No one, not even their worst critics, would ever think of accusing Manmohan Singh or AK Antony of ever taking a bribe. If anyone does so, the chances are the accusers will damage their own reputations.
But is honesty about not taking a bribe? Can honesty only have a negative definition – not taking a bribe – or does it have positive content? Like standing for integrity and truth. Like blowing the whistle on the dishonest. About standing up for what is right and sticking to it come what may?
The curious case of the chief of the army staff – Gen VK Singh – brings many questions about honesty to the fore. The general should rightly be taken to task for disclosing a Rs 14 crore bribe offer so late in his career. And this, too, only after it has become clear that he will not be getting an extended tenure due to the controversy over his date of birth.
What is one to make of such honest men that they don’t speak up when they must, and become eloquent only when it serves their purpose?
Honest Antony, to whom the general reportedly spoke about the indirect bribe offer, does not emerge with a halo around his head from this affair.
In fact, the defence minister appears to have been cut from the same cloth as Manmohan Singh, who did not find the courage to take on Andimuthu Raja’s deliberate efforts to hijack the telecom policy for reasons best known to him. Similarly, after deciding that coal blocks will be sold by auction in October 2004, Manmohan Singh — who was then coal minister as well — failed to persuade the coal ministry to adhere to this policy decision.
Is this honesty? When, in the interest of staying in office, or out of a misguided sense of loyalty to the party chief, you sacrifice what you yourself believe is the right thing to do, how can that be called honesty? Whether it is 2G pricing or coal block auctions, Manmohan Singh does not emerge from it as a man with integrity that goes beyond not taking a bribe.
Antony, too, appears to be built in the same mould of private integrity combined with a broader inability to adhere to the norms of professional integrity or even competence.
In the case of the general’s age, the matter could have been sorted out in one of two ways: by directing the army headquarters to correct his age by aligning the dates reported by the Adjutant General’s Branch and the Military Secretary’s Branch, or, in case it was felt that the general should be asked to retire early, offered him a face-saver where he was given a post-retirement option that would help him leave with dignity.
But Antony’s inability to take a decision forced the general to head for the Supreme Court – and it was the court that finally sorted the matter out.
Now, a embittered general is trying to bring out more skeletons from the UPA’s cupboard. The Rs 14 crore bribe offer, he says, was reported to Antony, but the latter apparently did nothing. The question is: if Antony thought it was a fib, he should have conducted an immediate inquiry and closed the chapter and reprimanded the general. If he thought it was serious, he could have ordered the general to sack the officer concerned or force him to take action.
Antony did nothing.
But perhaps the worst thing to happen during Antony’s watch was what could have been a huge kickback in a defence deal: the Rs 10,000 crore missile deal with Israel Aerospace Industries.
Antony’s ministry allowed the Israeli firm to bill a huge Rs 600 crore as “business charges”, and failed to kick up a storm over this clause in the agreement.
Where did this money go? What were the business charges incurred? For a much smaller payment of Rs 64 crore, Rajiv Gandhi got himself entangled in the Bofors controversy. He could never wash off the stigma. But a Rs 600 crore payment under Antony has completely gone under the radar. (Read the full story here).
Sure, we all know Antony did not have anything to do with this payment. But is his silence a sign of strength or weakness?
In ‘A Man for All Seasons‘, Sir Thomas More, the man who stood up to Henry VIII, the king who repudiated the Roman Catholic Church in order to seek an illegal divorce and remarriage, Sir Thomas, who opposed the marriage and was tried for treason, is queried by Cromwell on the nature of his silence about the King’s legitimacy.
When Cromwell asks him whether his silence about the King’s legitimacy did not amount to denial, Sir Thomas replies: “Not so. Not so, Master Secretary. The maxim is “Qui tacet consentire”: the maxim of the law is “Silence gives consent”. If, therefore, you wish to construe what my silence betokened, you must construe that I consented, not that I denied.”
Both Manmohan Singh and AK Antony were silent on the issues they should not have been silent about. Did they then consent to the crimes that may have happened during their watch as executive head of the country and the defence ministry?
The silence of honest men seems somehow more dishonest than the lies of the dishonest.