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'Dharma is always at stake. Take Manmohan Singh's Bhishma-like silence'(Interview with Gurucharan Das)

'Dharma is always at stake. Take Manmohan Singh's Bhishma-like silence'(Interview with Gurucharan Das)

Author: Saritha Rai
Publication: The Indian Express
Date: October 1, 2009
URL: http://www.indianexpress.com/news/dharma-is-always-at-stake.-take-manmohan-si/523563/

Introduction: Corporate chieftain-turned-author Gurcharan Das, whose post-liberalisation book 'India Unbound' became a bestseller in a dozen languages, has turned to the Mahabharata in his new book 'The Difficulty of Being Good: The Subtle Art of Dharma'. In conversation with Saritha Rai, Das discussed dharma, contemporary politics, and more.

Q.: What was the inspiration for the book?
A.: My previous book India Unbound had concluded on the positive note that economic prosperity would extend. It was only later that I began to realise how horrible day-to-day life is for the average Indian. Every interaction with the state is fraught with moral failure. Twenty per cent of a rickshawallah's earning is taken by the police as bribe. One out of four school teachers doesn't show up in government schools but parents bribe to get their child enrolled even in such schools. Our ministers are caught on tape accepting bribes. India is prosperous but Indians cannot be happy until we have fixed our governance issues. That's what drove me to the Mahabharata. I wondered if I could bring its insights to the ordinary person and make them aware of the moral failure that blankets us like Delhi's smog. Could I capture the essence of civic virtue from the Mahabharata?

Q.: Your book is intriguingly titled 'The Difficulty of Being Good'.
A.: The idea of dharma has evolved through history and has now become a personal attribute representing qualities such as honesty and non-violence. A person's conscience is his dharma, swadharma, a very liberal idea of ethical behavior. The bottomline is that every person is fully responsible for his actions.

Q.: 'India Unbound' represented artha or material well being. Your latest book represents dharma or moral well being. Is that your own life journey?
A.: In this morally ambiguous century, it is a search for self. In the Mahabharata, examples abound of characters being conflicted, yet left to their own devices. It is very sophisticated moral reasoning. The book has not made me more moral, it has made me more conscious of moral issues and improved my moral reasoning skills. A character like Arjuna is conflicted about war. That made me think that we would like our leaders to put the moral concern into the equation before going to war. The US war in Iraq or Vietnam does not seem a just war.

Q.: You have written a book about Mahabharata at a time when working Indians are busy watching the bottomline, market share or stock price.
A.: The Mahabharata made me realise that the world is a marketplace founded on very moral ideas where every transaction is based on the premise of trust. Everybody - employees, suppliers - has to be treated justly. There is great dharma in capitalism and when the balance gets tipped, you get the likes of (former Satyam chairman) Ramalinga Raju. Being ambitious for your company is moral but greed for the sake of your children is not.

Q.: Who are the Arjunas, Karnas and Duryodanas in the modern Indian landscape?
A.: Both Anil and Mukesh Ambani have an aspect of Duryodhana in them. Anil Ambani suffers from envy which drives him to make the world believe he is as good as his brother. Mukesh too has facets of Duryodhana in denying his brother his rightful share of the father's wealth.

On the other hand, Murthy and Nilekani exemplify moral behaviour. Your company can't gain global marketshare unless there is excellence within. India could not be the world's second fastest growing economy but for its corporate heroes.

Q.: So where does the concept of dharma come in?
A.: Dharma is always at stake. Take Manmohan Singh's morally ambiguous silence over the selection of a president to succeed Dr. Kalam. It was clear to everybody that Pratibha Patil has a tainted past. There were scandals involving a co-operative bank and accusations that her family had siphoned off money. There was a clamour against her nomination but the Congress Party had already decided they wanted a woman. They made her the president of India. Manmohan Singh, an otherwise moral, Bhishma-like persona was part of this conspiracy of silence. As the Mahabharata says, a fourth of the blame goes to Bhishma for choosing to remain silent.

Q.: Is India still Unbound? Or, has some of your optimism for India come off from the time you wrote your last book?
A.: What I predicted in India Unbound is coming true. When this global crisis is over, India will go back to the earlier growth rates. I feel prosperity will spread in India. But what is holding it back is the failure of the government. More than economic reforms, we need government reforms. We need to fix our government; we need police, judicial and administrative reforms.

Q.: How would you apply the teachings of the Mahabharata to decision-making?
A.: Despite all the ambiguity and uncertainty in the world, the Mahabharata snatches victory in the actions of Arjuna or of Yudhishtira. There is a contest between the kshatriya ethic and Yudhishtira's personal ethic. He has to protect his people above all else. Similarly, the CEO has to engage in highly moral behaviour at all times. In some ways we are lucky to have Manmohan Singh. He may not be the most effective leader but he is a humble, austere man. So, it is not all about Mulayam Singh and Mayawati. It is not only the Shakunis out there.


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