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Unless ye be judged

An electorate must hold governments accountable, but it must also realise that the reality of politics complicates the otherwise simple principle of honesty, Salman Khurshid writes.

india Updated: Jun 02, 2013 22:46 IST
Salman Khurshid

Recent months have been witness to the worst sledging inflicted upon the UPA 2 and the Congress. For those of us who chose to be of the Congress, for the Congress and by the Congress, without the Congress there is very little in public life. But in the present vitiated atmosphere, we have to ask if we have really been as awful as we are sometimes made out to be? Also, what can we do about it?

If the bullets of accusation had not grazed almost each of us (the wholesale calumny mouthed by perennial Public Interest Litigants), some of this criticism could have passed off as humorous, at least of the black kind. But the matter is serious, both for our individual reputations and for the entire system. If the government and its high functionaries cannot be trusted when making institutional decisions, the fallout might hurt the Congress and its allies today, but it will not spare others. A scorched earth policy ultimately leaves no winners. This is not a predicament that a sensitive judiciary will fail to be cognisant of.

It is early days yet for this still-unfolding institutional crisis, a crisis that undoubtedly lies under the surface. For democracy to survive, the dice must ultimately roll a number that combines ground expectations with an enlightened view of democracy. It is futile to accuse two contrasting positions of being out of synch with reality or to draw sterile comparison between India and Bharat. Citizens carry different perceptions, based on their experience, upbringing, social milieu, and life ambitions. Democracy throws up differences, but it also throws up opportunities to harmonise and iron out these differences. But does democracy entitle citizens or people’s representatives to obstruct democratic institutions under the guise of dissent? Is there a safe enough distance between obstruction and destruction?

Civil disobedience is a profound moral weapon that has sadly been resorted to in violation of its essential prerequisite. But even as our understanding of democracy is questioned and even as interpretations of the freedom movement and the Gandhi Satyagraha play out in public space, the immediate issue of accountability — a much used and abused word in our political lexicon — needs to be addressed. No one in his or her senses would question the importance of accountability, but any such questioning must surely be tempered by reality. In order to moderate its severity, the rule of law must prevail realistically and not submit to the rule of persons. Hard cases make bad law, but bad law extolled as honest virtue can spell disaster.

Lest it be thought that one is hiding behind high-sounding propositions to protect weak principles, I feel it essential to get into specifics. As members of Parliament, we serve our country and voters. We hope they are proud of us, but this view is routinely challenged on television shows. Our mix of good and bad is surely similar to that of the people we represent. What then is the daily work menu for a good public representative?

Transfers (generally to a convenient or lucrative post), admissions to much sought after courses without qualifying marks, recommendations for the grant of government contracts, persuading police investigators to take a favourable view, interference in judicial or quasi-judicial adjudication, visas for travel to jurisdictions of rejected applications, hospital beds for in-patient treatment though not required — the list is endlessly distressing. A refusal to oblige can be lethal in terms of how one’s sincerity is perceived. Many requests are made through petty touts whose hard-sell leans heavily on their reported closeness to the VIP concerned (in truth it may extend to the personal staff). VIPs are, after all, known by the staff they keep!

Obviously not all requests, reasonable or unreasonable, are dishonest and, of course, the former must be heeded. But just sifting through the good and bad, the right and wrong becomes a full time preoccupation. The more accessible you are, the greater the risk of a virus. All this is compounded by the ‘honest mistake’ theory because in the dictionary of inquisition, mistake equals corruption. In some cases, even a different point of view is seen as an act of corruption, not mere incompetence.

The world of Alice’s Wonderland that we live in has oracles of virtue whose word means immediate execution with extreme prejudice. And, of course, contemporary oracles do not make mistakes.

Ministers will soon address the issue of the CBI’s autonomy. Autonomous will it be because the Supreme Court has so directed? But some questions do arise: Are the armed forces sufficiently autonomous? Is the civil service really autonomous? Have the police been assured autonomy? Is the press autonomous? And if that is not enough, is the judiciary of the land autonomous? Before we attempt to answer these difficult questions, we need to first know if the assumption that autonomy equals honesty is sound in itself. The obverse makes more sense: honesty equals autonomy. Dishonest autonomy can do great harm to India. Immaculate public appointments without human intervention are not really possible. Chaotic autonomy without checks and balances is a certain recipe for democratic warlordism. It was not for nothing that classical thinkers gave us a ‘separation of powers’.

India needs honest people to adorn its institutions. But democracy has not always ensured that, and it does not treat honesty and autonomy as being uncomplicated. Self-interest often obfuscates the truth. What India needs is a renaissance of altruism, a revival of Gandhiji’s Experiments with Truth. That will not happen unless we learn to trust each other. Disagreeing with someone we trust adds value, but a disagreement in which there is a trust deficit quickly turns into conflict. Trust comes with reconciliation that in turn comes with an acceptance of truth. By insisting that truth is what we think it to be undermines its universality. Manufactured truth, half-truths and blatant falsehood have often masqueraded as accountability. Submitting to such a state of affairs is moral cowardice. Whilst we will be more than ready to administer bitter medicine to ourselves, we must be willing to say, “Physician, heal thyself.”

Salman Khurshid is Minister for External Affairs, Government of India

The views expressed by the author are personal