This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s conversation with Barkha Dutt on her new book and the intersection of the markets, society, and state.
I haven’t spoken a lot about the incident that I mention in the introduction of my book, which started me on my engagement with civic issues, because tragedies happen in so many lives in India and personal tragedies happen all the time. In 1987, my very close friends Chaitan and Rekha were traveling at night, which is not a great idea, but a tractor came on the wrong side of the road and smashed them to death along with their unborn child. Only their little son survived because he did not have a seatbelt on and so he fell to the floor. It was very traumatic, at the time, and it seemed so unnecessary. We’ve all had people die in road accidents in our extended families. Maybe it bothered me because my hormones were also jumping fast since I was pregnant. But it stayed with me after the babies were born too. I said, “No, no, somebody has to do something about this.” And so, talking to a lot of other people in the city, many came together including Kiran Mazumdar, Jagdish Raja, and Muralidhar Rao. We all came together to set up ‘Nagrik’ with the goal of ensuring safer roads. So, I had to do something, I couldn’t let it go. I felt that if something is wrong, I have to participate in changing it. I think in that sense as journalists, we try to report on things that are wrong so that people get engaged in the conversations to set them right. I felt I had to start a civil society organization to see what like-minded people could do. Since then – from 1992 to 2022 – I have tried to learn and do better.
The way I grew up, there’s no question that we very much are rooted in this soil, we are very much rooted in the values of this country and there’s no question of abdicating responsibility. In my house, we were taught about simple living and high thinking. I’m not sure if we’ve kept the simple living part, but we do try to keep the high thinking. In my family, the stories that were told were always about sacrifice and service before self. And those were the ideas held up to us. So, even when we came into wealth, I think we tried to see it as something that you give forward. And that creates a lot of meaning in one’s life. It enriches your life when you participate in trying to help build the better society that you want to live in. So, I think it’s added a lot of meaning to our lives and made it much richer, and I don’t mean materially of course. So there’s no question of seceding and abdicating from our responsibilities as citizens of this country.
I think many people are beginning to realize that they cannot secede as well. The younger wealthy are quite engaged. They realize that you cannot separate yourself and your wealth. I have written about how the elite have seceded and there are points when you can’t secede anymore. How will you secede from climate change? How will you secede from pandemics? You cannot. And when the realization comes, I think the re-engagement comes as well. And we have to put public pressure on this as well. I mean, it’s not gonna happen in isolation, which is why Samaaj and what’s happening in Samaaj is so important to me.
The question of the role of society, state, and markets has occupied people forever. I read lots and lots of books that are about the same theme, and my conversation with Prem Kumar Verma was also in that vein. But what he said really made me think, because he said, “First Samaaj was the strongest base, the foundation for which Sarkaar and Bazaar had to work.” Obviously Samaaj came first and Sarkaar came to serve the Samaaj, whether it was the monarchs of old or the feudal lords and now, hopefully in republics and in democracies, it is elected representatives. Similarly, the Bazaar had to come in to set value, to regulate exchange, and to build goods and services so all of us can experience more abundance. But Samaaj was first. I feel like sometimes we forget that, because in the last century or so, and maybe there have been episodes of that before too, the story of the Bazaar and the story of the Sarkaar has overtaken the narrative.
Tons and tons has been written about it, and then Samaaj sort of recedes into the background, whereas I think it needs to be in the foreground. And if we flip the switch and understand this, anybody who’s in the Sarkaar and the Bazaar, whether you’re a senior executive or a minister, when you go home you’re a citizen and a human being, right? So just flipping that switch and a mental model sort of correction to say, “Samaaj comes first, what can we in Samaaj do to make sure the Bazaar and Sarkaar are accountable to this larger Samaaj interest? Has the balance moved too much? Do we need to reset it?” Those are the questions that I’m asking.
I think with the technological revolution that we’ve seen, things are changing very fast now and we are still figuring out the public course and the new norms to set. Both the negative and positive of this are coming out. It will take time but it has to happen. People cannot live at the edge of things all the time. It will swing to some normal new codes of media just like we did when the phone came and the printing press came and the television came, right? So it will happen with digital media too. But the reason I say this is because the digital age, at least as far as I know now, seems to be here to stay. I can’t see us going back into the only physical world. Then what does that mean? These are the questions that we all have, right? While online spaces have become so polarized, how can we make them spaces for public reasoning instead? How will a digital civil society emerge in the digital age where the Sarkaar and the Bazaar have acquired even more power? They have power through algorithms where the market seems to know what we should think; through various surveillance tools, the Sarkaar wants to know what we are doing and has more data on us than we have on ourselves. So, in those circumstances, what should we as Samaaj do to claw back space? How can we do it with a positive sense of association and create new tools and processes to do so? And to do so, you have to do it digitally. You can’t be in the digital age and do things only offline. So my concern is what new digital civil society needs to emerge, to play the same roles to hold Sarkaar, Bazaar, and other elements of Samaaj accountable to peace, prosperity, harmony, etc.? So, we have to do it digitally. And civil society needs to get savvy very quickly to build out those new forms, roles, and responsibilities digitally. So that, in fact, the new and better conventions of people’s behavior will begin to emerge. People can get together digitally to do positive things.
We know that the pandemic is not our last emergency. When climate change and other things start to happen and create human distress, imagine the difference if, digitally, civil society is ready. Today, if we build trust digitally between groups and between the Sarkaar, the Bazaar, and civil society, how much more rapidly will we be able to respond? And we saw this during the pandemic, when so much organizing happened online and people’s hearts and minds were so quickly engaged. In fact, individual giving went up 43% in those three months. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, because that’s all the data we have, there must be so much more. We have seen so many times that we can’t be cynical about the human species. We are capable. We have evolved to be social creatures who are willing to reach out. Kindness to strangers is something our species can actually do. And it’s not a romance, it’s a reality. That’s the power of Samaaj, to me at least.
