Just got off a call with my friend CJ. He had watched Dr Manmohan Singh’s TV personalities’ press conference. Eager to get an outsider’s perspective on it, I asked him what he thought of it. He thought it was a fascinating glimpse of the Indian character.
“No, no,” I said. “What did you think of Mr Singh.”
“Mr Singh,” CJ said, “is only the prime minister of India. India is a democracy and he represents Indians more than any other single person. His character reflects the Indian character in a very compelling sense.”
“I think he is the most despicably dishonest person,” I said. “So you mean to say that Indians are fundamentally dishonest? I don’t think so. Indians are not collectively dishonest.”
“Actually, you may be mistaken,” CJ replied. “The fact that India is a desperately poor country points squarely to the fact that Indians must be collectively myopically selfish. If it were otherwise, India would have been a very prosperous country. Prosperity is an indicator of character — be it an individual or a collective.”
“So you mean that Indians are collectively dishonest, and therefore India is poor?”
“Actually, you have to ask yourself this question,” CJ said. “Can an honest people have a dishonest person as their representative? If Dr Manmohan Singh is a despicably dishonest person, as you put it, then should you not conclude that collectively Indians are endorsing him by refusing to get him fired? Surely you know that India is a representative democracy. The collective will of the people determines who is at the top. That means Indians has a collective responsibility for who governs India.”
“I see your point but I find it hard to reconcile that with my fundamental belief that Indians are no worse than any other people,” I said.
“It may be impolite for me to point it out, but dishonesty is not the worst of it. What’s worse is the collective delusion. That press conference epitomized the worst of the Indian character to me. Not only do you as a people lie but tragically you believe in the lie yourself.
“It is one thing to be self-serving. All people are to some degree or the other. But even if one is forced to be self-serving from time to time, one should be mindful of that failing and attempt to avoid short-sighted selfishness. However, if you have deluded yourself into believing your lie that you are not dishonest, you have denied yourself the possibility of corrective action.
“Mr Manmohan Singh is dishonest. But evidently he has believed the lie that others tell about him: that he is a person of integrity. That self-delusion is also widespread in India. Too many people parrot the lie that Mr Singh is an honest person. Why? Because if they don’t delude themselves into believing that he is honest, if they admit that he is dishonest and lacks integrity, they will have to admit that they collectively lack integrity and either be ashamed for being so or will have to work hard to fix the problem. The only option open to a collective that is inherently dishonest is to delude themselves into believing that they are honest. That’s the easiest option. And the most damaging in the long run.”
I had nothing more to say to CJ.
Categories: Conversations with CJ