An Aristotelian choice

Despite the support that the prime minister has got after the trust vote, there are many ethical
issues that should worry him

SANJAY KAPOOR/ Hardnews/ DELHI

THE QUESTION OF ethics has remained unresolved ever since cash was used for buying votes in Parliament. What is really right in politics? Can a government stoop low for a larger purpose or should it allow itself to fall when confronted with differing moral choices? Does ethicist Frances Kamm's deontological (the end justifies the means) "principle of permissible harm" apply in the political context and provide justification for buying MPs for a larger purpose?
Also, had the UPA government allowed the naysayers to the civilian nuclear deal to succeed, would that have showed them as weak-kneed and undeserving of ever being voted to power? In short, does naïve understanding and practice of public morality work in a democracy where it is never clear who is batting for whom? How do the voting masses perceive public school morality that is feeding outrage among the columnists and political commentators? Do they see pay-offs as perfectly acceptable -- as evidenced by many spot polls conducted by TV channels and newspapers -- or something so blasphemous and deserving a boot in the elections?
After the trust vote in Parliament in which rumours of major pay-offs to MPs found expression when wads of currency notes were wantonly displayed, and the subsequent victory of the UPA government, many of these ethical questions are providing content to commentators. Many of them, brought up in public school morality, are expressing righteous indignation over the manner in which the loyalty of parliamentarians has been bought to save the government and allow an uninterrupted passage to the civilian nuclear deal with US. The predictable response of these worthies suggests moral absolutism -- where none exists.
Quite clearly, many of those who found the happenings of July 22 morally repugnant are not aware of how ordinary people go about their business of life. They are forced to pay their way through public services that ought to come to them without any great effort. Admission to schools and colleges, ration cards, railway reservations, employment cards for the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, and countless other services come only after the dispenser of the ‘favour' has been adequately greased. That is the only way to surmount the Kafkaesque labyrinths that grip many of those seeking justice from a heartless bureaucracy.
In all such cases, the ‘principle of permissible harm' works. The end is far moral and compelling in many cases than the means that are deployed -- in this case, attaining these ends is a matter of survival. This is not about pay-offs made by contractors and arms dealers for garnering bigger deals. This is about ordinary people seeing corruption as a facilitator. Little wonder that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was celebrated with text messages hailing him: "Singh is King!"
Suddenly, he was a person that ordinary people could relate with. The trust vote and the dirty hands that facilitated it helped the ‘masses' in reclaiming an individual that seemed so distant. If those who are outraged by the happenings of July 22 think that Singh has been hurt by the pay-offs, they are sadly mistaken. In ordinary eyes, he has emerged stronger. He is now a politician -- a tag that he took pains to shake-off -- who can go to any extent to achieve his objectives. If, indeed, he emerges unscathed from the pay-off incident, then he surely would be the man who would be the king if the UPA wins again.
Singh benefits also from conventional moral theories propounded by the likes of Aristotle -- men of character are allowed permissible harm for a larger objective. So far he has carefully cultivated an image of a reluctant suitor who only looks after national interest. Using a false address in Assam to enter the Rajya Sabha has largely been glossed over to ensure that good men survive in politics. His good image has not really been challenged by anyone. And that has allowed him to go for broke even if it meant being morally malleable for some time.
Singh also managed to hang on to the impression that he was indeed the safe-keeper of national interest in comparison to all those who were opposing the deal. Left leaders, inscrutably honest, failed to prove anything to the contrary. Quite unlike his political guru PV Narasimha Rao, who got embroiled in a corruption scandal trying to save his minority government with the help of the same unsavoury characters who also bailed out this government, Singh manages to convey a better moral purpose. Rao had then claimed that his government was being pulled down to help the Pakistani agenda. No one really believed that. But when Singh's helpers hint at a Chinese conspiracy to prevent the passage of the nuclear deal with the help of Indian communists, there are many takers.
Despite the support that Singh has got after the trust vote, there are many ethical issues that should worry him. It may be permissible for him to bend accepted norms for what is perceived as a larger goal, but if his actions also end up giving legitimacy to all kinds of political buccaneers and malcontents, then how can he, as the head of government, reconcile to it? After all, the bedrock of any civil society is the rule of law.