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Ramesh Jude Thomas

The author is president and CKO, EQUiTOR Value Advisory

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An Awkward Truth

Most people don’t want to rock the boat, or be the bad guy. I’m not in agreement but I can see why. But here’s the kicker.

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A couple of years ago, I was at dinner with an old uncle of mine. Across the room, Arnab Goswami was in full swing, taking on the bad guys, as is his wont.
Uncle George was pleased as punch about the squirming victims who had apparently been party to some scam or other. And he was vocal about it.

Aunty came in from the kitchen to check what the brouhaha was about. Fully appraised, she suddenly turns to uncle and asks him, “Do you remember paying your dentist 6,000 rupees in cash? How was that OK, when you knew he was avoiding tax as a habit?”

Uncle thought for a moment and said that this was just being practical since he cannot convince his accomplished dentist to change his compliance practices. Aunty shook her head and went back to fetch the aromatic vindaloo.

I find this quite curious. But Uncle George is not alone in this discrepancy. Most people I know will fall into three unequal categories. There will be one small lot that will always actively do what is beneficial to them. Whatever it takes. Whichever rule or law needs to be bent. The other tiny minority is those who will consistently do what is right, simply because it needs to be done.

But you would agree that most people will do what is expedient. Not because it’s right or wrong, but like Uncle George said, it is the most practical thing to do. The moral or ethical compass will not apply here, the collateral damage will not matter at the time. It could be a school admission, a commercial contract or a hard fought promotion. We will do whatever it takes.

So most people don’t want to rock the boat, or be the bad guy. I’m not in agreement but I can see why. But here’s the kicker. Like Uncle George, all of us will always have a view about the bad guy on the screen, or the babu who takes a bribe. We will have a clear notion about what is right and wrong. We will often harshly and accurately point to the injustice of these situations.

I think Arnab is so popular because he gives us an opportunity to do so every night. Isn’t there a fundamental contradiction here? What is wrong for someone else is merely practical for you. I don’t get it.

American presidents (the most powerful men on the planet) have had little success with gun control or trade barriers. It’s not hard to see why. When he campaigns he needs the money from these groups to win. Once he does, it is difficult to act against the interests of these “generous” folk, however wrong it might be for the greater good.

The reason that Obama’s first victory was so historic was precisely this. That he built his campaign with the monetary and moral support of the little guy. The same guy who he promised to serve as president. But even he struggled against an expedient administration.

Ask any CEO who has struggled with the dilemma of letting go of a star performer for impropriety. He will fight the validity of the accusation tooth and nail till it goes public. Then of course he will talk about how the firm conforms to the highest ethical standards and no one is above the law.

So most people when confronted with such an argument will tell you that they are not Mother Teresa, that they have a life to live.

But what would happen to all of us practical folk if Mother Teresa and the Mahatma, Martin Luther King and Mandela had all chosen the practical route?

Will we always leave it to a messiah to do the right thing?

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magazine 07 March 2016 columns arnab goswami