Further evidence of how poor we Indians are with language and mathematics came yesterday when Ashish Nandy said “most of the corrupt came from OBCs, SCs and STs” (Indian Express). This was interpreted by the junta to be an attack on the underprivileged. But before coming to that conclusion, let’s understand his statement from both a language and mathematics perspective.
What did Ashish Nandy really say? Let’s look at the words carefully. Clearly, his emphasis was on the word “most”. But what does most mean? In common English parlance, most means the highest occurance of an event, though it does not necessarily have to be more than half (a majority). The question to ask then is if most of the corrupt are likely to come from the underprivileged. Even without any data in hand, one thing is for sure. Purely mathematically, since most people in the country belong to the underprivileged sections (which is why we provide 50% reservations to them), most cases of corruption must also come from them. Mathematically, Nandy’s statement was hardly sensational, and maybe Nandy never intended his statement to be sensational. What would be sensational is if the % of corrupt from the underprivileged was actually much lower or much higher than their share of population. But no one has that data. The truth probably is that corruption knows no caste; and all castes contribute to corruption in proportion to their share of population.
Poor Nandy was of course put on the defensive with all the unintended controversy. His defence offered some good insights however into what he really meant: “I believe a zero-corruption society in India would actually mean a despotic society,” Nandy said, elaborating that privileged people could be corrupt in underhanded ways — such as using connections to get their children fellowships at elite universities abroad — but such behaviour was not recognized as corruption. “That could be seen as supporting talent.” Bereft of such camouflage, dalits, tribals and OBCs were perceived as very corrupt, he explained.” Now this explanation gives his statement a totally different hue. It appears what Nandy really meant was that the privileged are equally corrupt (but in underhand ways), but not “visibly” (not camouflaged) so. The underprivileged simply contribute “the most” to visible corruption. Fair point!
Nandy’s statement is indicative of a problem that Indians have with language. Any language. Not just English. We have so many languages, none of us is fluent (or even properly conversant) with any language. Not even our mother tongue. Some people speak in a fine and sophisticated way, others in a much more earthy manner. In this case maybe, Nandy’s English was too sophisticated for the junta. That sophistication got him into trouble; an FIR was demanded (by Mayawati and others) and filed (by the Jaipur cops) against Nandy. Now the poor man will be harassed to no end.
In a similar way, a few days back we split hairs over the usage of the phrase “saffron terror”, and pretended the phrase called all Hindus terrorists. The junta objected to it. But when it comes to using “Islamic terror” to describe the various Muslims caught in acts of terrorism, the same junta is comfortable with the term. The reality is that either both phrases are wrong, or both are OK. It can never be anyone’s point that one is OK but the other is not. But again, this simple point of language created a huge political stir.
It’s the same with numbers. Most Indian politicians, and media personalities, are extremely uncomfortable with numbers, especially percentages. When the UP elections were underway last year, there was this controversy about the % of reservations for Muslims (of course, now that the elections are over, the subject has been junked!). The Congress manifesto said that it would provide 4.5% reservations to Muslims if elected to power. The controversy started when Salman Khursheed went beyond the manifesto and said his party would provide 9% reservations. Then Mulayam Singh Yadav – not to be outdone by the Congress – said his party would provide 18% reservations. In all these numbers, mathematics got compromised. % are always stated with reference of a base. People often forget to mention the base. The max cap on reservations, as specified by the Supreme Court is 50%. What Mulayam may not have understood (intentionally maybe?) is that his 18% would have to be on the base of 50% max, or 9% of the base of the total population, exactly the same that Khursheed said! So Mulayam and Khursheed were saying the same thing, but Mulayam’s appeared to be the stronger offer! No one knows if the junta understood the fine difference though!
Take the recent gang rape in Delhi, and the surfeit of data that emerged from the NCRB records after that. A friend of mine wrote in a Facebook update “2.5 million crimes were committed against in India out of which a staggering 10% were against women”. Is this a happy statistic or a terrible one? If there are 50% women in the population, and if only 10% of the crimes are against women, that’s a statistic to be happy with, not upset about, right? Actually, 10% is a happily low number. But no one understands maths and 10%, when said with emphasis, is enough to dominate several prime time shows on TV!
Remember also Pranab Mukherjee’s “assurance” to Parliament in Dec 2011 that FDI in multi-brand retail would be deferred until “consensus” emerged. By any measure, consensus means 100% “ayes”, and that’s pretty impossible in a democratic set-up. Pranab Mukherjee had made a mistake. But politics being politics, he couldn’t issue a clarification. He had to give some devious explanation to show that by consensus, he actually meant “majority”!
There are numerous other examples of Indians not understanding numbers. GDP growth is one such. Most people think that when inflation is 7% and the GDP growth 5.5%, there is actually de-growth. Wrong. The reality is that GDP growth is measured in “real” terms; that is over and above the inflation number! In “nominal” terms, the GDP growth would be approximately 12.5%. Similarly, any “change” is difficult to understand. If something changes from 50 to 100, that is 100% growth, not 200%, even though it has become two times! And if 50 becomes 150, that is a 200% growth, not 300% even though it has become three times! A few months back, the editor (hardly) of what I call Scam TV made several prime time shows on Montek Singh Ahluwalia spending Rs 40 lacs on “2 bathrooms”. Either the anchor did not understand maths or did not want to, but the reality was that Rs 40 lacs was spent on “2 bathroom blocks of 10 bathrooms each….meaning 20 bathrooms”, but this was either too fine a point for our dense anchor or too boring a detail! Similarly, during the Commonwealth games much was said about tissue paper rolls being bought for “Rs 1000” or some such number, when it was actually a box containing a thousand rolls! Most people also don’t understand what “proportion” means. So poor Ashish Nandy had no chance at all!
The real truth is that every now and then an incident occurs that shows just how illiterate we are with language and mathematics. “Most” (meaning the highest number, not necessarily a majority!) such incidents are blown out of proportion and politicized. In a land of fools, the intelligent are harassed. Alas, this is part of a country’s journey to the top…..