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Is honesty still best policy?

Jun 21, 2011

Human history is a continuously rotating wheel of events borne out of social and political dynamics peculiar to a time and age.

Corruption must have been an intrinsic part of human behaviour in every age to give birth to the proverb — honesty is the best policy. Strangely, those who practised it were often made to pay, either with their jobs or with their lives. In India, several paid dearly for clutching on to the proverb. The ruling class during Emergency could not take in its stride Justice H R Khanna’s lone dissent against robbing citizens of their most precious possession — right to life (ADM Jabalpur case).

    Though it won in the SC with 4:1 majority to have a free run with the lives of its own countrymen, the government, to teach Justice Khanna a lesson, appointed Justice M H Beg as Chief Justice of India. Justice Khanna resigned. Govind Rao Khairnar as deputy commissioner of municipal corporation struck terror in the hearts of Mumbai land mafia by fearlessly demolishing illegal construction, including temples and a hotel run by a CM’s son. He came to be known as Mumbai’s “one-man demolition army” and was rewarded with suspension.

    National Highway Authority of India project director Satyendra Dubey was mysteriously shot dead after exposing the highway construction mafia in Bihar for poor quality of roads in the Golden Quadrilateral Corridor Project.

    Marketing manager for Indian Oil Corporation Shanmugam Manjunath paid with his life for stopping two petrol pumps from selling adulterated diesel in Uttar Pradesh. The same reason why additional collector Yeshwant Sonawane was burnt alive by the fuel mafia.

    Why did Justice Khanna, Khairnar, Dubey, Manjunath, Sonawane and their ilk suffer? Is it because they discharged duties honestly? Who has the last word — the mafia or the government? Is government serious about punishing those who confront the honest with bribes and, if they refuse, batter them? What can a common man do in such a scenario? How can he sensitize governments to its bread and butter issues and make them accountable without waiting for five years to teach them a lesson at the hustings for corruption?

    This dilemma was answered by a 7-judge bench of the SC in State of Rajasthan vs Union of India [1977 SCC (3) 592]. It said, “The wisdom of man has not yet been able to conceive of a government with power sufficient to answer all its legitimate needs and at the same time incapable of mischief. In the last analysis, a great deal must depend on the wisdom and honesty, integrity and character of those who are in charge of administration and the existence of enlightened and alert public opinion.”

    There is another argument that one comes across too often — the
government and ministers are answerable to the house of representatives and not to the courts which understand very little of political dynamics. This too was answered by the court in State of Karnataka vs Union of India [1977 SCC (4) 608]. It said, “It was contended that conduct of governmental affairs by state governments and their ministers is subject exclusively to the control by state legislatures and those of the Union government by Parliament alone.”

    It added, “To accept such contentions is to place ministers, both in the states and in the Union governments, completely outside the scope of legal answerability on the ground that they are only politically responsible to and controllable by appropriate legislatures even when they, in the course of purported exercise of official powers, act dishonestly and corruptly and even commit criminal offences.”

    The crux of the two judgments reflects what Miguel de Cervantes wrote in his 17th century novel ‘Don Quixote’ — “Honesty is more effective than dishonest scheming.”

    Is honesty still the best policy? Answer to this depends on whether anyone in politics would agree with Mahatma Gandhi’s quote — “What is true is that honesty is incompatible with amassing of a large fortune.”