Monday, September 24, 2012

Permissible inducements

Today's Times of India carries, on an inner page, a fascinating article titled "How Shukla saved Rao govt in '92". Mr V.C. Shukla was parliamentary affairs minister in the Congress government of the early 1990's, and by his own recent admission to the press, he managed to help this government narrowly survive a no-confidence vote. As they were just one vote short of a majority, Mr Shukla located a member of parliament from a different party who could be induced to vote in favour of the ruling party.

His account of the inducement is what makes the story fascinating. "I promised him chairmanship of parliamentary committee, foreign trips. I used permissible inducements [italics mine]... no money was discussed." So that's alright then? I rather think not. A bribe is defined as "money or any other valuable consideration given or promised with a view to corrupting the behavior of a person". Chairmanship of a high-profile committee, with all the power that brings, as well as foreign trips, certainly count as "valuable consideration". So Mr Shukla bribed an MP on behalf of his party, and he feels this is quite acceptable to admit today just because the bribe was not paid in cash. The journalist breathlessly reporting this tale (Akshaya Mukul by name) also seems unaware of anything morally out of place.

Courts of law in India are fortunately not so literal-minded. When dowry is demanded and paid, it doesn't become OK just because it was paid in motorcycles and TV sets rather than cash. People have gone to jail for just such actions. But then, motorcycles and cash certainly have an interchangeable nature. Foreign trips, and chairmanships, are not saleable or tradeable. Could that be why Mr Shukla considered them permissible inducements?

In this connection I must trot out one more of my "keen" observations about public service, whether rendered by politicians towards their constituents or academics towards their underlings, and the collateral that gets skimmed off without anyone noticing. The following photo helps illustrate my point:

An elected representative has, evidently, sanctioned money from a fund (that originates with the taxpayer) to repair a building in Bombay. Why have the tenants spent their own money to put up a notice thanking him? Does he deserve public thanks in the first place, for doing what he was elected to do and with money that's not his own? It's clear the prominent banner will boost his profile, which may in turn favourably impact him at the next elections. And perhaps that's not a totally bad thing in today's environment, where performance is rarely considered when it comes to re-electing politicians. 

But now let's turn the spotlight a little closer, to the community within which I (and many of my readers) exist: the academic community. I can do no better than quote some lines from a talk I presented a few days ago at an Ethics workshop in Delhi. I spoke of a type of academic, frequently found in administrative positions, who can be described as:

“Mister 10%”: skims off benefit to self in exchange for professional actions, e.g. Head of Department gives a promotion or financial allocation in exchange for loyalty or co-authorship.

I suspect many of my readers are aware how common this is. But I only understood its pervasive and universal nature after I became head of my department two years ago. All of a sudden I found it my pleasant duty to disburse a certain quantum of funds for computational equipment, and conference travel, to the faculty members, post-doctoral fellows and students of my department. All taxpayer's money, of course. I'm sure I haven't done a perfect job, but have tried to follow a sensible combination of rules, procedures and common (including scientific) sense. And more than half the time, I've received such effusive thanks - sometimes a virtual threat of being embraced - that it's led me to wonder. Is there any "cashable value" in such thanks? Can I selectively manipulate the people who are grateful to me in order to serve my own agenda? 

The thought still fascinates me. Now if only I can put together an actual agenda, before my "gratitude miles" expire....

Monday, September 10, 2012

Bizarre attack on constitutional freedom

Rarely have I been so stung by a piece of political idiocy than I have by the arrest and remand to custody of cartoonist Aseem Trivedi this weekend. The Government of India has always specialised in the easygoing, relaxed approach towards people I regard as serious criminals (those responsible for instigating murderous riots, or those who incite hatred towards religious or linguistic communities, or on a much smaller scale those rich kids whose drunk driving takes several lives). But it comes down heavily on those who, however misguided, challenge the prevailing orthodoxy because they are sincere about wanting social change. This includes Indian Maoists for example. However I don't like to rush into print defending Maoists because I have a fundamental problem with their ideology of violence against the state. Perhaps there are some Maoists who don't believe in or practice violence, but with a given person I can't necessarily be sure (Binayak Sen was an exception whose personal non-violence was fairly evident to me).

The case of Aseem Trivedi is a lot simpler. His cartoons are generic sarcastic attacks on politicians, for which reason I find them a shade simplistic. Then again he doesn't work for me, so who am I to approve or not! He works for himself and for various publications and for organisations such as Cartoonists Against Corruption. Under the Indian Constitution he has every right to say what he has been saying and draw what he's been drawing. There is nothing remotely seditious (or even offensive) about what he's drawn, unless it could be argued that making Indian politicians generically look bad is harmful to the country. I would dearly love to read the text of such an argument if it was ever made, and if I could stop laughing while reading it.

One example of Aseem's cartoons, which can still be found on his Facebook page, is about the award of an Oscar to the Indian Parliament, in the form of a "Lifetime Achievement Award for a hundred years of सजीव अभिनय " (which I believe translates as "play-acting"). The cartoons that seem to have led to his arrest (as of now, they are easily found on the web) are a little more blunt. One shows the national emblem of India with the three lions replaced by wolves, their fangs dripping blood, and the motto सत्यमेव जयते (the truth alone triumphs) by भ्रष्टमेव जयते (corruption alone triumphs). Another depicts the "gang rape of Mother India" with a politician and a bureaucrat holding her and saying "come on... hurry up..." while a devil figure labelled "Corruption" prepares for the assault. Mother India is fully clothed so there is no case of obscenity in the very literal Indian (i.e. Victorian) sense of nudity. She is also looking extremely angry. All in all there is no insult to the country, even someone with the most distorted literalist mindset can see that.

