative. To be elected a top-level minister, he must have found acceptance among the majority of his political party, which rules the lives of 1.2 billion people. The prime minister must have found him charismatic, influential, and intelligent enough, or at least powerful enough to be a top-level minister, working daily on issues with serious influence on the direction India may take. Rising to the top in politics requires one to pass through umpteen filters. The fact that Bansal attained such a high position gives a glimpse of the psychology and character of the Indian body politic, its irrationality and medieval thinking.
I have almost never met a public official in India who did not ask for a bribe. But only a very rare public servant ever gets into trouble, and that happens mostly because of extreme stupidity or sheer bad luck. The investigative agencies are themselves totally corrupt, so they must find themselves cornered before they do anything. Even when the evidence is obvious, court cases simmer for several decades: eventually people die, or forget; witnesses change their stories, either because they are tired and want to end their court visits or because they lose their sanity under the pressures of an insane system; and prosecutors and judges keep changing. This is not just a result of financial corruption. The roots go much deeper.
There were riots in India in 1984, after the assassination of Indira Gandhi. The cases against the alleged culprits are still going on. Among people in government, there is apathy and lack of passion for what one does. Most of the job “satisfaction” public servants get is not from doing their job but from showing off their power, using it to obstruct and create problems for people. It is a very warped mentality that is not just about bribes (which in a narrow way is still a rational expectation) but is mostly a result of deep-rooted irrationality and the demands that irrational minds create. Indeed were bribes the only problem for India, it would have merely added a layer of cost to society, not made it stagnate or simmer in perpetual wretchedness.
Only a very rare public servant ever gets into trouble in India, and that happens mostly because of extreme stupidity or sheer bad luck.
I believe that the state is simply a visual symptom of the deeper social problem. The “anti-nutrients” come from the surrounding society. The underlying morality of this society — seen from the perspective of my own experience — is not that of “right or wrong” based on reason and evidence. Instead, motivations are often driven by astrology, circular thinking, superstitions, narrow tribal affiliations, and a completely erroneous understanding of causality, an understanding that results from medieval thinking with little or no influence by the scientific revolution. When I was in engineering, it was not uncommon for hordes of students to travel long distances to visit exotic temples or enact weird rituals to help them pass examinations. One must ask what happens elsewhere in society, when the top engineering students are so superstitious.
Industrialization was imposed on India before the country had time to go through a phase of the age of reason and enlightenment. Partial acceptance of reason has made Indians extreme rationalists, solidifying their superstitions. For example, a very good electrical engineer recently told me that touching the feet of the idol in a temple results in a flow of electricity through your body that is extremely beneficial to you, transferring to you the wisdom of the god by electrically changing the connections of your neurons. Educated people often take extreme pride in how our ancestors — the ancestors of Indians as expressed in Indian mythologies — had airplanes and time machines.
What about Indian spirituality and religiousness? Don’t they control people’s corrupt behaviour? I am an atheist, but I do understand those who see religion as a means of spiritual solace. But for Bansal, and a lot of other people in India, religion has nothing to do with philosophy or spirituality. It is about rituals conducted for material benefits, either in this life or in the next. It is about materialism, materialism, and materialism.
Recently a group has gained very high visibility in fighting against corruption. This group has been asking its followers not to pay their electricity and water bills, to force the government to reduce the charges. No thought is given to where the loss-making public sector company will get its money from. These people should have fought for the public electricity company to be privatized and to allow competition to work. But that is too much for their feel-good fight against corruption, in which some obscure fountain of wealth will provide for the shortfall. Visible, financial corruption is truly the tip of the iceberg. It is deep-rooted irrationality that is the true problem.
Most of my Indian acquaintances talk against corruption. But in their private lives not only do they pay the bribes they have to pay to conduct legitimate business, but they are more than happy to pay to get an unjust advantage over others. Despite the rhetoric, financial corruption has actually increased in India. And it has much deeper roots than most people realize. If he were truly rational, the hapless Bansal would certainly not have wasted his time on the goat, but the age of reason has not touched his thinking.
India’s problem is not just a lack of personal ethics among those in government. By itself, financial corruption would add only a certain, limited cost to the economy. It is the fundamental irrationality that keeps India from gaining traction, from being able to build its way out of wretchedness.