May 25, 2020
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Eyes And Ears Everywhere

It’s now extra-risky to wander from the straight and narrow

Eyes And Ears Everywhere
Illustration by Sorit
Eyes And Ears Everywhere

These are leaky days indeed, and not merely in rain-battered Chennai, from where I write. In fact, it has become more than clear that if there is information you think should remain strictly private, you can expect someone totally unrelated to you to go public with it. Sensitive details of one’s life and wealth are no longer private. They are stolen and peddled because there is a huge market for gossip and titillation. In a world that is becoming increasingly risky and combative, any stick is good enough to put the other man down. An aggressive press, nosy neighbours, hounds, sleuths and busybodies of various colours have all become such an inextricable part of our lives that there seems no point in resisting investigation—or, for that matter, inquisitiveness. In essence, we need to protect ourselves by making a large allowance for someone snooping on whatever we do each living day. Our computers and telephones are particularly vulnerable. Deviance from time-worn norms of behaviour can be expensive, and it is indeed expedient for you to be honest. Some cynics would say ethics is only incidental.

In the ‘open’ society we now live in, honesty is all the more expedient. For, being exposed can leave us alone and friendless.

This was not the case when I started my public life some four decades ago. It was a sedate ambience in which life was hardly exciting and certainly predictable. Not that there was no dishonesty. There was more than a measure of it, but it was modest in dimensions and innovativeness, if you apply the standards of the scams of our times. The losses caused to the exchequer by Haridas Mundhra in the late 1950s and by Harshad Mehta in the post-reforms ’90s now appear to be peanuts. Opportunities to breach the norms were also limited in those days, and you were content with what you had. Air-conditioners and refrigerators were the rich man’s preserve; the iPad and iPod were never within the realms of imagination of even the most inventive. In essence, life was unexciting, simple and uncomplicated. There was also every incentive to submit yourself to the Ten Commandments, because it enhanced your status in the community, which no longer is the case. As one wag put it, if you have not been raided even once by the income-tax department or the CBI, you are of absolutely no consequence at all.

Life is all about change. There is no point in carping about the ills of present times. This is why I am not greatly exercised about the current massive invasion of our privacy. I refuse to be intimidated so long as I have the right to retaliate when outraged. Even when someone in public life has in all probability transgressed the law, the media owes a moral duty to present the other side of the story—though such a story may be downright untruthful and unconvincing. It is for the reader and the viewer to come to his or her own conclusion. My belief, however, is that the outrage of a person lambasted by the media is misplaced and cannot be legitimate if it is backed only by obfuscation and hairsplitting, two things dishonest persons often specialise in. We have seen a lot of that in recent weeks. I strongly believe it is expedient to be straightforward in the ‘open’ society that the world now is, however inconvenient it is to adhere to the truth. Also, you should be able to defend yourself with facts that are not subjective and capable of being distorted. These ground rules apply both to individuals and the media. Life may be uninteresting in a world of this kind, constructed solely of goody-goodiness, but it would definitely be predictable and not “solitary, poor, nasty and brutish”. It is also true that it is now a lonely battle that one has to fight when you are vilified. Barkha Dutt will testify to this. No one is going to stick his neck out for you if you happen to be in trouble. This is one more reason why honesty is still the best policy. Don’t be swayed by the fact that several villains get away with cold-blooded venality. You may not be so lucky. Also, the law will somehow catch up with them much later.

Let us place all these facts before our children in the hope they will be discriminating and wiser than many of us. They will not forgive us if we do not at least give them the choice, one between integrity and dishonesty. I am sure many of them will prefer the former, because indulging in greed and malice brings us only pain in the long run.

(The writer is a former director of the CBI.)

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