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The Self Destructive Imperative of Nepotism
In his usual thought-provoking style, Rajeshwar Upadhyaya, uses the exaggerated caricature of Dhritarashtra as a mirror to our society, which accepts nepotism as the norm
In the Mahabharata, there is one person who had the power to prevent the inevitable catastrophe of the final battle at Kurukshetra. He never exercises this power. Contrary to popular belief, this person was not Krishna. The only person with a realistic chance of preventing war, at least almost until the bitter end, was the Kaurava king Dhritarashtra. His physical blindness has always been recognized as a metaphor of his willful emotional blindness, his complete unwillingness to either face reality or accept responsibility for the tragic events that continually unfolded during his reign. It was leadership derailment at a spectacular level and his only feeble justification was his love for his sons, but especially for the eldest Duryodhana. Knowing full well his sons were greedy, unprincipled and out of control he went along with their power grab, not because he was attached to his throne, but solely because they were his sons. He was fully cognizant that he was being unfair to his brother’s children, the Pandavas. He agonized at length about the wickedness he was collaborating in, but he never put a stop to it. Nepotism always won out, and in the end he had the humiliating experience of surviving on the charity of those he had wronged.
It is absurd to note how may times he accepts guilt in the pages of the epic. Knowing full well he is doing wrong he nevertheless goes along. It is Duryodhana who articulates this remarkably self aware sentiment – “Knowing the good I ignore it; knowing the bad I still follow it. My svabhava, inherent nature, is thus.”- but the lesson had been learnt from his father. When his sons were dying like flies before the justifiable wrath of Bheema, his self-pitying soliloquies no longer evoked any sympathy from his listeners. His confidant and factotum, Sanjaya brutally speaks truth to power in one of Ancient India’s most extraordinary passages. “Why do you weep now? All your well wishers and advisors had asked you to reign in your headstrong and greedy son. You spoke harshly to them, ignoring Bheesma who is the wisest as well as your grandsire. You ignored Drona who is the greatest teacher in the land. You banished Vidura for a while, and he is both your brother as well as the greatest minister in all of the culture. Even I remonstrated with you and so did your wife Gandhari. To all of us you made it clear that the only thing that matters to you is your son and his ambition. This catastrophe is solely your fault and if you think anybody will mourn for your loss, you are deluding yourself.” What is astonishing is that the blind king meekly accepts this rebuke, acknowledges its truth and goes back to rooting for his sons’ improbable victory. He was incorrigible in his nepotism.
Here is a provocative thought. In India we profess admiration for the Pandavas, but in practice we follow the Kauravas. This may not be universally true, but it is substantially so. Nepotism was and remains a core cultural imperative. It is a default psychological setting, and the need to cater for it may account for the incomplete social project of modernization. As the depressing example of the epic shows, it is an ancient and enduring imperative. What is important is that nepotism is not regarded as a problem normally – not until it bars something you wish to access. The acceptance of ‘dynastic politics’ as a normal social phenomenon instead of as a bizarre aberration in what is nominally a democratic polity is a tribute to the enduring power of the nepotism imperative. Justifications and rationalizations that are offered up in defence of nepotism, “the India way” excuse seem not to take into account the immense social losses that occur in having to negotiate such institutional barriers. To put it bluntly, this is a mindset that is medieval; utilizing it as a paradigm for living in the modern world is to risk living in permanent schizophrenia. It is not impossible; it is merely adding burdens to an already difficult existence.
The ‘unfairness’ aspect of nepotism does not seem to hold much water, for like Dhritarashtra everybody is perfectly happy if it is fair to my family! What is unacknowledged is the pervasive bitterness and resentment that seeps into the social sphere when such a value system is privileged. The acknowledgement that life can be unfair seems to have been internalized into a conviction that life has to be unfair. In such a scenario, any personal advantage that can be extracted trumps any social responsibility that may be vaguely felt. It is fundamentally a pessimistic approach to life, a lack of trust in social systems to provide adequately for ones aims in life. The subtext to nepotism is a sense of enmity between the self and society; it is a seeking of security, a mental regress into childish fears. Dhritarashtra knew full well that there was enough power and pelf for his children and their cousins but as Mohandas Gandhi correctly observed, “There is always enough for peoples need, but never enough for their greed.”
At yet another level, nepotism is the refusal to accept social responsibility until ones personal ambitions have been fulfilled. The blind king openly acknowledged that Yusdhishtara would have been a better ruler than his son, both for the people and the kingdom, but in the end, society got the dirty end of the deal so long as his son was gratified. When Duryodhana was born he brayed like a donkey, an inauspicious omen and a disturbed Vidura articulates ancient India’s vision as to what should be done with a social menace. “For the sake of a family an individual may be abandoned. For the sake of a village a family may be given up. For the sake of the district we can lose the village; for the country, the district and for the World an entire country. But for the sake of Dharma, the moral and ethical norms that sustain society, the very Earth indeed may be given up.”
Vidura was praised hugely for his wisdom and quietly ignored. He could have been living in contemporary times.
This is therefore a more demanding challenge in our environment; the compulsions of a collective society where the family is the unit of trust and tolerance. Family owned organizations want to keep the actual reigns of control in the hands of family members. And it is not entirely rare that a 28 year old son of the promoter of a large Indian company immediately upon returning from an American university heads an organization and compels deference from the rest of the staff whose experience and professionalism exceed his own by far. His learning curve becomes the organization’s bottleneck and personal likes and dislikes drive the restructuring imperative. This furthers mealy-mouthed deference and an inability to differ from the ‘leadership’; or even offer an alternate perspective. Obedience and compliance kicks in irrational levels of fear and respect thus reinforcing the feudal ethos where loyalty is more important than performance.
Some organizations have struggled with the issue of professionalising themselves and have experienced varying levels of success. It is common argument that professionals do not truly have any real stake in the success of the business. They can be ‘head’ hunted and like salivating mercenaries they will join, lead and make successful the very organization he was competing with till yesterday. Whereas the truth in this can be debated, the sentiment is unwavering. This deepens the original need to ‘interfere’ and trust only kin. The promoters feel the need to ever so often step in and ‘make’ the right decisions on behalf of the professionals. Nepotism reinforced. Everyone knows the final controls lie elsewhere. And all future decisions must be made keeping that in mind. There is diminishing returns logic in the benefits of nepotism. Dritarashtra is an exaggeration of that failure. The purpose of exaggeration is not falsification rather visibility.
To make visible what would otherwise escape notice. So that more optimal action may follow. And yet, the exceptions to the norm are numerous enough to render the norm redundant.
Rajeshwar Upadhyaya, Director, Par Excellence. He can be reached at email@example.com
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