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Friday, April 13, 2007


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   Games Indians Play: Why are we the way we are?

Dr. V Raghunathan, ex-IIM professor of finance and former President, of ING Vysya bank, is a collector of antique locks and unique ideas. He is built like a stick of dynamite: compact and bursting with energy.- by Mr. V Raghunathan & Review by Soumya Sitaraman

Dr. V Raghunathan, ex-IIM professor of finance and former President, of ING Vysya bank, is a collector of antique locks and unique ideas. He is built like a stick of dynamite: compact and bursting with energy. His latest creation is a small and unassuming book, “Games Indians Play,” that like him, socks a harder punch at the reader then expected.

Modelling his title after the best selling book, “Games People Play” by psychiatrist Dr. Eric Berne that uncovered the dynamics of human relationships, Raghunathan analyses the behaviour of the Indian psyche in the business world. Berne defined games as:" A game is an ongoing series of complementary ulterior transactions progressing to a well-defined, predictable outcome. Descriptively, it is a recurring set of transactions... with a concealed motivation... or gimmick” Raghunathan uses his situational analyses of Indian business transactions using game theory, common sense and a little bit of Dharma. His unusual recipe yields remarkably logical and unexpected results.

Raghunathan bluntly challenges the reader to stand up to scrutiny. Are we up to it? Can we hold a mirror to ourselves honestly? Never for a moment leaving himself out of the fray, he makes himself the funny, erring protagonist: a typical Indian businessman struggling to get ahead and function in our daily chaotic India. Raghu, as he is known to friends, replays the fine arts of unspoken inettiquette refined in India. He teaches us how to get ahead in queues and emerge the moral victor. He tells the brilliant story of a man who raffled a dead goat for Rs. 10 and satisfied the disgruntled “winner” by giving him his money back. It is a story to chuckle over. It is the tale of the extremely intelligent Indian entrepreneur! Raghunathan has you smiling at our faults, disarms your defences and then packs in his punch.

If we are to assume that human behaviour is essentially selfish, that each person is trying to get ahead regardless, then do it right, for Pete’s sake Raghu argues. Be truly selfish. Just do the right thing regardless of what the next guy might do and in the long run, you will come up ahead. There is a catch, no free lunch here. The key words are, “right thing” and “long run.”

Reading through, one senses the depth with which the author loves his country, the appreciation he has for the ingenuity, out-of-box thinking people who battle all odds to find solutions in a rough sea for survival. Many get ahead and become winners. How much greater the possibilities are if only these unique skills were to be coupled with the ideal of long term benefit.

In conversation with Raghunathan about his book

With dynamic energy Raghunathan explains, “behavioral economics deals with the rationality and irrationality of human beings: that we are not purely economic animals…that we have other sides to us that make us behave in the way we do. Reading through a gamut of related topics like the Prisoner’s Dilemma, Game theory and so on, it struck me that while obviously many of these things are read mathematically, everybody studies them but nobody applies this to the day-to-day grind.”

Q: How did you piece together this theory with reality?

Raghu: “Things appear very rational in the short run but they are not so rational in the long run. I started looking at our behaviour. If you live in India, it stares at you in the face: people for example, drive mindless of the blind, children and lights, and defecate in public and so on. It made me wonder why is it that there is no iota of self-regulation. You keep thinking and agonizing over these things because you are also the sufferer. This then had to be said in a way where you didn’t appear to be coming from a “holier-than-thou” platform. So I was wondering how best to put it. I had to write about our condition with an appropriate framework.”
Raghunathan thought it best to don his academic hat, place his thoughts on an academic platform with behavioral economics and game theory.

Raghu: “Using the game theory and behavioral economics as excuses to write the book, even more than a framework to be honest, I wrote partly as a cathartic exercise to get it out of my system and partly go get people to think a little harder and a little longer before they behave the way do.”

Q: Do you feel that ultimately things boil down to belief in the self, and that increased expectations starting from the self would set things right? Are you asking for introspection?

Raghu: “Value, good behavior and ethics all sound like things coming from a higher platform. Here I am saying that even if you assume that our motives are beastly selfish, even then we are not acting right. From the perspective of absolute selfishness, even then the behavior does not stand up to scrutiny. For example in the Prisoners dilemma we are saying, even if both prisoners are absolutely selfish and they want to minimize their sentence, if they cooperated with each other they would have got only two years (sentence). So trying to act smart and trying to go scot-free and get the other fellow five years, both of them end up getting four years. This is the metaphoric equivalent of the fact that even if you are extremely selfish, it still pays to act right.”

Q: In our great democracy, we are entitled to be selfish and you assert we are not doing the best for ourselves in our selfishness?

Raghu: Yes! Exactly! We are being selfish in a self-defeating manner.

Q: How so?

Raghu: “One has to just do the right thing. Then there is no real difference in behavior between a rational selfish person and those working with the Gita and Dharma and value and ethics and so on. The problem is we are selfish and irrational. That is what causes all our problems. We are serving ourselves in the short run and doing a disservice to our interest in the long run.”

Q: How would you reach out to the growing generation to instill this idea that “doing the right thing always pays off?”

Raghu: “By reaching out to influence the behavior of the adult because the child’s impressionistic years are all spent watching the parent. If the child is sitting next to the father and the father jumps the red light, the child learns that the light does not matter really, or when you bribe the policeman Rs. 50 the child gets inured to that kind of thing. Obviously by reaching out to the adult when you are saying that it may appear that you have got away scot free jumping the red light or bribing the policeman, and you think you’ve done a very smart thing. Think a little about it, you are not the only smart guy on the road. And if every smart guy thinks that he can jump the light or bribe the policemen, before you know it you have brought upon yourself more accidents and chaos and you are passing on a situation much worse to the next generation.

Q: Bottomline?

Raghu: “I try to make it very simple. There is an old saying, Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. You know all that actually boils down to this game theory kind of a situation. If you think something is innately right then that is the correct thing to do. Don’t go about speculating on what others may or may not do. That way you will never get a resolution to the issue. This needs to become second nature.”

Q: Do you think people are really aware of what they are doing? Is uncivil behaviour deliberate?

Raghu: “Yes and no. There are a lot of youngsters blogging this book. Some admit to starting out being incensed but ultimately admit to being guilty to the kind of public behaviour I describe and it is heartening to read the desire to become a more “thinking man.” If the book has sparked introspection in even a small percentage of people and motivates them to change their ways, I am gratified. Lets face it, even Gandhi and Mother Teresa have lived and gone. What is one little book going to do? To be honest I have no great expectations. I have written the book because I felt I had something pertinent to say.”

Raghunathan proves this idea over and over in his book using the tools offered by the game theory, the prisoner’s dilemma and finally verses of the Bhagavad Gita. His interesting position leaves the reader with the belief that we really need to believe in ourselves more, to understand that we need to introspect and play for ourselves in the long run by the simple act of paying attention to that inner voice that prompts us to do the right thing. He asserts that the tenets of the Gita are practically provable by the Game theory. What the sages of yore gave us as our cultural inheritance stands the test of mathematic scrutiny in today’s world. India is at the correct juncture for Raghunathan’s unique formula that offers ancient wisdom in a modern flavor: “Do the right thing, independent of what others do. The multiplier effect is phenomenal and ultimately, everything will fall into place.” Perhaps the responsibility for India’s glory rests on every individual shoulder and not on a collective national identity.


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