Comment

Private interests and public ethics

FREE TO SPEAK: “Institutions function well when individuals are not merely comfortable airing their views privately, but can speak their mind before others in the institution.” File photo of India Against Corruption activists Prashant Bhushan, Arvind Kejriwal, Yogendra Yadav, Shanti Bhushan, Gopal Rai and others in New Delhi during the announcement of the Aam Aadmi Party, which is now at the centre of a controversial leak on lack of internal democracy.   | Photo Credit: SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

Leaks have become a recurrent and common phenomenon in our public life, but are they all equally justified? Should we encourage the culture of leaks along with the proviso that the source not be disclosed? In a democracy, are leaks the best way of providing that information? Can we say that all these spills, from the leaked Nira Radia tapes to l >eaked private conversations from the meetings of the Aam Aadmi Party, strengthen democracy?

We need a code of public ethics, but before we declare transparency and full disclosure as supreme goods that must trump everything else, we need to recognise that there are two contrary tendencies at work within a democracy. On the one side, public officials and public institutions are required to check their private interests at the door and act in a way that is neutral and fair to all; on the other, when the same public officials deliberate on policies, invariably their individual judgments — and through that their personal concerns, experiences and interests — enter. This means that the working of democratic institutions rests upon two different principles, such that norms of public ethic that serve us well in the first instance carry little conviction in the latter.

No doubt public institutions must be fair and neutral in their working and decisions taken at various levels of governance must be known publicly. Then, right to information is important and it must have a place in democracy. Indeed, it is a valuable instrument for protecting the basic rights of the citizens and holding public officials as well as institutions accountable. However, norms that are necessary for ensuring accountability are not equally important when it comes to other dimensions of public life — for instance, while selecting a candidate to a particular post, or deliberating on electoral strategies of parties, or even discussing different positions in the course of decision-making within an institution.

Giving a fair chance

In the case of filling a post it is necessary to follow established procedures so that all applicants have a fair chance of being considered for the post, but beyond that neither transparency nor full disclosure may be desirable. Indeed, it may be necessary to not disclose the names of the members of the selection board; to not share details of the discussions of the committee in order to protect the fairness of the process. If candidates knew just who the selectors are, they may directly or indirectly seek to influence their decision; similarly, if it were to be known just who did not favour a particular candidate, particular individuals would be left vulnerable.

In the functioning of public institutions, declaring who said what in the name of transparency is not something that must prevail over all other considerations all the time. When it comes to decision-making, and the discussions around it, democracy is served well when individuals have the possibility of expressing their views without fear or favour. If this is not ensured then the urge to succumb to popular sentiment or the interests of the dominant group is substantially increased, and this is surely not going to deepen our democracy.

Besides there are different kinds of public institutions: political parties, the media, and government departments. The primary job of newspapers, for instance, is to provide information. So long as they do not spread rumours or defame individuals without substantial evidence, they can be left free to obtain and share information. But the same ethic may not be warranted when it comes to an educational institution, an intelligence agency or a political party. Even in the case of a newspaper, public ethic may require protection of a whistle-blower; reporters may not disclose the source in the interest of obtaining such information that is essential for safeguarding the rights of the citizens in the future. However, in reporting different points of view, or who said what, when and where, it might indeed be necessary for newspapers to reveal their sources. Without the latter, the seriousness and the veracity of the account would be in question. Rules that we would expect to follow when dealing with whistleblowers would not apply, or be justified, when it comes to giving information about assertions and counter statements. We need to assess the same norm differently in different contexts not because concerned individuals have used or misused them to serve private purposes (although that is something that can, of course, happen) but for structural reasons. For what is appropriate and most desirable in one context may not be so in another sphere of public and institutional life. Most of all, if we believe that there should be free exchange of ideas and an environment of unconstrained debate on public affairs, we have to ensure that individuals are indeed somewhat protected from undue external pressures and manipulations, and are able to express their views freely. Institutions and public bodies function well when individuals are not merely comfortable airing their views privately or to a third party outside, but when they can speak their mind before others in the institution.

This is, of course, the hardest of all tasks because it requires a degree of trust in the functioning of the institution and one’s colleagues, and most of all, a readiness to accept that one’s arguments may not win the day. Democracies are deepened when participants are willing to take the risk of losing an argument. The challenge, however, is that strong belief in the validity and the truths of one’s position compel a person to act in just the opposite way. After all, if I believe that my position is the correct one, or that it embodies the truth, then I must act to ensure that the “right” decision is taken. Since this is an unavoidable dilemma that confronts us all the time, a certain degree of scepticism and self-doubt is an indispensable ingredient for democratic functioning. I not only need to respect others (colleagues and interlocutors) but recognise that I do not possess “the truth.” Perhaps this is the most important condition of democratic life but we hardly ever consider it seriously, let alone value it as a virtue in public life.

(Gurpreet Mahajan is Professor, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.)


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Printable version | Nov 24, 2021 1:22:42 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/private-interests-and-public-ethics/article6991181.ece

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