The wilful blindness of Manmohan Singh

Manmohan-Singh_0Vivek Kaul

The stock market crash of October 1929 started the Great Depression in the United States, from where it spread to large parts of the world. Some of the best books on the Great Depression, which are still being read, started to appear only 25 years later.
My favourite book the Great Depression is
The Great Crash 1929, written by John Kenneth Galbraith. The book was first published in 1954, twenty five years after the Depression started. Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz’s A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960, which dealt with the Great Depression in considerable detail, came out only in 1963. This book set the agenda for how central banks around the world reacted to recessions.
In fact, books on the Great Depression are still being written. A recent favourite of mine is
Lords of Finance—1929, The Great Depression, and The Bankers Who Broke the World, written by Liaquat Ahamed, which was published in 2009. It won many awards including the Pulitzer Prize for history. What is true about the Great Depression is also true about Mahatma Gandhi. Some of the best biographies on the Mahatma, like Gandhi Before India, have appeared in recent times.
Dear reader, before you start wondering why am I talking about the Great Depression and Gandhi, in a column which is supposedly on Manmohan Singh, allow me to explain. The point I am trying to make here is that the best history is usually written many years after something has happened. The gap is probably necessary to allow historians to iron out the noise. Also, over the years new sources of information appear, which were not available in the first place. For one, documents get declassified. At the same time, letters that the men and women being profiled wrote, appear in the public domain and so on.
Hence, the defining history on Manmohan Singh’s years as the Prime Minister of India will most probably be written a few decades from now. Having said that, it is easy to predict that historians won’t project Singh in a good light.
The story that one usually hears about Singh is that he was an honest man heading a dishonest and a corrupt government. While his ministers may have made money being corrupt, he never did. This is a very simplistic explanation of the entire scenario.
A major reason why Manmohan Singh survived as the Prime Minister of India for a full decade was because he was ‘wilfuly blind’ to a lot of nefarious activities happening around him. Wilful Blindess is a legal concept that was first applied in the British courts in 1861.
As Margaret Heffernan writes in 
Wilful Blindness- Why we ignore the obvious at our peril“A judge in Regina v. Sleep ruled that an accused could not be convicted for possession of government property unless the jury found that he either knew the goods came from government stores or had ‘wilfully shut his eyes to the fact’…Over time, a lot of other phrases came into play – deliberate or wilful ignorance, conscious avoidance and deliberate indifference. What they have all in common is the idea that there is an opportunity for knowledge and a responsibility to be informed, but it is shirked.”
Manmohan Singh’s decade long tenure as the Prime Minister needs to be viewed through the lens of wilful blindness. He was wilfully blind to A Raja running the telecom industry for his own benefit. Singh was also wilfully blind to the coalgate scam where coal mines were given away free to both public sector and private sector companies. In fact, he was the coal minister when a large number of mines were given away free.
In fact, as Heffernan writes “the law does not care why you remain ignorant, only that you do.” Also, on some occasions the wilful blindness comes from that “we focus so intently on the order that we are blind to everything else.” Singh was so focussed on following the orders of Sonia Gandhi, who was the actual head of the government, that he chose to remain ‘wilfully blind’ to all that was happening around him.
Interestingly, when Enron went bust in the early 2000s, Jeffrey Skilling and Kenneth Lay, the CEO and Chairman of Enron, pleaded that they just did not know what was going on in the company and hence, could not be held responsible for it.
Judge Lake who was hearing the case invoked the concept of wilful blindness. As he instructed the jury: “You may find that a defendant had knowledge of a fact if you find that the defendant deliberately closed his eyes to what would otherwise have been obvious to him. Knowledge can be inferred if the defendant deliberately blinded himself to the existence of a fact.”
The phrase to be marked in the above statement is “closed his eyes”. The only way Singh could not have known about what was happening around him was if he had closed his eyes to it.
“Magicians never reveal their secrets,” writes Scottish writer Ian Rankin in his latest crime thriller
Saints of the Shadow Bible. Singh was no magician. If he wants history to treat him a little better than it actually might end up doing, it is best that he spends his years in retirement writing his memoirs of the ten years he spent as India’s Prime Minister, like Winston Churchill did.
Churchill in the years after the Second World War wrote his version of history of the Second World War and even won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1953. Singh needs to do the same. That way history might also consider his point of view.