I'm not quite sure how things are supposed to go now. It's certain that any Indian court above a certain level will let him off and pass strictures against the government, the police and the magistrate who put him behind bars. By that time he will have spent some days in jail and the purpose of this abusive action by the authorities will have been served: to frighten off anyone else who dares to lampoon politicians. My concern is that this sets the bar for what is permissible (to the police/government) very very very low. The three "very" 's are intentional. Some day we supporters of freedom of expression may have to address a case where a very hard-hitting, explicit or even repulsive drawing needs to be defended under the Constitution of India. If Aseem's mild, harmless work is the benchmark then there is no hope.

A final thought: could I also be subjected to a one-week free stay at government expense, just for blogging about this case and linking to relevant material including Aseem's Facebook page? Could you go behind bars for following my links? It's worth thinking about.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Little dictators and academia

Today is the 36th death anniversary of my father and, as I've done before, I'd like to write down some thoughts inspired by him. One thing I learned from him (and also from my mother) was to admire ideas, objects and achievements, but not to overly admire individuals. They both saw individuals, very correctly, as mere instruments in the making of these ideas, objects and achievements. A logical corollary is that both were spiritual people but didn't find it important to bring God into the picture.

In this view, one admires General Relativity rather than Einstein, Rashtrapati Bhavan rather than Lutyens, Gitanjali rather than Tagore. I don't for a moment pretend that my parents were entirely free of admiration towards people, but it was not a fetish for them. In the same way, I've deeply admired the musician Pandit Kumar Gandharva for several decades but my admiration has always been focused more on his works (of which I have an enormous collection) than on himself. And recently I surprised myself by writing on someone's Facebook page that I was tired of hearing stories about Richard Feynman, for whose science I have of course the deepest respect.

In India, at least among the middle class, this approach is uncommon to say the least. For some reason we Indians fawn on people and spend all our time elevating them to absurd heights. Sooner or later they fall from these heights and then we want to trample them in the dirt. It is an anger born from disappointed admiration. This explains, for me, our absurd relationship with politicians. Bring a politician in front of middle-class Indians and they will grovel at his feet. And yet, in private the same people will profess complete contempt for all politicians and for politics itself. Their contempt is the flip side of admiration, and the deeper the admiration, the louder the contempt. This helps me understand why we keep paradoxically voting for the same people and then (but only in private) showering abuse on them.

Despite everything I've said, I did learn from my father that there are a few people worth admiring, and these are people with a wide and well-integrated range of admirable qualities. I also learned that there is one class of person never to be admired: the larger-than-life dictator figure. In our family we all considered fascism to be a total abomination because it went against principles of natural justice, which we greatly respected. Importantly, we understood that the fascist impulse is not confined to the political world. For every globally powerful figure like Hitler or Mussolini, there are thousands of little dictators whom one encounters in one's life: people who are all-powerful within an organisation, a social grouping, a family, an academic institution. And around each such dictator there are dozens or hundreds of fawning admirers for whom the dictator can do no wrong.

I'd like to connect this with some observations from my long experience in academia. Most of my scientist colleagues are vocal in their opposition to dictatorship and fascism, which they rightly view as antithetical to democracy and justice. They support a liberal democratic system for the country, the state, the city in which they live. But shrink the circle further to cover only their academic institution, and a truly surprising love of dictatorship surfaces. It is coupled with a complete distate, even contempt, for democracy of any sort. My antennae quiver when someone in my institute, or elsewhere in academia, says something like: "democracy is no good as a principle for running a scientific institution". That may be true enough if you idiotically imagine democracy to mean gathering everyone and asking them to vote on everything. In fact that would not be democracy but majoritarianism, which is quite different. Democracy is defined by Wikipedia as "a form of government in which all eligible citizens have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives". Clearly, a lot hinges on the meaning of "having a say". One can transport this definition to academia (I won't try to actually do it here) by adding words like "participatory", "transparent" etc. In short, democracy is an excellent thing for academia but, like the larger version for a city or country, it can be functional or dysfunctional. That depends on the the quality of the leaders as well as the quality of the people they lead.

So, what about those colleagues who have a distaste for democracy in academia? What is their preferred system? We don't have to look very far to find out. India has a surprising profusion of institutions each associated to a single person. In fact, institutions are often said to be "given" to a person, as in "he got a new institution from the Department of ....". Publicly funded institutions are surely not gifts in a real sense, they are paid for by the taxpayer and belong only to her. But if the leader is a dictator then the distinction is easily blurred. Whenever the head of the institution benevolently allocates some (public) funding to a member, that member must be duly grateful. If the head dislikes someone in their institution, that person's career is effectively over. As with any fascist system, the blame lies as much with supporters falling over themselves to comply. And there is constant fawning: "oh wonderful leader, oh strong leader, show us the way forward in your great wisdom". Two central features of fascism are seen here. As per good old Wikipedia, "fascists seek elevation of their nation based on commitment to an organic national community where its individuals are united together as one people through national identity". And one of their aims is to "promote the rule of people deemed innately superior while seeking to purge society of people deemed innately inferior". Sadly, one is seeing these kinds of principles being de facto approved and followed by people who are leading researchers in science, even as they rail against analogous dictators in national politics.

Unfortunately I can't get to chat about this with my father, but I can easily guess what advice he would have given: others may do what they will, but you should never support dictatorship in any shape or form.