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I’m watching Jolly LLB (and if you write columns as a profession, you can’t just watch anything without the brain firing away and looking for raw material to chew on for future work) and as the movie me-lords its way to the end, where the small town guy wins against the corrupt five-star lawyer and against his own initial lower morality, I thought I saw a pattern. The last few years have seen several movies with this theme—the moral choices faced by an average guy in a country where the elite are complicit in a deeply corrupt nation—of choosing between staying with middle class values or joining the system of corruption. Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year was about doing business the right way against the established system of cheating the customer and bribing to get corporate business. Do Dooni Chaar was about a lower middle-class teacher overcoming temptation to do the right thing.

These middle-class heroes are seen as winning in the end, quite unlike the reality we see around us where honesty is a tax to be paid with longer lines, higher prices and poorer lives. But may be the movie guys see something that I don’t. My naive hope that the movies mentioned above were a reflection of the repair of the broken moral fibre from ground up, was shot to pieces by film critic and friend Shubra Gupta. Nope, she laughs, these films are more about the last-ditch hope of film makers who struggle against the tide of movies that reflect the reality of broken morality as it has trickled down over the decades. Indian cinema has shown the progression of corruption, from the blackguard smuggler in his den, moving to the money-sucking businessman, and then the rush of movies about money-and-power-at-any-cost politician with complicit police, bureaucrat, builder and religious leader. The rot has spread to the corrupt elite that comprise the professionals—doctors, lawyers, journalists, teachers, bankers, finance professionals. And now the story has moved another level. Down to the average guy who can’t see the logic of remaining honest. The cost of remaining honest, or maintaining the moral fibre, is so large and the pay-offs of honesty so few (whistle blowers in India get a bullet in the chest, not $48 million as Dinesh Thakur has got from Ranbaxy’s $500 million settlement with the US Food and Drug Administration) that the migration across the line is now a flood.

Take the Cobrapost.com investigation as an example. Anybody who watched the videos (and I am surprised at the number of people who trash the investigation without having watched one video) saw average people—the guy next door—turning into criminals by offering to launder money for a person fronting for a politician with black money. Banks’ incentive structures have been pushing the envelope from hard selling and mis-selling to abetting crime. Doctor friends speak of their shrinking social circle among their peers—those who justify drug companies aiding their lifestyle begin to stop coming home. And so it goes in every profession.

We’re at a stage where the elite (if you’re reading this, you are one) have bought in the system as it exists and are a part of the broken morality of India—we do what it takes to protect the system. We see this in every organization, institution and entity. For the young graduate coming into the workforce or the first generation rural migrant hoping to make it big, where are the role models? We don’t find it in people in positions of power—the politician, the bureaucrat, the judiciary, the institutions. But in everyday life morality is broken as well.

Where is the role model for the office boy who sees the senior manager getting office supplies sent to his car every week? Where is the role model for the driver who sees his boss use his press card to avoid paying a fine for jumping a red light?

The young see that the pay-offs are far higher if you game the system, in fact, the more daring the plan, the higher the pay-off. It is system that makes the Hindi phrase “jo pakda gaya woh chor" (the guy who gets caught is the thief) become a reality. Where does it go from here? As the educated elite in a country of more than 800 million people, most of whom live on less than $2 a day, we need to remember that finally it is about the choices we make. What we choose today individually will be the consequence at the societal level tomorrow. And may be we should pay attention to Pulitzer prize winning author Jared Diamond, who wrote in his recent book Collapse: How Societies Choose or Fail to Succeed: “A society contains a built-in blueprint for failure if the elite insulates itself from the consequences of its actions."

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 Yale World Fellow 2011. She can be reached at expenseaccount@livemint.com

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