Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The cult of sycophancy

I've lived and worked in India for over thirty years now but never come to terms with the cult of sycophancy. This concept does exist in some form all over the world, but India is very special. Here, groups seem to naturally subdivide into the leaders and the led, and immediately something else kicks in: the followers turn into craven sycophants and flatterers of their leader. The leader quickly starts to enjoy, develop and promote it. The relationship grows, with more flatterers clustering around each leader-figure, who (if he/she is any good at this) manages them with favours.

However, it would be a mistake to think the favours always have to be substantive. If they were, I would be referring not to sycophancy but to simple reciprocity which, though ethically inappropriate, is a very different thing. With sycophants the favours are mainly psychological and consist of a very guarded, almost royal, acceptance of the follower by the leader. The benefit to the follower seems to lie mainly in the thrill of being accepted as a follower -- apparently the more you rub your own face in the dirt, the tastier the dirt becomes!

In politics, examples are not hard to find. Supporters of each political party consider this to be a weakness only of their rival party, but the reality is different. I won't dwell on examples outside India, but here Indira Gandhi and Narendra Modi, as well as all the Thackerays, had/have a huge cult of sycophancy around them, and to a lesser extent this also applies to people like Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, L.K. Advani in his time and even most recently Arvind Kejriwal. All the above cults are somewhat eclipsed in grandiosity and absurdity by the admirers of Dr J. Jayalalithaa, as I believe she calls herself. Sycophancy necessarily involves building up the leader to be much more than he or she can possibly be: the late Devakanta Baruah secured a place in history for his infamous statement: "India is Indira, Indira is India".

But that is politics and more generally public life (religion and cinema are other good examples). Personally I populate a different world altogher, the smaller and more private circle of academia. This is built around faculty who teach and do research, and students. Being a naive person I always felt that sycophancy was less likely to thrive in this environment, where each person has an important goal to achieve that can only be achieved through hard work. Yes I know, silly me. Over thirty years I've learned more and more about how things often work in this domain, and it never fails to annoy and upset me.

But first the good news. During this long period I've been fortunate to come across many people who were surrounded by no cult and who did excellent and admirable work. I can think of several physicists I've known personally, and even worked with, who were inspiring in this regard. Any momentary weakness (on the part of myself or anyone else) to "admire" them would be met with a change of subject or even a sharp remark. The implication was that one must keep a strong focus on the work. Admire the work if you like, not the person. Such people were not entirely selfless, rather they exhibited a form of enlightened self-interest. If you decline the opportunity to be flattered, your reputation actually rises higher and higher and (I believe) last longer and longer. So in this sense, accepting sycophancy is merely a short-term thrill.

And yet, so many in Indian academia do go in for the short-term thrill. Looking at all the Directors, Vice-Chancellors and Presidents of Academies, it's self-evident that the vast majority of them have reached where they are either by being sycophants or commanding a large army of flatterers, or both. Indeed there is no clear distinction between the giver and receiver of sycophancy - each one takes from the people below and gives to the people above. It is deeply ingrained in our academic hierarchies, where the word "dignitary" occupies an unseemly and entirely inappropriate place.

In this regard, a recent comment from a friend and colleague visiting from a US university made a major impact on me. "In the US, a Director is just one among us - the person who happens to be doing the job at the moment. I understand that in India a Director means something different, someone who is seen at a much `higher' level than everyone else, enjoying powers over everyone". How true.

This may be slightly off the main point but I must relate a little anecdote. Some years ago I was tasked with inviting the legendary Murray Gell-Mann to a conference in India. So one night, when it would be morning for him, I looked up the webpage of the Santa Fe Institute, dialled a number and was amazed when it was answered with "Gell-Mann speaking". He was courteous and chatty even though he did not in the end come for our conference. On another occasion I wrote to the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge and received a personal reply on the following day. But mails to a Director of an Indian institution (even my own, when I was in TIFR) would simply go un-answered.

Getting back to the issue, I'll conclude by pointing out many fall-outs of the sycophancy cult in Indian academia: (i) At least in academically strong institutions, everyone agrees that a scientist is to be judged by the quality of his/her work. However even in such insitutions, administrators are never judged by what they do, only by "who they are" (e.g. how many powerful committees they are in) and which powerful persons are backing them, (ii) Discussions about academic ethics are resisted by senior academics in positions of power. Offhand, I can't think of a single Director/VC/Academy Chair in India who has enthusiastically promoted greater sensitisation on the subject. The best ones simply tolerate some discussions/workshops on this issue and the worst ones don't even permit that, (iii) Our academic achievement is stuck where it is - small pockets of excellence but no larger push for collective achievement. It seems to be that the more we owe to our immediate leader, the less we owe to our country. So sycophancy in academia is deeply anti-national.

One wishes Mr Narayan Murthy had thought of mentioning some of this when he gave his recent talk at IISc.