• Neil Ostwal

Nepotism- The Aspect Nobody Talks About

In my last write-up exploring Capitalism, I had mentioned nepotism as a major force driving human societies. The events in the following days piqued my interest in exploring nepotism in detail.

The mystery behind the cause of suicide of Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput has put the spotlight back on the nepotism debate in Bollywood. Voices from all corners are rising against what they term as the ‘denial of opportunity to merit’. The argument is that because of nepotism, talent has not got fair access to opportunities

But, are we justified at pointing fingers towards such instances of nepotism? If we pause, look into our own lives and of those around us and reflect, it will not take long to awake to the cold reality. Nepotism is so deeply ingrained in our instincts that we hardly realize its existence. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to state that nepotism is one of the basic tenets of human civilization. While it may exist in differing forms, its existence is almost impossible to ignore on a deeper reflection.


Blatant Nepotism- In the Line of Fire

A superstar using his/her influence in the industry to ensure his/her daughter or son is picked for a top director’s film ahead of other, arguably more talented candidates, can be said to be practicing nepotism of the blatant variety. This is the type that is being picked out as evil these days.


Soft Nepotism- The Under-Scrutinized Avatar of Nepotism

But what about a qualified graduate who merely uses his father’s network to get the right job opportunity for himself. Yes, he has the qualification demanded for the job, but what if there were equally qualified candidates who had applied for the job, or maybe more qualified candidates who fared better in the interview or had more relevant experience for the profile in question?

Doesn’t this too qualify as a form of nepotism, albeit a softer one? Given the father’s friendship/relation was very well the deciding factor in favor of a candidate, will this also be called out as being unfair or unequal? A lot of organizations demand credible references (which is often a relative) in the candidate shortlisting process.

Although selection may happen only on the basis of performance in the evaluation process, some candidates do not even make it to the evaluation process for the lack of references. The need for trust is the rationale for seeking references.

There is also the category that relies on nepotism but is full of unquestionable talent as well. It’s common knowledge that Hritik Roshan has a Bollywood connection in father Rakesh Roshan. But hasn’t Hritik been widely lauded for his acting, versatile performances as well as dance, right from the days of his debut film? And then there’s the much loved or much-loathed (depending on your preferences) Alia Bhatt, who was written off as eye-candy in ‘Student of the Year’, but gradually transformed into one of the finest mainstream actresses that Bollywood has spun out in recent years.



Privilege- Our ‘Natural’ Right

Also, what about privilege then? What if a poor but intelligent child gets good grades but a rich and equally intelligent child gets better grades only because he had access to the finest coaching, expensive practice material and advanced test reviews to give him that slight edge. There is certainly no equal access to the opportunity here, in spite of equal talent. What about all other privileges that make our lives infinitely better despite no effort on our part. The only reason we’re blessed with privileges is that we were born to individuals who have worked hard (or possibly inherited it from their ancestors). So, if there is no merit/talent, do blood descendants lose the right to inherit gold, properties, cash, and financial investments of an individual?


Anything for Family!

An individual’s priorities usually lean towards the smallest unit that he associates with himself- the self, followed by the family, community, religion, nation, humanity and earthliness.

Generally speaking, it has been part of human (or shall I say animal?) instinct to do the best for the family, before any other unit. It has been part of human instinct to give maximum preference to one’s own bloodline.

While this write-up has focused more on bloodline, a similar analogy can be applied to friends and acquaintances (part of community), being the next natural preference. Preference for friends and similar related parties also carries the risk of ignoring merit.


The Natural Successor

Such instinctive behavior shall always give rise to a situation where the transfer of property and capital is based on blood, ignoring efficient allocation and merit during this transfer (rightly pointed out by a friend in the comments to my capitalism write-up).

When Mr. A wants to retire from his huge and booming textile business, he does not organize any test to find out the most meritorious successor to the business. Rather, in most cases, he transfers his business to his ‘natural’ heir or heiress, irrespective of their merit.

Even in professionally run companies (barring a few such as ITC), the management may be chosen on merit, but the control of the board and all decision making sticks to the family of the retiring promoter. There is little doubt that Ratan Tata’s leadership has catapulted the Tata Group into a truly global conglomerate of repute, but when he inherited the empire, was the inheritance conditional on merit?

There might also be an argument that privilege is alright but blatant nepotism is wrong. Who shall draw the fine line to differentiate between the two? Subtle for one may be blatant for another. Where should such a line be drawn? Just because one seems blatant and the other seems subtle, does it mean that one is ethically worse than the other?

In fact, a low-level government employee using his years of relationships to get his relative into the job is also nepotism, but is it excusable just because the value add (or the opportunity loss for merit-based talent) is small?

Why Can’t We Outlaw Nepotism?

Across the world, laws, constitutional safeguards, and corporate policies have attempted to check nepotism with limited success. Laws are made by ‘lawmakers’. Lawmakers are humans, fallible to instincts. What happens when ‘lawmakers’ love nepotism? They ‘amend’ the law. And hence we witness the spectacle of Ivanka Trump serving as ‘Senior Advisor’ to the President of the United States and Andhra Pradesh accomplishing the strange feat of having 5 ‘Deputy Chief Ministers’.


Truth Be Told: Nepotism is Omnipresent

Nepotism persists irrespective of economic models. Capitalism demands an efficient allocation of resources. Bloodline based transfers throw efficiency for a toss. Communism tries to place power in the hands of the oppressed to counter power concentration, but Marx would be embarrassed to see that Kim Jong-un inherited power from father Kim Jong-il in supposedly Communist North Korea. Fidel Castro transferred power to brother Raul Castro in Cuba, which recognizes itself as a Communist state. So much for countering power concentration?

Are we ready for a society that is truly equal? Would we ever accept giving-up something so deeply ingrained in our instincts?

The lines between blatant nepotism, soft nepotism, and privilege are often blurred. Striving for the utopian ideal of abolishing all three or living with the reality of the existence of all three are individual choices. Also, it is easy to pinpoint one form of nepotism while being blind to others. But being selective is akin to punishing the apparently ‘greater’ crime and forgiving the apparently ‘lesser’ crime (Note the emphasis on ‘apparently’). The idea of blood (or any relation) is soaked in bias and although we might label it 'instinctive', we cannot talk of absolute equality and fairness without being willing to address our instincts.


Also Read: The Dark Side of Capitalism

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