On The Ease of Doing Business

The ease of doing business with someone is directly proportional to how easily he or she can be duped.

It’s easy for me to do business with a child who can’t tell how many rupees I’m giving him/her as change. It’s easy for me to do business with a person who can’t tell if the vegetables I sell him are rotten.

So go ahead, people, celebrate the ease of doing business. Make it the No. 1. factor to measure the worth of nations, states, cities, whatever. The ease of doing business. Yay!

(Psst: Does someone have the numbers for British India? I have a feeling it must have been easy to do business with it. If piece-of-cake were a level of ease, British India was probably right there. Just kick the dogs; they’ll whine but in their heart of hearts, they’re willing to pay a fortune for your stuff – as the numbers show.)

On the Government vs Business Debate

The West is obsessed with the government vs business debate (or the public vs private debate, as some term it), which is summarized by one single question: how much control should the government have over business? Whether we like it or not, we Indians are constantly being asked to disclose our position in this debate, and made to feel as if this is the most important ideological question in front of us. But before we even agree to consider the question, the stage must be set for making it meaningful: we should know who runs the government or the business in question. Do we run the government? Do we run the business? And finally, who are we?

Let me explain why these three questions matter, beginning with the first two. If foreigners run both the government and the business, it matters little what our take on the matter is. However you vote, you end up strengthening a foreign power which simply goes against our own self-interest. If foreigners run the government and we run the business, it’s trivial to see that we must side with the business. If foreigners run the business and we run the government, it’s again trivial to see that we must side with the government, not the business. It is only when we run both the government and the business that the question becomes non-trivial.

Now, on to the third and the trickiest question: who are we? Before we try to answer the question, let us ask ourselves: how does it matter? It matters because, if we don’t know who we are, we can’t tell us from them and we can’t tell whether the government or business is run by us or not. If we can’t do that, we are back to the situation where we’re asked to vote in the dark: we have no clue whether it is we who run the government or the business, and we have no clue which to side with. This is the situation most Indian intellectuals are in. And how do they vote? Based on which school they went to: a place that convinced them that they (the we in question) belong to it (that school) more than anything else.

This discussion of who we are reminds me of what Yâgñavalkya told Maitreyî in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad:

Verily, everything is not dear, that you may love everything; but that you may love the Self, therefore everything is dear. Verily, the Self is to be seen, to be heard, to be perceived, to be marked, O Maitreyî! When the Self has been seen, heard, perceived, and known, then all this is known.

Of course, the great sage meant the Soul when he used the word Self (actually, the Sanskrit word atma), not the body, but his advice seems to apply equally well to the Self in question in the government vs business debate: the materialistic self. Business or government aren’t dear that we may love business or government, but that we may love us. It follows, therefore, that we need to know who we are. Of course, when Yâgñavalkya said ‘all this is known’, he meant the entire Universe, not our take on the government vs business question. But the advice applies quite well to our limited context.

I know, you must be thinking: ‘Okay, let’s assume we run both the government and the business. Can you now disclose your bias?’ It is tempting to answer this question, but I will resist it because it is theoretical. We haven’t even established who we are. The question of government vs business, more than any other, is most practical. I will, therefore, instead of falling prey to the temptation, try to answer the question who we are.

Now, this, I must again emphasize, is not a theoretical question to which the answer can be, too. Yâgñavalkya’s answer, which is that the Self is the Soul, does not help us answer the materialistic question in front of us. In the spiritual realm, the realm of the Soul, the distinction between us and them, government and business, and even Soul and non-Soul are invisible. Even the distinction between the visible and the invisible is invisible. Or visible. This is not the direction to go, therefore, to answer the question as to who we are in the limited context of politics and economics. We must leave Yâgñavalkya alone here and take our own path. Yes, when we do so we err and proceed on a path that takes us away from Moksha, but the government vs business question did not intend to take us towards it, did it?

So, then, who are we? Unfortunately, despite all the build-up until now in this article, there is no universally accepted answer to this question; there cannot be. It is not a question which can have a mathematically correct answer, but one which we may answer based on our biases. But whatever our biases are, they must help us distinguish between us and them. It is easiest to narrow down the definition of we to an individual, making it an I clearly distinguishable from everyone else, but that has its own problems: individuals don’t run governments, even if they do businesses. So, we has to be a group of people.

If it has to be a group of people, what sort of group? How big must the group be? What should be the relationship between its members? What should be the differentiating factor or factors between one group and another? These are all, again, very difficult questions to answer. In any case, all of humanity cannot be the definition of the group we’re after, because that would be equivalent to throwing away the idea of a group. If it’s all one group, then there are no groups. If everyone is us, nobody is, because there is no them. Therefore, all we can conclude regarding size is that it can neither be individual-sized nor everyone-sized. It has to be something in between.

