Introduced to Westerns some 15 years ago, they are now my best de-stress read. Among them the stack of Louis L’Amour books takes up an entire bookshelf. While at one level the books are about guns and fights, read as a series, it is one giant story of the settlement of a continent and the transformation of a nation from nomadic tribal to settled institutional. Such times of transition throw up the worst and the best. L’Amour heroes were the best who fought with some of the worst greasy gun slingers who wore their guns tied down low and... Right. Let me get back to the column.
Many stories talked of lawless towns with no marshal where justice was done through the lynch mob. Like a pack, led by the worst of the rabble-rousers, aided by the otherwise decent daytime crowd, the mob looked for the next person to string up the nearest cottonwood tree. Public opinion based on some quick information thrown together was enough evidence for the mob to turn into a lynch pack baying for blood.
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I fear we are at the lynch mob stage of our journey in India’s transformative migration to development that will cost some their power, reputations, designations, jobs and careers. I wrote some months back about the feeling of suffocation (http://bit.ly/hI8YGe) felt by the average urban Indian—he’s done well yet spends an inordinate amount of time battling the system, sees his own honesty as a sign of stupidity in a system that, he believes, punishes the straight. When this person sees people who were supposed to be honest, whom he trusted in the otherwise shifting sands, appear to be dishonest, there is an overall breakdown of trust and the mob mentality takes over. The sober citizen inside of us takes a back seat and the off-with-their-heads mob rules. We are made up of all these people—the sober genteel citizen sipping tea, the shouting mob bellowing in hate, the lynch pack handling the rope. I fear it is time now, and for some time ahead, when the shouting mob and the rope handler may take over.
The fury is such that it needs an outlet—against the system that makes you the idiot for following rules in an otherwise lawless nation. Reputations, businesses, designations and the powerful will get strung up something high. But the mob will discover that a high moral ground is a dangerous place to be on. For honesty has no exact definition and in the purest sense none of us can claim to never having cheated. Read more about cheating and how we cheat in this fascinating interview of behavioural economics professor Dan Ariely at Wired (http://bit.ly/fsOwRs), where he shows how each of us cheat—just a little bit. And a little more, if we know we won’t get caught. And how people take unclaimed coke cans but not money. And his TED Talk that… Right. Back to the column.
But public executions serve a purpose. The fear of being the next one the mob points at would get at least some people careful of what they do. But an extreme view on honesty will lead us to such a tight moral code that it would make McCarthyism a possible reality. The US went through a post-Depression period of hounding out suspected Communists with senator Joseph McCarthy leading the charge. More broadly, the term is used to describe the making of accusations of disloyalty, subversion, or treason without proper regard for evidence.
The rationalist in me hopes that we don’t take that road and once we are done with venting (and we must vent and get it all out) we begin to build again. One way will be to engage with the local government authority, the local MLA, the local MP and ask some questions. The same questions, month after month. By the same people. Who have no personal stake. We’ll have to remember not to make the errors of the previous generation. Where the politician in power held off citizen groups by doling out favours to the benefit of those who represent the group. Get a speed-breaker put in front of one house. Allow another to enclose the bit of land around the house. Get an extra light put outside a third’s house. This personal versus public interest has kept us all chained to this system. The new urban mass affluent has enough. And can get all these things done himself and does not need doles from the local babu or neta to live his life. Once the fog of mob fury settles, we may get the idea that we need to engage with the system without getting derailed by personal interest and move to the next stage in this dramatic Indian transformation. Gets a bit scary at times. But what a fantastic ride this is!
Monika Halan works in the area of financial literacy and financial intermediation policy and is a certified financial planner. She is editor, Mint Money, and can be reached at email@example.com