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IPL, Natural Disasters And Morality

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When Lord Krishna advised Arjun to follow the warrior' dharma and kill his uncles because they were ranged against him on the field of battle regardless of blood ties, he raised a fundamental question about the nature of personal morality that we are yet as a society to resolve. I found myself leisurely mulling this question over summer vacations as the IPL match fixing controversy raged back home in India.

Let's acknowledge the Bullshit Quotient of 20-20 cricket for a start. The rise of consumerism in India in the last 20 years has resulted in reconfiguring cricket from a sport to pure entertainment. The format has been mutilated to a point where it doesn't represent the skills of either team: the "glorious uncertainties of cricket" has become a euphemism for roulette with an asymmetric ball. So much is played and with so many unexpected results, that it can't but be fun, games, merrymaking and a little bit of skulduggery. You would have to admit that it is ultimately a spectacle, like professional wrestling, the pay-off being in the process so to speak and not in the perfect fairness of the outcome. Once that perception seeps into the collective unconscious, it is inevitable that matches would be fixed. It helps that cricket is a game uniquely easy to fix because, unlike football, you don't need to fix many to make a lot of money.

Now that cricket as entertainment is here, can cricket as a source of fast irregular bucks be far behind? Neither players nor team owners are immune to the financial implications of this radical shift in the point of the game so to speak. Years ago, I once sat on a meeting where it was argued that the business case for IPL was poor at best and that you would need a substantial revenue stream from the outcome of each match for it to be worth your while to have a team. But there's cricket aplenty out there with owners aplenty too. So why would anyone buy a team?

The viewer side of the equation is not so different. Once you acknowledge that cricket is entertainment, why should you, or the police, care whether someone made money under the table to provide the entertainment, or how? Do the vast majority of spectators believe the game is fairly played? Considering that a cricket scam hits the headlines more often than it rains in the plains of Spain, is that a fair belief to have and to hold? I would think not and the proof of it is in the fact that Sreeshanth and his merry men have been granted bail and the freak show on TV and print media has moved on. As with the game, it seems revelations of skulduggery in the game are also ultimately a spectacle designed for entertainment!

So where does that leave all the high pitch shrieking and breast beating about the horror and the depravity? I would argue that the vast body of cricket lovers don't actually care about the "immorality" of what goes on in the game. I would argue that the public condemnation and nervous breakdowns are a unique type of national group therapy: spiritual cleansing through emotional purgation, or some such. I would also argue that this is so because the 'Indian' definition of morality bears no relationship to morality as it is commonly understood in many other cultures.

Let me explain this by a scenic route. I had a fascinating illustration of Indian morality at work last month when some of the residents of our colony got together to put up a community generator in one of the common spaces in the colony. There were subscribers aplenty to the scheme but no one wanted the machine within 50 yards of their own house. Bonhomie and camaraderie gave way to hostility and ugly exchanges of letters in no time.  Clearly, socially cohesive action and the promotion of the larger interest of the community are laudable goals just so long as they take nothing away from what we have as individuals, even if what we have is a public park fifty yards away that doesn't particularly belong to us. Worse was to follow from people who wanted generator power but found it unaffordable: they opposed generator installation anywhere in the colony's public spaces.

Some of the high pitch opposition was pretty vile. These are the same people who stand around in Gucci clothes, Mojito in hand on any Friday night in Gurgaon bitching about the self-serving perversion of politicians. I can confirm that Indian elites don't do irony! But it does raise this question: where does one draw the line between self-interest and the larger interest of the largest number? Nearly as I can tell, the line is drawn at that point where the individual begins to suffer the slightest inconvenience because of the larger societal interest. Clearly, no individual believes he has a moral or ethical obligation to care about the interest of his neighbour in excess of his self-interest. So why should Sreesanth or any team owner for that matter, care how squeamish a cricket fan may be about match fixing? Players have girlfriends to spoil, and owners have a business to run, and that is their dharma!