The article originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of Mutual Fund Insight

(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He can be reached at [email protected]

Why we're not best-equipped to multitask

Businessman on cell phone in car
Vivek Kaul

Nidhi Pandey, a 17 year old girl died, after she was hit by a speeding bus in Dadar, Mumbai, on June 3, 2013. The Mumbai Police strongly believe that she was listening to music while crossing the road.
As the Mumbai Mirror reportsNidhi died around 10 am yesterday after she was hit by a private bus while crossing a road at Dadar TT. While her family denies she was wearing earphones at the time, the police believe it is highly likely that she was. Manisha Murumkar, sub-inspector, Matunga police station, said, “We strongly suspect that Nidhi was listening to music while crossing the road as she was found with her earphones plugged into her phone and both ear pieces near her ears.”
Prima facie it does seem that Nidhi was listening to music while crossing the road given the statement of the Mumbai Police, which claims to have reached the accident spot within ten minutes of the accident. “
We reached the spot in 10 minutes and took her to Sion hospital in our police van. However, it was too late – Nidhi died before she could be admitted,” sub-inspector Murumkar told Mumbai Mirror. Given this, the conclusion one can draw is that Nidhi was so immersed in the music that she had no clue of the speeding bus.
But Nidhi Pandey was unlucky. There are so many people who have their earphones on and are listening to music while doing other important activities, like crossing the road, climbing onto trains and so on. A common sight these days is people smsing while walking on the pavement or even crossing the road. Then there are others who talk on their mobile phones while driving. The ‘smarter’ ones either use ear-phones or hands-free while speaking on their mobile phones while driving, thinking that using such gadgets makes the experience safe and risk-free.
But that is not the case.
Christopher Charbis and Daniel Simons in their book The Invisible Gorilla – And Other Ways Our Intuition Deceives Us refer to this situation as inattentional deafness. “When people are focussing attention (visual and auditory) on (a) task…they are unlikely to notice something unexpected,” write the authors. So when people are engrossed listening to music while crossing the road, they are likely to miss the oncoming bus.
In fact Chabris and Simons conducted a very small experiment which has since then gone global. They made a small film which basically had students of Harvard University playing basketball. One team was wearing white and another team was wearing black.
After they had made the film, they ran a small experiment, where they asked volunteers to watch the film and count the number of passes made by the team wearing white, ignoring the passes made by the team wearing black.
Around a minute later, the volunteers were asked whether they had seen something else. Nearly half of them said they hadn’t seen anything else. But they had missed out on something major. As Daniel Kahneman writes in
Thinking, Fast and Slow “The viewers of the film are instructed to count the number of passes made by the white team, ignoring the black players. This task is difficult and completely absorbing. Halfway through the video, a woman wearing a gorilla suit appears, crosses the court, thumps her chest, and moves on. The gorilla is in view for 9 seconds. Many thousands of people have seen the video, and about half of them do not notice anything unusual.”
As author Margaret Heffernan admits in
Wilful Blindness – Why We Ignore the Obvious At Our Peril “The experiment has been shown repeatedly, around the world, in front of diverse audiences. I first saw it in Dublin, in an audience full of executives. Like them, I was so focussed on counting the passes I never saw the gorilla.”
In fact so stunning were the results that Chabiris and Simons did not believe the results initially. As Heffernan points out “Simons was so stunned by the results that he says that for several years afterwards, he still kept expecting people to spot the gorilla.”
So what happened here? Why did the people fail to see the obvious? As Kahneman writes “Intense focussing on a task can make people effectively blind, even to stimuli that normally attract attention…It is the counting task (counting the passes being made by the white team) – and especially the instruction to ignore one of the teams – that causes the blindness. No one who watches the video without the task would miss the gorilla….The authors (i.e. Chabris and Simons) note that the most remarkable observation of their study is that people find its results surprising. Indeed, the viewers who fail to see the gorilla are initially sure that it was not there – they cannot imagine missing such a striking event. The gorilla study illustrates two important facts about our minds: we can be blind to the obvious, and we are also blind to our blindness.”a
There was another experiment carried out by the Washington Post newspaper a few years back, with Grammy Award winning violinist Joshua David Bell being a part of it. At 7.51am on January 12, 2007, Bell started playing violin at the L’Enfant Plaza subway stop at Washington D.C in the United States. Bell had kept his violin cases open for donation as he played six classical pieces over the next 43 minutes. During the period 1097 people crossed him.
Gene Weingarten, a staff writer at the Washington Post, was the brain behind the experiment. After the experiment Weingarten asked Leonard Slatkin, music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, of what he thought would happen
if a world famous violinist decided to play his violin incognito at rush hour time and with an audience of around 1000 odd people.
“Let’s assume that he is not recognised and just taken for granted as a street musician… Still, I don’t think that if he’s really good, he’s going to go unnoticed. He’d get a larger audience in Europe… but, okay, out of 1,000 people, my guess is there might be 35 or 40 who will recognize the quality for what it is. Maybe 75 to 100 will stop and spend some time listening,” replied Slatkin.
The actual result was very surprising and nowhere near what Slatkin thought it would be.
As Weingarten later wrote in the Washington Post “In the three-quarters of an hour that Joshua Bell played, seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run — for a total of $32 and change. That leaves the 1,070 people who hurried by, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look.”
And this for the same Joshua David Bell playing, whose concert tickets could cost as much as $100, and who earned as high as $1000 per minute, everytime he played. Weingstein was very disappointed with the way the experiment turned out. As he wrote “It’s what happens right after each piece ends: nothing. The music stops. The same people who hadn’t noticed him playing don’t notice that he has finished. No applause, no acknowledgement…If we can’t take the time out of our lives to stay a moment and listen to one of the best musicians on Earth play some of the best music ever written; if the surge of modern life so overpowers us that we are deaf and blind to something like that — then what else are we missing.”
But the people travelling through the subway stop had been inattentionally deaf to the great music being played. They were totally focused on boarding the Metro train from the station and were totally deaf to the great music being played around them. It was the same as what happens in the invisible gorilla experiment. People are so focussed on counting the passes that they totally miss the gorilla.
The basic point of these experiments is that multitasking is not something that human beings are good at, even though most of us do it all the time. One of the most the common multitasking situations is drivers using mobile phones while driving to talk, sms and these days even for posting something on Facebook. But as Charbis and Simons point out “the driving impairments caused by talking on a cell phone are comparable to the effects of driving while legally intoxicated.”
One solution that has emerged is the hands-free. Turns out a hands-free is equally bad. “Experiment after experiment has shown no benefit whatsoever for hands-free phones over handheld ones. In fact, legislation banning the use of handheld phones might even have the ironic effect of making people more confident that they can safely use a hands-free phone while driving,” write the authors. So while traffic police fines people for talking on their phones while driving, there is no punishment for talking using a hands-free or earphones for that matter.
Charbis and Simons summarise it best when they write”the main conclusion from studies of multitasking is that virtually nobody does it well: As a rule, it is more efficient to do tasks one at a time rather than simultaneously.” So the next time you are crossing the road, just cross the road, the music blaring through the earphone can wait for a few seconds.
The article originally appeared on on June 5, 2013