During Nandan’s election campaign, I learned a lot and was really and truly humbled. It was really a fascinating experience. Everywhere we went, people had questions. They were so happy they found Nandan, the real candidate. But they were even happy to have me because they have so much to say. About once a year, once in five years, they get somebody to really listen to them and they just have a lot to say about the difficulties they experience every day. But it is true that therefore, they expected the candidate’s team to immediately solve all their local problems. And I used to ask, “But how will this person do it? He doesn’t have the power by the constitutional framework to actually come and fix your pipeline or your road, right? That has to be done differently with your panchayat and a civic body.” But that didn’t cut water at all. They told me, “You’ve come for my vote and this is what we want and you need to listen.” So, that was fine.
But this is an issue that politicians don’t talk about and maybe the media can talk more about it. And certainly civil society needs to get engaged as well. If our lawmakers made better laws – because in my book I do write about the issues with the kind of laws that are being framed, which sometimes unnecessarily criminalize people or which sometimes are not very clear and concise – then things could change far more rapidly. If we had better laws for all, and we had equality before the law and the constitution, then you could hold everybody to account through good policy and law. This might help those women and men I met during the campaign more than if Nandan or someone else won the election and managed to fix a pipe for now. So, if we think long term and we deepen these conversations about the role of politicians, it would certainly be better for the public and probably better for the politicians as well, who I discovered have a really difficult life. These are the questions we should ask ourselves, especially about what we expect from the state. Where should the Sarkaar be? And where should the Sarkaar not have to be? Where is it really the role of Samaaj to take back some of these things and work it out within Samaaj itself, right? So that’s the conversation, and my book is an invitation to deepen these thoughts because I don’t have all the answers. Nobody does.
Another incident I’ve mentioned in the book is where someone tells Nandan not to give a rash driver an Aadhaar card. I was quite taken aback because the Aadhaar project was quite new. And there was a lot of debate and discussion, with people who were for it, people who were against it, and people who didn’t understand it, because it was early days. We were at the Bangalore airport, and we were just crossing the road when a car suddenly rushed at us and we literally had to jump back to avoid the car. We were in shock for a few seconds after that and we heard the voice of one of those airport taxi drivers who said, “Sir, don’t give him an Aadhaar card.” That’s when I realized that it had caught the public imagination and then later, when I went around Delhi and other places during Nandan’s term in Delhi, I found that it was a very very important thing for a lot of people. Intellectually, I was thinking, “What does it all mean?” But when I met the people, for them it was something really important. And that incident helped me to see how it had caught the public imagination. It was quite funny and moving also in some ways. Over the years, I have been able to understand how India’s amazing public digital infrastructure, which is one of the most sophisticated in the world, can really lay the foundations for economic democracy.
When I came into wealth, I was very uncomfortable because I was a bit of a mental sort of activist and the messages of simple living, high thinking, were drummed into us as children. When we ourselves became wealthy, I said, “Oops! I’m on the other side now.” So what does that mean, right? It took me years to settle down, till I realized that this is an opportunity to be grateful for and I knew this wealth is going to be very important. So, of course, we’ve committed to give away a minimum of 50% of our wealth, and I hope we can do more. But, I think wealth is distorting. Let’s be very clear about that. So, in the context of the topics I discuss in my book, the Bazaar has a great, wonderful role in wealth creation, but a Samaaj can only allow wealth creation, especially such concentrated wealth creation for so long.
A lot depends on how that wealth is used by the wealthy and the Sarkaar’s role, which is to balance how much wealth is created and how it is used. Taxation is a very powerful tool that the Sarkaar has. Samaaj has a very powerful way of expressing itself, right? Today in India there are many polls which say Indians are optimistic. They are looking forward. Right now, they still feel very upwardly mobile. We know from around the world, that when countries feel like that, citizens feel like that, they don’t begrudge the wealthy from doing well because they feel, “Maybe I can also become Dhirubhai Ambani, right?” But when they stop to feel like that, that’s when it really matters what Bazaar is doing, what the Sarkaar is doing, and how the wealthy are using their wealth. Because at the end of it, the wealth of the few has to be used for the prosperity of the many. You can’t get away from that. You can enjoy your wealth, but that wealth has a responsibility which simply can not be avoided.
So I think Samaaj, Sarkaar, and Bazaar have a role to regulate the operation of wealth in society. I’ve been involved for a long time now in encouraging Indian philanthropy and I have had extraordinarily positive responses. I can’t speak for all of the wealthy, but I can say for those who I have spoken to, they are more than open. And the younger ones especially, have already started giving in really interesting ways which my generation also doesn’t understand how to do. So I am hopeful, but we can’t only depend on the generosity of the wealthy, right? We also need public policy, we need taxation, we need media attention, and we need discourse on the responsibility of wealth. And there is a lot of stuff happening now. The Hurun list comes out, people want to be on here. There’s a lot of spotlight now, so fingers crossed, I think we saw that individuals and families can be incredibly generous. The wealthy have no choice but to follow the Dharma of the Samaaj, that is what I feel.
I wanted to put out my book since this phrase ‘Samaaj, Sarkaar, Bazaar’ has caught on. And I thought I should explain what I mean by that a little more. The goal was to help deepen the conversations happening in your homes, in your offices, and with your political representatives. This is why I put out the book in the Creative Commons, so that it could also be available for free and people can access it easily and start their own discussions.