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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Conscience is the Cancer, not Corruption.

Sometime back, during a particular vigilance week, I was invited to speak to a gathering on the topic, "Corruption in public life." It is a task that I detest, not the least because I am a poor public speaker. What could I, with my relatively privileged perch in the society, tell the common man, who bumps his knees every day on the intractable problems of existence, soluble only through bribery , graft, baksheesh, chai-pani, speed money and a hundred and eight other names by which facilitation may be known? He could tell me a thing or two, because corruption is omnipresent and omnipotent. I am very clever at evading such requests, but I had to accept the task because I was given to understand that it was part of my government duty. Since I was posted to a vigilance organization, ex-officio, I stood invested with the wisdom to shed light on the etiology of the cancer that is afflicting the body politic and the moral authority to exhort the rest of the society to weed it out.
I reached the venue, a posh local hotel, nervous and tense. To add to my mortification, I was to occupy one of the three chairs on the dais. The chief guest arrived in time and occupied the seat next to me. He exuded an unmistakable whiff of power, success and a Mercedes coupe. A look of great distaste on his face reinforced his privileged status and his pain at being thrown into the company of humbler folks. But immediately, his face softened, and he even mimicked the gesture of getting up to greet me. It turned out that he was the son of a leading public figure whom we had prosecuted in the late 80s and early 90s on charges of corruption. From the looks of it, it appeared that he had kept up the good work of his father and was then worth hundreds of crores himself.
He was the first speaker and he got up with a military determination, wheeling the big gun of his mouth into the best position in front of the microphone. Very soon, it became clear that his taste for luxuries did not stop at expensive clothes and cars, but extended to a clean conscience as well. For the first few minutes he sang the song of himself with great devotion, his eyes closed. Then, for the best part of his lecture, he rained down on the captive audience, launching a virulent and merciless attack on the corrupt practices prevalent in the previous regime, sometimes pausing to look sideways, to seek approval of the bon mot or aphorisms that he was firing at great speed. His speech could be paraphrased in terms of antinomies and opposites. They were pure. Their adversaries and predecessors in office were corrupt. (He had recently defected to his new party and hereby felt cleansed of his sins of association with his older party, which was now being blamed for all the ills.)
They had reintroduced the rule of law. Their adversaries had lived by the code of connections or cronyism. The message was clear – probity in public life could be ensured only if he and his party remained in power. The alternative was moral deluge.
I had already given up, and when my turn came, I mumbled some disjointed thoughts like you cannot teach morality the way you teach mathematics, one could only set an example for others to emulate... I knew I had not made an impression but it bought me my freedom. I marvelled at the confidence, the surety of touch, and the complete confidence with which the chief guest had cast the first stone. For one thing, it has never been axiomatic nor self-evident that honesty is the best policy. Despite the glaring evidence that the most notoriously and infamously corrupt rule the roost, and long after the social consensus that had prohibited dishonesty has dissolved, long after it has been accepted that corruption is not an issue, extolling the virtues of , and exhorting others to practice, honesty requires some gumption. Viewed against this backdrop, a clear conscience is the greatest asset in facing up to the issue of corruption. A career in public life confers a certain advantage over other avocations in acquiring this. You are asked to defend the indefensible all the time, you are occupationally obliged to occupy the moral high ground, moralizing earns you an exemption from the requirements of morality, and when you preach what you yourself do not practice for a considerable period of time, by ingrained habits you cease to notice the difference. Our chief guest represents that class of people who have ceased to perceive their deception, and to that extent, they are honest human beings. It is no longer a question of duping others. The issue is how well and effectively can you dupe yourselves.

"In Praise of Feeling Bad about Yourself" wasn't exactly written in honour of our speaker but it will serve nicely as a motto for him and his ilk.
The buzzard never says it is to blame.
The panther wouldn't know what scruples mean.
When the piranha strikes, it feels no shame.
If snakes had hands, they'd claim their hands were clean.
A jackal doesn't understand remorse.
Lions and lice don't waver in their course.
Why should they, when they know they're right?
Though hearts of killer whales may weigh a ton,
in every other way they're light.
On this third planet of the sun
among the signs of bestiality
a clear conscience is Number One.

"View With A Grain of Sand"
Translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh