If Those in Power Have No Conscience, What Future Can India Expect?

Most people are doing their jobs for a salary and not out of passion or for a cause.

Recent incidents including the Karnataka elections; washout of the parliament session; suspension of two trial court judges by the Delhi high court on charges of corruption; the Punjab National Bank, ICICI Bank and Axis Bank issue; the case of hospitals billing for lakhs and wrong treatment; and the Kathua and Unnao rape cases where the police were complicit, brought to the fore a big issue the nation is grappling with.

I would not be wrong to assume that these are not sporadic incidents or aberrations, but the result of systemic and cultural failure. This has raised the larger issue of whether the people in positions of power have a conscience left in them, and do they discharge the duties for which they are paid? We might have excellent book-keepers, but where are the conscience-keepers? I am quoting a few experiences to highlight the underlying cause of these cases.

A few months ago, I was travelling with two senior government officials. Since I was the youngest, I took the liberty to seek their counsel, given their vast experience in the government, on how to change the system. I asked, “What must people do if they see wrong things in an organisation? Should they shake it up or keep silent?” The first one replied, “Rajendraji, remember, the first thing is not to shake up the organisation, but get ‘adjusted’ to organisation.” He further shared that everywhere he goes, he ‘adjusts’ himself to the organisation. Recently, this person was appointed to the top position in his sector.

The other official advised, “Apna karyakaal shanti se pura kijiye (Finish your work quietly), and start lobbying for the next position. Why be a reformer? The organisation existed before you came and will exist after you go. The system needs sycophants who can ‘take care’ of their seniors.”

If this is the way senior-most officials think and govern their organisations, where is the conscience to deliver on their role and how will India transform? Most people look at coveted roles and are willing to ‘pay’ or ‘compromise’ to be in positions of power. Discharging their basic responsibility is the last priority. This is like a filtering process which trickles downwards and has led to a culture where people get to positions of power by compromising on their basic duties.

I remember my discussions as a member of the National Education Policy Committee, where everyone who came to give inputs talked about Finland’s education system and made a compelling case for adopting it. But none of the people who suggested this could give the reason as to why Finland’s education system ‘delivered’? I had to finally make this statement: “Finland’s system works because of the general culture in that country, which is, ‘If you are paid for something, you are obliged to do it‘.”

Does this happen in our country? Look at the other side of the story. If you do what you are paid to do, to shake up the system or try to bring a massive change or raise your voice against corruption, you are cornered or transferred, or false complaints are lodged against you. The case of the National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority chief’s transfer is a case in point. He just did his job, and stopped the profiteering in the industry. Or take the case of the lady police officer who stood up and took on the local leaders for violating traffic rules in Bulandshahr, and she was transferred. These things set a bad example: that the honest and bold people in the system are rubbed so hard, they either exit the system or are made to stand in the corner and finally, they give in or give up.

Most people do their jobs for a salary and not out of passion or for a cause, and this is a big reason why people don’t want to lose their salary. They would rather just ‘adjust’ to the reality.

The population explosion has also contributed; and here is a classic example. In 2015, the Uttar Pradesh government advertised vacancies for 368 posts and 23 lakh people applied for peon jobs, for which the basic qualification was a school education and the ability to ride a bicycle. The applicant’s profile included more than 1.5 lakh graduates, about 25,000 post-graduates and more than 250 doctorates. For every job, there were 6,250 applicants, and in such a mad rush, corruption could be the way to make it. Then, when you pay to get a job, you will not hesitate in making money.

The failure of the judiciary also has a role to play. It’s a failed system which is the best recourse of a criminal or a corrupt person, as getting bail and a stay are easy, but not the judgement. Cases drag on for decades, and this has led to the wrong people celebrating while the right people become victims.

Where are the role models? This is another big challenge. If I want my child to grow up as a great citizen who stands up for the best of values, who are the role models in the current generation that he can look up to? Today, the end justifies the means, sadly. We cannot keep giving examples of role models from the 19th century in the 21st century.

In the case of UP above, only 368 got the job out of 23 lakh applicants, who are equally or more qualified. What is the provision for the 22,99,632 remaining applicants? Unless we find a livelihood solution for the remaining people, we have no right to sermon empty stomachs. The buck stops at the top and the solution lies in providing gainful employment to every citizen and, above all, every serving Indian must adopt one aspect of the Finnish culture: ‘You are obliged to deliver what you are paid for’. Then we can expect to have role models that can inspire a generation; and otherwise, we must be prepared for the worst, which is yet to come.

Rajendra Pratap Gupta is a public policy expert.