Finally, someone with a loud voice said it. It isn’t easy for image-conscious public figures to berate the Indian people collectively, and for Infosys founder Narayana Murthy to step out and say, “The biggest challenge for all of us, not just politicians or bureaucrats, is that we, Indians, have the highest ego per unit of achievement. I would humbly request, we be open-minded to those who have performed better than us.”
Even the most unabashed supporter of everything Indian would have to agree that our ego is not something we can be proud of. Across the country, from the Indian capital where every guy in an SUV would ask “Tu jaanta hai main kaun hoon?” to the villages where community leaders’ lord over law, the Indian ego is invincible.
Ego always justifies, and we like justifying our failures. Economy is bad? It is because the world economy is in the pits. The government isn’t performing well? Well that’s because the previous government messed it up.
People with ego live in the past. We love the Indian civilization from 5000 years ago. India was great when it was Hindu, ruled by the Vedas and people followed the rules unflinchingly.
Even our kids have ego, and our politicians are the best examples of it. Take for instance how a self-respecting, young and idealistic woman police officer in Karnataka was shunted out of her post only because she dared to hang up the phone on him. “Don't you have the patience to hold the District Minister's call?” the minister asked the cop, while she was busy with a live crime scene.
Couched in our ‘respect’ for Mata, Pita, Guru and Deivam is the ego-driven demand by our elders, teachers and bosses to listen to them with no questions asked. If you can’t listen to any of them, then of course, there is respect to God, driven by the ego of the religious.
But ego isn’t really an Indian trait. There is a case to make that, say, Westerners have far stronger egos than Indians, it is just different in the way it manifests, and where it does.
What is ego? Google would simply throw up “a person's sense of self-esteem or self-importance.” As early as 1890, it was considered by psychologists to be the individual's sense of identity which had different aspects including the mental, social and spiritual.
And taking it as such, one could argue that say Americans are indeed more egoistic than Indians – they truly believe, for instance, that America is the greatest country in the world.
Psychoanalytical work in the 1980s and 90s has theorized that Indians have an under-developed ego compared to Western individualism. Sudhir Kakar found that Indians were not self-directing, self-reliant or self-directing like the West. They look to others for ethical and social norms, and not really create norms for themselves. They lack rational and logical thinking, a hall mark of individualism. Another study concluded that American adolescents, in general, have higher self-esteem or ego strength than Indian adolescents. In fact, ego strengths are also related to racial and ethnic identities.
Does that mean Murthy is wrong? No.
As he said, Indians have ego – like everyone else – but we “have the highest ego per unit of achievement”.
To put it differently, Indians have the lowest achievement per unit of ego. We have ego, like everyone else in the world, and as a people perhaps even less than other peoples, but what we have achieved is far, far less.
But come to think about it, this is not the case with every Indian.
Narayana Murthy was only talking about a particular kind of Indians – the upper-class, upper-caste, empowered males of the country.
A disempowered Dalit does not have ego when he is tilling the fields for less than the minimum wage. A housewife does not have ego while she spends the whole day in the kitchen attending to the demands of the family. Even “answering back” to your boss could get you fired, so some of us cannot show our ego. And yet, men and women from under-priveleged sections perform and achieve great things, and they have no ego.
Indian ego also acts according to time, place, who you are speaking to, and most importantly, is largely modelled on the idea of Dharma and morality. No prizes for guessing who decides what is Dharmic and moral.
Which is why, it is important who we blame for our bloated ego and poor performance. It is the empowered sections of Indian society, people who have resources, access and social capital, who consistently underperform given their privilege, and not India itself.
We have still not accepted that with hundreds of years of oppression of women and some communities, we have lost immense human capital and innovation. It is men from the empowered sections of the society who lament at the lack of India’s achievements, and yet it is the men from these social groups who have suppressed India's capacity to achieve.
So perhaps Murthy would have been more accurate in saying that it is us, the empowered members of Indian society who have the highest ego per unit of achievement, the rest of the country is paying up for our inefficiency, lethargy and ego.