One individual can destroy an entire institution. Individuals are, therefore, key to the success of any institution. Yet, institutional traditions can limit the damage that individuals can do. Preserving traditions is, therefore, the key to the longevity of good institutions. Consider the two institutions in the public eye at the moment. The office of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India and the Sri Sathya Sai Central Trust. Has the temptation to seek publicity harmed the institution of the CAG? Perhaps it has. If the CAG had not sought out the media and given public speeches on morality in public life, the role of civil society and such like, it may have helped retain the reputation of the institution as a quiet scrutiniser of governmental spending. With just a couple of misjudgments, caused by the current craze among civil servants to seek personal glory, an individual has hurt the credibility of an institution. Is the CAG an auditor or an activist?
The case of the Sri Sathya Sai Central Trust is even more stark. As long as the late Sathya Sai Baba was alive not a finger was pointed at any financial wrongdoing by the very same people who continue to administer the Trust. Surely, Sai Baba alone was not managing the finances and affairs of the huge institution he had created. The very same people who are doing so today were in charge earlier too. The death of the man at the top should not make so much of a difference that a great spiritual and philanthropic institution is suddenly eyed with suspicion. Or is it that as long as Baba was alive no one dared to question his institution’s financial integrity, and now anything goes?
At a time when so many national institutions, governmental and non-governmental, are coming under increased scrutiny, the question of the role of individuals in preserving them has become particularly relevant. For example, the opposition political parties have charged Dr Manmohan Singh with weakening the institution of prime minister by accepting the political leadership role of the chairperson of the ruling coalition and intervention in policy making by the National Advisory Council. On the other hand, Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee has been accused of weakening the institutional standing of the Reserve Bank of India, another great national institution, by creating new institutions that blur the ‘first among equals’ status of the governor of the central bank.
The challenge before both Prime Minister Singh and RBI Governor Subbarao has been a similar one — of seeking to preserve the standing of the institution they head without projecting their individual personality.
This is easier said than done. Some individuals raise the standing of the institution they head, but more often than not the challenge for any individual heading a great institution is to ensure the continued standing of that institution against the envy of individuals who covet their position.
In the extant case of the Sri Sathya Sai Baba Central Trust one can only hope that raising questions about the financial dealings of a few individuals will not harm the reputation of the institutions that have been built, since they have done a commendable job, just as the CAG and RBI and all the other institutions where the role of individuals is questioned for one reason or another.