Friends with benefits: Lalit Modi's just a beneficiary of India's 'who-you-know' culture

The BJP’s biggest problem with L’affaire Lalit is that Indians understand the favours-trading at the heart of this scandal far better than they understand 2G spectrums or procurement scandals in defence deals. But the BJP’s opposition’s biggest problem with L’affaire Lalit is that 9 out of 10 Indians would have probably done the same if they had been in Lalit Modi’s position. So while the Congress wants to keep up the heat on the other Modi, it can hardly expect a tsunami of public outrage.

It’s a good thing that Modi and his threats of more revelations has bust open the cozy back-scratching nexus between the rich and the powerful with other rich and powerful but we’d be hypocrites to pretend we are not implicated at all. Let’s not confuse some schadenfreude with righteous indignation. We might be small fry but we come from the same society as the big fish and swim in the same murky waters. "Size badey hai, yeh hi farak hai," as Azam Khan memorably said once in another context.

We are not a society that is based not upon the kindness of strangers. We are very firmly a society based upon who-you-know. We measure our rise through society often by wealth, especially unexplained wealth. But it should really be measured by our acquisition of connections. Wealth is just one manifestation of the richness of our connections. We were a LinkedIn society long before that idea became a company.

 Friends with benefits: Lalit Modis just a beneficiary of Indias who-you-know culture

File picture of Lalit Modi. Getty Images

We live in a country where everything is based upon relationships. And it has always been. We needed, searched for and prized connections of all sorts – a landline phone connection, a gas connection, a school admission connection. Connections get you to the head of line. Actually it ensures you do not have to stand in the line at all. Connections get you the answers you need from a babu who would otherwise not give you the time of the day. Connections allow you to bypass laws, permits and licenses. You want to construct your house in a way that flouts and tweaks building codes in your area? Do you have a connection in the municipal corporation? You need a No Objection Certificate from the government? Do you have a connection in the ministry? Confused about foreign exchange regulations before your daughter goes abroad to study? Don’t you wish your connection at the bank had not retired last year? We assiduously cultivate and nurture these connections because they are worth their weight in gold.

The problem is we need these connection not just to bypass laws or get undue favours. We need them to get what is due to us by law. Just trying to get simple answers about a confusing property tax bill from the municipal corporation I was told “Oh do you have a connection inside? Otherwise you’ll never even get to the right person.”

You need connections to get your building permit clearance, your widow’s pension or a job interview. Most of us have at one point or the other used those connections. And all of us, most certainly have wished we had them. After two days of running from counter to counter in the rabbit warren of the municipal corporation I would be lying to say I didn’t wish I could casually drop the mayor’s name to jerk to attention the bureaucrat who was supposedly in charge of my ward and its property taxes.

Should any of us be surprised that when he was caught in a sticky situation Lalit Modi turned to his “connections” for help? Tavleen Singh writes “I would like to say (Lalit Modi’s) decision to ‘abscond’ was what I would have made in his position” and charges that instead of a real case against him “the Enforcement Directorate has hit him with allegations and innuendoes.”

If anything there is probably some unspoken admiration for Lalit Modi about how well he played this game and the breadth of his connections from Sushma Swaraj and Vasundhara Raje to Rajiv Shukla and Sharad Pawar.

He even tweeted “Happy to meet the Gandhi family… in London. I had run into Robert and Priyanka separately.”

The angry Congress responded that it was not a crime to run into anyone in a restaurant and no social interaction happened. But the point of that tweet was different. How many of us reading that tweet just happen to “run into” Robert and Priyanka in a restaurant? The subtext of Lalit Modi’s tweet was really to remind us that embattled or not, he remains supremely well-connected. And to remind the Congress that people in glass houses should not throw stones.

If anything, what the Indian public has a harder time stomaching about Lalit Modi is, as Indrajit Hazra writes in his column, “his most dastardly crime seems to be that he’s having a good time.” The fugitive allegedly on the run is happy to give interviews from Montenegro with yachts on the Adriatic Sea bobbing behind him. The husband who requests favours from top politicians to accompany his cancer-stricken wife to a hospital in Portugal posts pictures of himself partying on his Instagram account.

“The fact that Modi was not quietly praying at the Portuguese branch of the Guruvayur Temple pretty much nailed his guilt for many,” writes Hazra.

Does that mean nothing wrong happened? Absolutely not. When Tavleen Singh writes “Sushma and Vasundhara were right to help a friend, What they did wrong was to lie about it” she glosses over the fact that while we might understand why Sushma and Vasundhara might want to “help” a friend, that does not necessarily make it “right”. That depends entirely on the help being sought.

This is not a defence of Lalit Modi and his connections at all but really an indictment of our system which makes his kind of connection-building one of our highest aspirations. As well as our best insurance during troubled times. The embarrassing truth is had we been in Modi’s position, most of us would have wished that our Call-a-Friend helpline had someone like Sushma Swaraj or Vasundhara Raje at the other end. And they would say not “Lock kiya jae?” but “Manage ho jayega”.

To misquote William Shakespeare, Lalit Modi seems to taunt us “The fault, dear Indian, is not in our VIP stars, But in yourselves, that you are underlings.”

Updated Date: Jun 30, 2015 07:48:14 IST