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June 8, 2011

Mr Gupta and Mr Thomas

Why the double standard?

“We’ve known him professionally and personally for many years and there cannot be an issue of governance. He deserves to benefit from the principle of innocent until proven guilty.”

“We vouch for the integrity and honesty of the man who unfortunately was at the wrong place at the wrong time. A tainted person, proven or otherwise, is a scar on the integrity of the institution whose office he occupies and should relinquish the position”

These are different quotes from The Times of India on March 4th, 2011, just a few pages apart from each other. The first is from leading Indian corporate executives about Rajat Gupta, former head of McKinsey, and the second refers to P J Thomas, the Chief Vigilance Commissioner who is under trial in a corruption case involving the Kerala cabinet many years ago. Both Mr. Gupta’s and Mr Thomas’ charges are yet to be proven at the time of writing, and as the quotes above suggest, people familiar with them testify to their integrity. However, it is intriguing to note that the judgments passed on each of the subjects are contrary to each other.

 

Image: Irfan Intekhab

As we soaked in pages of news and hours of television debates on these issues, we could not escape noticing the obvious duality of our society’s moral judgments. The naked version of this argument is that a successful, global corporate professional with many board seats cannot be maligned without conclusive proof. However, the bureaucrat who is under trial for being a signatory to an order passed by the Cabinet of a state government has no moral authority to even be appointed to an office because he is a government official.

For those with perfect visual acuity, there is much in common between these two cases and for those whose sight is blighted by hypocrisy, there isn’t. Before you accuse us of holding a brief to one of the protagonists in this essay, allow us to explain.

In Mr Thomas’ case, evidently, the moral dilemma is one of being appointed to head the corruption watchdog of the country (the Central Vigilance Commission) despite an ongoing trial against him and in Mr Gupta’s case, it is of continuing to hold positions of power and responsibility (such as board positions with the Indian School of Business, at the time of writing) after being slapped with charges. Irrespective of the difference in sequencing of events in these two cases—one was appointed while still under a trial vis-à-vis the other still holding positions after an indictment—the larger moral question is similar—do both of them deserve the right to continue with their professional lives until charges are proved or just one of them?

We are using this analogy only to highlight the larger problem of rampant, selective moral judgments as we reel under a spate of scandals across all sections of our society today—political leaders, bureaucrats, businessmen, media professionals, judiciary, sportsmen and so on. Why do we sub-consciously believe one section of the society is guilty as charged always vis-à-vis others that are innocent until proven otherwise? This dual stance is on pompous display in corporate networking events where in any discussion on corruption, the tone is one of “if some corporates or bankers cheat, it’s either an aberration or cost of doing business but if some public servants cheat, the entire fraternity is incorrigible and deserves to be electrocuted.”

When questioned on this apparent duality, the most common answer is one of “benefit of doubt”. That there is a greater likelihood of a politician being corrupt than a corrupt corporate professional, so, we have to apply different standards. It doesn’t take long to realise how weak an argument this is—probabilities and likelihoods have a place in hard science but not in the social sciences! The longer we suffer from such dual standards, the more unsolvable our corruption malaise becomes since it then becomes a sling fest of one section of society (politicians) pointing to the other (corporates, media and so on), resulting in a deadlock. Private sector “stone throwing from glass houses” runs the risk of propagating an acerbic “us versus them” divide in our society which we should avoid.

This schizophrenic reaction of our educated elite to the cases of Mr Gupta and Mr Thomas, offers at least three major lessons in transformations that we need to undergo:

First, boldly acknowledge that corruption is not within the sole confines of people in public life but transcends across private sector, institutions and society at large.

Second, hold everyone to the same rules and standards—legal and moral.

Third, ensure one’s history does not colour our looking glass—as the wisdom in the investment world goes, “past performance is not an indicator of future returns!”


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