(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek) 

Wilful blindness links BCCI, Murdoch and Lehman Bros

sakshi-dhoni1Vivek Kaul 
News of the World was a British newspaper, owned by media moghul Rupert Murdoch, which published its last edition on July 10, 2011. The newspaper shutdown after it came to light that the employees of the newspaper had been hacking phones, using private investigators and even bribing the police to acquire confidential information, which could be turned into sensational news stories.
On July 19, 2011, nine days after 
News of the World shutdown, Rupert Murdoch and his son James, gave oral evidence to the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport of the British Parliament. The Committee asked a stream of questions to the Murdochs.
Adrian Sanders, a member of the committee, asked the question number 269, which put the Murdochs in a lot of bother. This is how the brief conversation that followed the question went:
Q269 Mr Sanders: Finally, are you familiar with the term “wilful blindness”?
James Murdoch: Mr Sanders, would you care to elaborate?
Q270 Mr Sanders: It is a term that came up in the Enron scandal. Wilful blindness is a legal term. It states that if there is knowledge that you could have had and should have had, but chose not to have, you are still responsible.
James Murdoch: Mr Sanders, do you have a question? Respectfully, I just do not know what you would like me to say.

Q271 Mr Sanders: The question was whether you were aware—
James Murdoch: I am not aware of that particular phrase.

Q272 Mr Sanders: But now you are familiar with the term, because I have explained it to you.
James Murdoch: Thank you, Mr Sanders.
Rupert Murdoch: I have heard the phrase before, and we were not ever guilty of that.

