The landscapes of ethics

Sreesanth and Dravid become the ‘either or’ of cricket, a duo of the kind of choices available to the younger generation

I wonder if we take the creative possibilities of newspaper seriously. A newspaper is a political and ethical landscape where the variety of scapes, to use Arjun Appadurai’s solicitous term, is amazing. One can use them to provide the ethnography of ethical debates that add deeply to the imagination of citizenship. A newspaper becomes an experiment in public policy.

These debates range across medicine, cricket, politics, bureaucracy and corporate life.
Think of the debates around the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), and the interviews triggered by the retirement of the CAG. Vinod Rai is a classic bureaucrat. No one since T.N. Seshan has used the rulebook to enforce a regime of spring-cleaning so rigorously. Yet, Mr Rai approaches his job of bureaucrat with judicious sense of balance, never overstepping the limits. He sees himself as a bureaucrat and only a bureaucrat. He claims his reports serve the government and that he is merely a tuning fork, using numbers to warn a regime of excess or inefficiency. There is no breast-beating and, as he claims, the scandal is in the numbers. The CAG, thus, becomes a precise machine for calibrating government responsibility, a series of litmus tests for governments. Here one sees professional ethics being used as a precise weapon, an early warning tool for democracy. Mr Rai, thus, becomes the maestro of the ethical accounting system.
Medical multinationals provide two excellent cases of ethical critique and response. In the Novartis case, the Supreme Court showed that an innovation system is an order of precise definitions. If one creates an inflationary system of claims, one destroys trust in the value of words, the very promises and contracts they imply. The Swiss multinational milked the system through evergreening, a measure by which one increases the layers of innovation around a drug without actually adding any value. It was a simple case of lying. In fact, Novartis in a case of pure greed turned out to be an inveterate liar.
Ethics require vigilance, and vigilance often summons the whistleblower. The whistleblower is a lonely, liminal creature who lives in the netherworld long after the scandal. He could be a colleague in any organisation you and I work in. Only, he is more sensitive to right and wrong and considers it his professional duty to speak out fearlessly. The whistleblower realises there are protocols to protest. This is precisely what the Ranbaxy executive, Dinesh Thakur, did. When he found out that his colleagues in the firm were indifferent to his warning about drugs, he went to the US agencies. He realised that ethics involve trusteeship of drug or a process and not conformity to the rituals of the firm. Mr Thakur was a classic whistleblower and his achievements can be ranked along with legendary whistleblowers like Karen Silkwood and Frank Serpico, the legendary cop who battled corruption among his colleagues.
One has to locate the Rajat Gupta case within such acts. The tragedy of the man at one level was the final tragedy of ethnic success surviving IIT and McKinsey to make it to the top of the American dream. When Indians heard that Gupta was involved in insider trading, they shrugged it off or argued that his philanthropy made up for his aberrations. Gupta had established centres at IIT and was the founder of the Indian School of Business. When the law caught up with him he was just another criminal. There is a public irony to his story. Corporate dons, like Mukesh Ambani and Adi Godrej, provided him with character certificates but few noticed that the lawyer heading the campaign of cleanups against Gupta and his ilk was also an Indian, Preet Bharara. Instead of mourning Gupta’s fall, we should have celebrated Bharara. Time magazine ran a story on him, but few Indian newspapers and magazines celebrated his achievement.
Cricket today is a corporate dream, corporate in its substance and lifestyle. To be durable in cricket is not easy. The presence of Dravid, Tendulkar, Ganguly, Laxman and Kumble made spectators feel that we had turned longevity into a fine art. But this group of perennials was unique. Survival is hugely difficult and the Indian Premier League turned that art into a brittle artifice; for example, Sreesanth realised that he did not have the right balance of discipline and talent to stay at the top. He cut corners, soiling cricket as a dream. He turned cricket into its distractions, the entertainment world of third-grade starlets and parties. Nor did he have the value frame which cricket needs. Sreesanth and Dravid became foil to each other. The theatrical ebullience of one man hid his hollowness; the understated style of the other conveyed his substance. Sreesanth and Dravid become the “either or” of cricket, a duo of the kind of choices available to the younger generation.
A writer can rattle on about Coalgate and other scam-gates but the structure of corruption is clear. Ethics and the drama of ethics have to provide a counter-challenge to it. One has to be clear about one’s values and pursue them innovatively. Ethics is also an art form often more demanding than cricket and politics. It can be lonely. What one needs today are exemplars who make a challenge of ethics as exciting as cricket. In this life or future.

The writer is a social science nomad

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