Upholding the law: the difficulty of being good
The media won’t always talk about them, for all this happens far away from the arc lights and there are many others who stand up to be counted, in the IAS and outside, every single day
Off The Record | Srivatsa Krishna
Manjunath Shanmugam, an employee of Indian Oil Corp. Ltd, stood for the good. Raised his voice against corruption in the adulteration of oil. He was silenced forever, this week, four years ago. V.P. Baligar, an outstanding IAS officer, a brilliant IIT product, raised his voice against the Mafiosi-style rampage of Karnataka’s coffers. Baligar, who was principal secretary to the chief minister, was transferred this month.
V. Lakshmi Ratan, an old school IAS officer, tough as nails, with a spine that never ever bent before anyone, took a tough stand against shoplifting by an IAS officer at Harrods caught on tape, wanted her dismissed from service immediately. He was unceremoniously dumped overnight by the political powers that be. All of them tried upholding the law. All of them stood for the good. All of them discovered the difficulty of being good.
A few years ago, Bibek Debroy, one of India’s most imaginative and brilliant economists, whose work on law and economics is seminal, who also happened to be one of Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi’s closest advisers, chose to quit than cling to power at the Rajiv Gandhi Institute for Contemporary Studies, Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, or RGF, only because he analysed evidence to demonstrate that Gujarat’s economic performance was astonishing. Just analysing publicly available data and writing about it made Debroy a persona non grata, for others felt threatened by his sane counsel and position. More recently, Gyanendra Badgaiyan, another smart IAS officer, a Princeton PhD, and someone who deftly combined practical ground-level administrative judgement with scholastic rigor, discovered for himself the difficulty of being good when he, too, found RGF had no use for him.
Like Debroy, he, too, was shown the door in a quiet, below-the-radar move. In my own career there have been at least two occasions where I and my family were under threat and attacked, when I enforced the law on Delhi’s famous land mafia. I was acting because I thought I must. I was enjoined by law, office anddharma to do so. And I acted, only to pay a price.
In each of these cases, who is the “real” loser? Not RGF. Not Indian Oil. Not the government of Karnataka or Delhi. But you and I. For these are examples of the few voices of sanity and sane counsel at the very top where they are in a position of highest leverage, which get silenced for being good. They don’t modulate their counsel depending on whom they are giving it to, and say the same thing in front of any audience, when they are enjoined to do so.
The media won’t always talk about them, for all this happens far away from the arc lights and there are many others who stand up to be counted, in the IAS and outside, every single day. But they won’t be darlings of the media, for more often than not, it’s the man-bites-dog story that makes good copy, not the dog-bites-man one.
History teaches us that few who rise to the dizzying heights of power use that power imaginatively to do good for the people and yet manage to keep their feet on the ground. Many of the “good”, stumble for they begin to believe that they are unassailable, irreplaceable and omniscient. No one is. Or they begin taking themselves too seriously and become intolerably arrogant. There are still fewer political leaders who have the balance and judgement to hear and take advice which may be not just contrary, but even against their interests.
Gurcharan Das’ fascinating book The Difficulty of Being Good (Penguin, 2009) discusses the subtle art of dharma in great detail and brilliantly reinterprets Mahabharata for our times, and tells how the remorse of Yudhishthira, if understood by modern-day leaders, could well reduce war and suffering. Manjunath, Lakshmi Ratan, Baligar, Badigaiyan and Debroy—taking a leaf out of Yudhishthira’s remorse—exemplify the difficulty of being good. Dharma is a word which probably has no equivalent in any other language and it encompasses so much in so little. Morality, righteousness and good.
In Mahabharata Draupadi asks: “What is the point of being good? Isn’t it better to be powerful and rich than to be good in an unfair world where those who steal and cheat sleep on sheets of silk and pillows of down while those who are good have to settle for the hard earth? Why be good?” To this Yudhishthira replies pithily and powerfully: “I act because I must.”
We all want our leaders to symbolize and stand for the right, for the good. But in everyday society when they do so, when they act for they must, they are often sacrificed at the altar of short-term political survival or myopic, pyrrhic gains. Sometimes the media speaks up and supports them. Even when they do, it is soon forgotten, after the candles are lit and blown out. Till one more leopard, which refuses to change its spots, gets sacrificed for doing good.
We persist with this drama of democracy. But we forget that while drama anddharma sound alike, they are as different as chalk from cheese. Till we don’t abandon the drama, in favour of the dharma, we risk hurtling (or the more optimistic would say gently moving) towards becoming a sad republic, with a banana prefixed to it.
Take your pick: Do you want the drama or do you stand by dharma? What indeed counts more democracy or dharma? This is one of the central questions of our times, which beg an answer from all of us.
Srivatsa Krishna is a Harvard MBA and an Indian Administrative Service officer. He writes weekly on business, government, infrastructure and entrepreneurship. The views expressed here are his own.