To define our group more clearly, we must realize that we are seeking a definition in order to answer the government vs business question. We are not seeking it in a vacuum. In other words, we want to define groups such that we can answer the government vs business question in some optimal way. Which optimal way? I propose that it should be a way in which each group, so defined, derives the maximum benefit from the way it is defined. If some groups are advantaged and some not, or rather, if the distribution of advantages is clearly and blatantly iniquitous, I wouldn’t like to call it an optimal way of defining groups.

For one individual in a group to derive a benefit from another, there must exist, first and foremost, a sense of commonality that binds them. That is, the feeling ‘we are one’ must exist and be easily recognized by everyone in it. They must share something. Of course, extreme individualism, another Western product, teaches us that no such thing is necessary, and that individuals can act all by themselves. But this cannot be the route we take because we are out to define groups; we gave up the definition of we as an individual above. Returning to our question then, what must individuals share in order that they can derive benefit from one another? Clearly we’re not talking about the family bond, although it may seem like a good answer to the question. Families don’t run governments – at least democratic governments – even though they might run businesses.

To cut a long story short, I propose that our group must be linguistic – one whose members share a common language. A common language brings its speakers on a common platform on which they have the opportunity to benefit from one another. Without a common language and the opportunities for communication and cooperation it provides, it is next to impossible for people to benefit from each other. As they benefit from each other, the language itself grows in complexity and utility, and so does the sense of unity that binds everyone in the group. In this sense, the common thread of language is a minimal requirement for a group. Also, language makes it possible to clearly distinguish between one group and another. It is easily possible to say who we are and who they are – even for the unlettered. And to be able to make this distinction, you will recall, is necessary to even address the government vs business question. Language is also a secular commons – you not only use but also contribute to the language irrespective of your religion – and this means it is a more potent tool for curing society of religious bigotry of all shades. With very few exceptions, language also ensures that the group so created is located in a geographically contiguous region, making it easy for it to associate itself with a piece of earth it can call its own.

Is this sort of grouping optimal in the sense I set out to make it? That is, is linguistic grouping the one that distributes advantages equally to all groups? This is certainly so in most cases of real languages such as Kannada or Tamil or Bengali or what have you, although it is possible that some languages are more equipped than others to carry science and technology which are crucial to the group’s success. Linguistic grouping also makes it possible, nay a requirement, for each group to work on its own language and develop it. Yes, every group will have work to do – to bring its language up to speed – but every speaker of that language, irrespective of religion or caste can, at least theoretically, contribute to it. When everyone contributes to something, or has the opportunity to contribute, then, and only then, does the feeling emerge that it is common to one and all. Language is such a thing.

The Kannadigas, in this sense, are a group – a we in their own right. So are the Tamils, the Malayalis, the Telugus, the Bengalis, the Assamese, and so on, and so forth. It is these linguistic groups that need to have, internally, the government vs business debate. And, as discussed above, it is only when both the government and the business are run by the group in question that the debate becomes meaningful. The debate is settled before it is begun should either the government or the business be under the control of a group other than the one debating.

It might appear to some that I have forgotten something very important: India! But that is an illusion created by the current idea of India in which the groups I just mentioned, and their languages, are of no importance whatsoever. In fact, by talking about these groups, I have covered almost all of India – a big, very big, nation. What I have left out is not India but migrants who cross linguistic borders. They are, first of all, a trivial minority compared to the population of Indians that does not cross linguistic borders, and therefore, the question as to which group they belong to is not the most important one in India. But yes, they must belong, by default, to the host group in order to be treated as part of its we.

Of course, Indians belonging to all linguistic groups together make a macro group of their own – a we in their own right, for reasons such as our common history of oppression under the British followed by independence, and, of course, the diverse and rich spiritual traditions of the sages. We have derived a great political benefit from these commons: independence. That is, we have used these commons to deal with external powers for the benefit of every Indian. But these commons have little utility when it comes to settling questions such as that of government vs business within India.

Besides, all it takes to preserve independence and prevent civil wars is to make sure that the central government, and only the central government, has control over defense and external affairs. All other powers can be safely entrusted to the linguistic states (there must be only one linguistic state per major language, for reasons difficult to explain in this short essay) and Indians in every state allowed to deal with all other matters internally – including the question of government vs business. If external affairs is held by the centre, shouldn’t the centre take decisions on government vs business when both Indian and foreign ones are involved? Yes, it should, but only when they are involved. These, and other details, such as the requirement that every state must have the same stakes in the centre, have to be worked out meticulously for the solution I’m proposing to work.

‘How about now,’ I hear you ask, ‘can you disclose your bias now that you have settled the question of who we are and also proposed a restructuring of the Indian polity?’ My answer to that is: it has to be worked out by the different groups, i.e., states, differently. There is no one answer that applies to all. As far as my group is concerned – the Kannadiga group – there’s no point answering this question since we Kannadigas control neither our government, in the ultimate analysis, nor the businesses that operate in Karnataka.