Last week, the newspapers were a wash with a report put out by the Save Life Foundation disclosing that 88 per cent of the people in most Indian towns won't help an accident victim. Why not? For one, if you take a victim to hospital, the police naturally suspect that you hit the guy. Second, once you have the battered victim on your hands, you then have to pay his registration charges and so forth before the hospital will take him in. This is, of course, quite apart from the time you invest in this common decency, time that could stretch indefinitely if the police decide to investigate you more closely.

The same basic construct informs the actions of those we accuse of windfall money making amidst the debris and the cries of lament of flood ravaged pilgrims caught unaware by the cloudburst in Uttaranchal in June. If my business is selling biscuits so that I can feed my own family, what is wrong in selling them at a twenty times mark up to very hungry flood victims? And so it is with taxi operators asking for half the price of a car to transport a starving just-rescued pilgrim from Rudraprayag to Delhi. If profit is my dharma, and I do a good job, what is it that I am accused of? Forget natural calamities, whoever makes super profit anywhere in the world without overpricing something that someone needs for good reasons or bad? Unless we are prepared to place the larger interest of society above our obligation to feed our family, and perhaps the girlfriend too, I don't see how generic social altruism at the cost of immediate family obligations is morally defensible.

This should lead us to question the unfair moral indignation in which our public discourse is generally structured. I will not repeat the argument about the blameless casting of the first stone but I will contextualise it in the corporate commercial space where a great many readers probably find their karmic compulsions. To cut to first principles, the corporation is a brilliant vehicle designed to maximize profit while radically limiting risk. Coincidentally, it is also an ideal vehicle to avoid moral responsibility because the law doesn't easily lift the corporate veil, nor do we. Our colleagues in the pharmaceutical industry for instance don't equate the price of AIDS or diabetes drugs with the price of biscuits in Uttarakhand after the cloudburst. That a corporation may engage in conduct we would not accept in an individual is now tacitly and widely accepted. After all, it is unfair to expect any corporate entity to do anything but maximise profit. Indeed, the shareholders — people like you and me — will tear it limb for limb if it doesn't.

Come to think of it, we are entirely comfortable with the idea that a corporate may, in pursuit of its objectives as set forth in its Memorandum of Association tear other people's lives up limb for limb. How else would any mining company make a living without chucking masses of people off the land and then ripping the land asunder in search of minerals? We never ask if we are responsible for this. When the corporation acts with blatantly perfidy — like establishing a private army to terrorise local residents (read Salwa Judum) — we blame it and we condemn the politician for supporting it but we never stop quietly enjoying the dividend the corporation sends us… or the product it sells. I am yet to hear of an India company that was boycotted to its death because as a society, we didn't agree with its policies or actions.

Now that I think about it, I also don't know a single guy who was socially boycotted because he made his money by dodgy means. How could we? Most people are doing dodgy things around us. If anything, the strutting fat cat showing off his Ferrari (which he managed to import duty free through a travel agent) is an object of envy and admiration, not derision. Dodgy guys get groupies, not social sanction. Heck, we don't even socially boycott the pervert who won't pay the Resident Welfare Association's dues. When a society is structured around an undeniable admiration for acquisitive jiggery-pokery, where is the argument that it is wrong to engage in immoral conduct? Clearly, everyone cares about the final result of what you do, not the process by which you got there. To me the conclusion is obvious: in our hearts, we don't really buy into the moral platitudes we mouth: our dharmic obligations march to the beat of another drummer.

The net-net of this rant comes down to this. When social elites endorse immoral conduct, society cannot have moral underpinnings. When social elites don't act on their professed ethical constructs, pointing fingers at politicians and celebrities at best comes off as part of weekend time pass. If we want a society that genuinely strives to a better and higher moral standard, we will have to put the interest of the group taken as a whole above our dharma, as a warrior, a corporate executive or even as a father. That is a huge cultural shift and till we can all get there, all the indignation and the hysterics is just purgation.

The author is managing partner of the Gurgaon-based corporate law firm N South. He is the author of
Winning Legal Wars and Bullshit Quotient: Decoding India's corporate, social and legal Fine Print. He can be contacted at [email protected]