In the days the discussion was picked up by the media and there was a lot of discussion around the topic. The Select Committee finally concluded that “If at all relevant times Rupert Murdoch did not take steps to become fully informed about phone hacking, he turned a blind eye and exhibited wilful blindness to what was going on in his companies and publications.”
Before Murdochs were accused of ‘wilful blindness’ the term was used even for the Enron debacle by Judge Simeon Lake. Enron was an American company which went bust more than 10 years back after it came to light that it had been growing by simply fudging its numbers. Jeffrey Skilling and Kenneth Lay, the CEO and Chairman of Enron, pleaded that they just did not know what was going on in the company and hence could not be held responsible for it.
In his summary of the trial, Judge Lake told the jury that “
You may find that a defendant had knowledge of a fact if you find that the defendant deliberately closed his eyes to what would otherwise have been obvious to him. Knowledge can be inferred if the defendant deliberately blinded himself to the existence of a fact.” 
As Margaret Heffernan writes in 
Wilful Blindness- Why we ignore the obvious at our peril “Judge Lake was applying the legal principal of wilful blindness: you are responsible if you could have known, and should have known, something which instead you strove not to see. Skilling and Lay could have known, and had the opportunity to know, just how rotten their company was. Their claim not to know was no excuse under the law. Since they could have known, they were responsible…The law does not care why you remain ignorant, only that you do.”
The concept of ‘wilful blindness’ first appeared in the English courts in 1861. “A judge in 
Regina v. Sleep ruled that an accused could not be convicted for possession of government property unless the jury found that he either knew the goods came from government stores or had ‘wilfully shut his eyes to the fact’,” writes Hefferman. “Over time, a lot of other phrases came into play – deliberate or wilful ignorance, conscious avoidance and deliberate indifference. What they have all in common is the idea that there is an opportunity for knowledge and a responsibility to be informed, but it is shirked.”
In fact, the current case where three players of the Indian Premier League (IPL) team Rajasthan Royals have been accused of spot fixing, fits excellently into the concept of ‘wilful blindness’. The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) which runs the IPL has been trying to underplay the scandal and at the same time trying to distance itself from it. N Srinivasan, the President of BCCI, had this to say after the scandal broke out “We will do whatever is necessary. The sport is clean and we are running it clean. We have taken all the steps (to keep it clean). One or two bad eggs here and there cannot sully the entire game.”
The BCCI has taken pains to elucidate that the scandal concerns just one team i.e. the Rajashtan Royals and they have nothing to do it. That possibly also explains why the Rajasthan Royals have filed a first information report (FIR) against the three players and the BCCI has been doing nothing, except for holding meetings and appearing to talk tough.
The few bad eggs explanation has now ended up as an egg on the face of President Srinivasan as Mumbai Police gets ready to question Gurunath Meiyappan, who other than being the Team Principal of the best performing IPL team Chennai Super Kings (CSK) also happens to be married to Srinivsan’s daugther Rupa.
Srinivasan other than being the President of BCCI, happens to own the CSK team. Talk about conflict of interest. Gurunath, more popularly known as Prince Gurunath, is in trouble because of his close links to small time actor turned bookie Vindoo Dara Singh (more popularly known as Jack in betting circles).
While just knowing another person does not amount to guilt, but the fact that Singh had access to the inner echelons of CSK and was even seen watching a match seated next to Sakshi Dhoni (wife of Mahendra Singh Dhoni, who also happens to be the captain of CSK ) does muddle the waters. Even within IPL circles Singh’s role as Jack was pretty well known (a senior functionary of an IPL team has said so clearly on Facebook). So wasn’t this an act of wilful blindness on the part of Srinivasan? Shouldn’t he have wondered what was a bookie doing inside the VIP section, sitting next to the wife of the captain of his cricket team?
The BCCI was also wilfully blind given that last year in a sting operation India TV, had shown that various fringe players in the IPL were ready to be bought for money. There were also allegations of spot fixing. The BCCI suspended some players, but beyond that nothing happened. Of course Srinivasan did make a strong statement. “We will not tolerate this nonsense. We have zero tolerance on corruption and you will not be disappointed by the action we take,” he said.
What makes all this even more interesting is the fact that BCCI is run by politicians from across parties. Sharad Pawar, Arun Jaitley, Rajeev Shukla, Anurag Thakur, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Narendra Modi, etc, are all a part of it. It is difficult to believe that they were totally unaware of what was going on in the league. In face of all this the explanation of there being only a ‘few rotten eggs’ doesn’t really hold.
Margaret Heffernan wrote a very interesting column for the Huffington Post in the aftermath of the Murdoch owned New of the World being shutdown. In this she pointed out that “After every institutional debacle, the arguments are the same: it was just a few bad apples. Nobody at the top is to blame. A few rogue, or over-zealous employees just went off piste. Then the full scale of the debacle emerges and another face-saving fiction emerges: no one could possibly have seen this coming. Both arguments were wrong in Abu Ghraib, at Enron, WorldCom, BP, Countrywide and Lehman Brothers and both are wrong today at News International.”
When the credibility of big institutions like BCCI is damaged, they tend to react in a very similar sort of way. They tend to blame it on a few rotten eggs, even though the entire institution has been wilfully blind.
As Heffernan wrote in another column for the Guardian: “Richard Fuld, the Lehman Brothers CEO, was also wilfully blind. He organised his life to ensure that he never encountered employees unexpectedly. The chief executive of Bear Stearns (a big Wall Street investment bank that went bust a few years back) chose not to implement a form of risk analysis that might actually have revealed how much debt the bank carried. And the Catholic church, when first confronted with the fact of child-abusing priests, chose first of all to take out insurance. All these institutions were blindsided by their choices – that is, they can’t blame their blindness on others.”
The same now stands true for the BCCI as well.
The article was originally published on on May 23, 2013
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek)