The Good, The Bad And The Crass

Written by Subhash Agrawal | Updated: Jul 15 2004, 05:47am hrs
During the past month, the biggest story from or about India that made international news was not the working of the new UPA government or the renewed India-Pakistan peace talks or even the latest budget. It was in fact the recent wedding in France of an Indian tycoons daughter. The sheer opulence and brazen excess of the event, said to be one of the most expensive ever in modern history, made it newsworthy across the globe. Not just for major newspapers and TV channels but also as remotely away as in Tulsa or Maputo or Trieste. In much of this bemused global coverage, India was indeed shining, if only, as one newspaper called it, in a perverse Arabian Nights Fantasy.

But to my mind, what makes the wedding really stand out is not its outlandishness or even its self-seeking media glare but the fact that there were very few comments from our usually hyperactive writers or columnists. Not even from Jug Suraiya, who can usually be counted on to delightfully lampoon something like this. The closest op-ed I found was by Tavleen Singh in The Indian Express, who ended up defending the rights of the nouveau class to be brash. In comparison, there was far more outrage expressed in a number of Indian blogs and in letters to editors.

It was a great opportunity missed by Indian opinion makers and moral crusaders, or at least those who fancy themselves to be so. Which is a pity. The issue here is not about the right to be crass (that is, or ought to be, undisputed in any democratic order) but whether we now have the kind of business and social elite that is inspiring or worth emulating. It is not about the right to indulge in conspicuous consumption, but how do we cope with vulgarity that is personally paid and yet which offends public sensibilities. How do we stop it from magnifying into horrendous proportions in future generations

It would be uncharitable to personalise the issue or target one particular family, but the wedding and its surrounding publicity point to these larger dimensions that remain either limited to esoteric conferences or modestly sidestepped in mainstream debate. These are not Leftist concerns, though the Left appears to have cleverly appropriated them to the horror of liberals, but essential building blocks of a successful free-market society. In fact, liberalism in the fullest sense promotes both material prosperity and human empathy, and capitalism is an important but only one part of the larger assembly. There are other components that are equally vital: justice, equality and tolerance. In a word, a moral guide (quite separate from religion) that is personal to each of us.

There are two aspects of liberalism that appear to have precipitously declined in the modern age, here in India as much as in the West. The first is humility. Robert Shiller in Irrational Exuberance points to the danger of moral demoralisation in society as a result of instant millionaires or of flaunting of wealth. It is so painful to see people devoting their lives to caring professions, such as school teachers, police officers, fire fighters, while someone buys into the market, gets rich and then flaunts it around. You feel like a sucker.

Brash behaviour and uncontrolled indulgence not only loosen the societal bond of empathy, rather dangerous in itself, but have often led to the meltdown of great empires, Roman and Russian included. And we dont need to look at ancient history to realise that large entities are too often doomed by a fundamental failure of character at the top instead of by flawed strategies, whether it is Enron, Worldcom or Global Crossing. The reverse is often true. Some years ago, the CEO of Synovus Financial, then ranked on the top of Fortunes 100 Best Companies to Work For, ascribed his companys success to a deliberate policy of discouraging arrogance. In his company, competence was expected, excellence rewarded and arrogance simply not tolerated.

The other aspect of liberalism that is missing these days is shame. Unfortunately, this is hardly ever imbibed by our education system outside of boring moral lectures in early school. James B Twitchell, an American professor, has authored a wonderful book called For Shame: The Loss of Common Decency in American Culture. The life curve and experiences he describes are now found everywhere and not just in America. The world over, we now have what he calls shamelebrities, people with a history suitable for a spot in the hall of shame but who instead earn a book deal and a spot on the talk show circuit. We love to watch shameless people, he says, Shameless people are entertaining.

Whatever be the many and bewildering fault-lines in Indian history and sociology, interpersonal dynamics in the country till the end of the 19th century centered around modest behaviour and the quest to avoid spite, stigma or embarrassment. That theme is now rapidly vanishing, especially among the elite, as the mega-event in France just reminded us.

The author is an analyst of Indian political and business trends and the editor of India Focus, a political risk report for international investors