Of late I've been fascinated by incompetence. It's hard to get away from this subject, obviously, but -- as a result of some trains of thought sparked off during conversations -- I've had the occasion to think a little about it.
When the 2G spectrum scam started to break, accompanied by the publication of the fascinating Niira Radia tapes, I found myself explaining the situation to non-resident Indian friends/relatives on two separate occasions. When I mentioned that A. Raja was accused of having defrauded the nation of 10 to the power 12 rupees through corruption, each of them independently asked whether it was clear that he was corrupt -- could he not have been just incompetent? They pointed out that when a new technology was involved, as well as a novel procedure such as auctioning spectrum, it was quite possible the the politician in charge simply didn't understand the issues well enough.
Probably without knowing it, these people were following the suggestion of Napoleon Bonaparte, who is supposed to have said "Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence". It's remarkable though that I've never ever heard a resident Indian suggest incompetence may have been involved in the 2G case, or any other. On the contrary, most people I talk to in India (and everyone I don't talk to) is certain that malice aforethought must be at the root of India's corruption scandals. As for the more complex possibility that some money is lost through corruption but a possibly larger amount through incompetence, this level of complexity seems too baffling for people to deal with.
Which is sad, because I think the complex answer is closest to the truth. Incompetence could be a far larger problem in India than corruption. Even if my estimates are false (for example suppose incompetence and corruption cause equal losses to the exchequer) it's critically important to examine the role of incompetence in a developing country like ours, as well as its possible remedies (for that matter, it's important to critically examine the role of corruption and its possible remedies, instead of getting hysterical about it one moment and participating in it the next moment as most middle-class Indians are apt to do).
There are many fascinating points to ponder, but on a working day I don't have time to start pondering them. Let me close this short posting with an observation that obsesses me these days. Incompetence is not a static property of a person. In fact everyone can better their competence level by simply making a conscious decision to do so, and following up on it. Whatever administrative incompetence I see around me (and sadly I see a whole lot) seems to persist for one or more of the following reasons:
(i) competence is not rewarded and incompetence is not objected to,
(ii) labelling someone as incompetent is used as a self-fulfilling prophecy,
(iii) people are neither advised nor helped to improve their competence through training,
(iv) for ego reasons, incompetent people in powerful positions will not accept their limitations or seek help from others.
In this, I believe India differs in a major way from the USA or Japan. Our people are surely just as smart, but theirs are encouraged and even helped to become more competent to the extent possible. In these countries incompetence is not confused for malice, which it isn't. And when an incompetent person becomes more competent by whatever means, the system happily adjusts to the new reality instead of insisting that the old labels remain on the person. In India, by contrast, we look the other way at the incompetence of powerful people (sadly this is often due to the Peter Principle and may not be completely remediable by training, even assuming powerful people would consent to be trained) but the incompetence of the lowly is assumed to be a permanent feature.
I wonder how much these differing world-views originate in religious differences that permeate culture. Interestingly the Wikipedia page on redemption in theology identifies the concept only within Buddhism, Christianity and Judaism. How does redemption play out in Hinduism and Islam, and does this affect our attitude towards incompetence in the workplace? That's your homework question.