When 2 plus 2 is 22

Fudging numbers is a natural tendency. Ever since the day early man started to count, he has also been counting wrongly, intententionally or inadvertently. The countdown to numerical nemesis that commenced then has run parallel to the deteriorating integrity of mankind: From the caveman who killed five sheep, hid one in the bush, ate one and reported two, er, three as the day’s catch to his fellow cavemen, to the present day accountant who does something similar but in rupee terms (or dollars or euros), numbers have remained most deceptive, cocking a snook at human honesty and accuracy.

Incidentally, numbers are supposed to attach a certain, well, certainty to claims. For instance, Mr Caveman could have well pointed to the sheep and said ‘Grrrr…’ and the rest, Messers Cavemen, would have still taken his word with a few ‘Grrrrrr..’s as acknowledgement, but showing three fingers or whatever gesture that suggested three, added to the credibility of his claim. That numbers often end up fortifying falsehood, instead of standing testimony to truth, is indeed a tragic irony. But the fancy for putting a numerical value to facts, or for that matter, even fiction, is quite high, be it with the people, media and Government who revel in lies, damned lies and statistics respectively.

So, how many died in the Mumbai blasts? ‘A few hundreds’ would be close to truth! But the public would love a round figure of say, 300. The media would prefer to be specific: Channel A, 323, B, 333 and C, 373 and all would claim to be accurate. The Official Gazette would, however, say 226! It still beats me how the media arrives at precise figures of political corruption scandals; after all, only the politico, who walked away with the loot can vouch for it and that too only for his part of it. Again, exaggeration is the name of the game vis-a-vis business scams. Sample this: I give you Rs 200/- at 10 a.m (it could be Rs 2000/- but remember there’s a recession underway). You return the same Rs 200/- at 11a.m. You and I would think the accounts are square and nil. But the business analysts and pink press would have us believe that we have done transactions ‘worth’ Rs 400/-! That’s how the balloon is blown.

At the Governmental level, data regarding census or the economy always confound and confuse. They are often relative, either year on year or percentages of other figures and offer little enlightenment on current reality or absolutes. Fiscal deficit at 3% of GDP, which itself is a maze, might energise economic pundits but means nothing to a family that has a hole in its budget many times its whole income. At the individual level, the penchant for number pinching is most pronounced w.r.t age and money. Women particularly have traditionally been accused of lying about their total time on earth. But at 22, I can assure you that men are equally guilty. Well, sorry, I forgot to mention the multiple there. But it can be said that if one’s declared age is to be believed many would not qualify for the voters’ list.

Money, for its part, has been the greatest agent provocateur of falsehood. Rather, cash and ‘satyam’ seem mutually exclusive. It is a universal motto to keep the money in one’s own pocket a mystery to fellow homo sapiens. One may fail in such endeavours w.r.t your spouse who invariably have inside info of your pocket. Still, lying over Vitamin M inflow to life partners, business partners, lenders, authorities etc is such a standard practice that even God seems to condone it. And would rather emulate, if the financial irregularities in many of His institutions are any proof. Again, the govermental watchdogs who are supposed to keep tabs even on Him and His devotees fare no better. World over, financial improprieties are a direct fallout of either regulatory failure or active collusion. And the Government accounts themselves are great mirages. Somehow, C&AG reports do not agitate our public much. A reading of a few would turn out to be huge faith-busters. Fudging figures would seem like a national pastime with everything official about it.

The raging Satyam scam is touted as a record of sorts in corporate history. It is strange how scams and slumps always coincide, but that apart, it reveals a sordid big picture. I am not alluding to the Rs 7000 crores that was there but not there really. (make it Rs14000 cr or whatever figure your numerologist suggests, but no worry, you will still be right). Pray, how many of the millions (no, make it hundreds of thousands) of Balance Sheets that are routinely filed under the Companies Act or Income Tax Act are true? Forget small and closely held private firms, what of the corporates whose shares are quoted on the stock exchange and therefore, constitute public money? A recent report on corporate governance claims that many Satyams are waiting to be unraveled, not just in IT but across sectors. Indeed, R Raju would seem like a petty pickpocket. But till then the rule stands: A thief is a thief only if he is caught.

RR’s case has a touch of travesty that providence often plays out: nemesis caught up with him not when he committed the fraud but when he tried to put back the money! At the risk of sounding like a devil’s advocate, a few points, however, need to be made. During over 40 years of licence raj, individuals and businesses routinely depressed incomes and profits because the government was virtually an equal partner, what with sky high tax rates. Post liberalisation in 1991, the pendulum touched the other extreme: with softening taxes and zooming bourses, the in-thing was to ‘show’ higher incomes to attract investments. Businessmen had already to contend with too many authorities like IT, sales tax, excise, bank etc with differing yardsticks warranting ‘differing’ financial statements. But with valuations turning out to be the name of the game the tendency to boost figures was most Pavlovian. Indeed, if falsification of books is a crime, greedy shareholders, intransigent authorities and the media with its fancy for feel-good too have left their fingerprints liberally. Here is a quote from a recent issue of Fortune on the predicament of a modern CEO: ‘…what if a CEO says with refreshing candour, ‘let’s be honest’. The problem with this approach is that it tends to ensure that the company will indeed go down – that afternoon. The stock price will plummet, lenders will call in their loans, banks and customers will freeze the company out, credit agencies will downgrade it, and soon our commendably honest CEO will notice a half-dozen satellite television trucks – those modern-day vultures – double parked outside the lobby’! Indeed, running a business today is an unhappy choice between riding a tiger and dismounting it! Raju’s pearl, not mine!

Bharat was supposed to have invented the ‘zero’. We are also the champions of maya. The nation’s financial facade is turning out to be just that. Incidentally, it has taken 863 words to highlight this. Please count if you doubt…

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Jawahar T R