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Thursday, Apr 08, 2004

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Keeping the word

WHEN I read the news item about what the Prime Minister, Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, had to say on why he had not kept his word about not contesting another election after 1999, I recalled an anecdote from one of Bernard Levin's short treatises on being honourable and moral.

The story was about a policeman who kept his word when he could have easily justified his change of mind with several plausible explanations. The policeman, in the story, was completing a lottery entry in a restaurant and on a superstitious instinct asked the waitress there to guess the numbers which he filled.

At the end he told her that if he won anything, he would give her half. His entry won the first prize of $6 million and the next day he handed over to the girl exactly half of it. Chided by his friends for such "wanton generosity," he said that a promise was a promise. He could have easily talked his way out of the promise — there was no enforceable contract. Nor was the offer a serious one as the whole thing involved, after all, a lottery. Even if he had given her a small present of a brooch she would have been immensely grateful. Yet he kept his word.

Imagine how easily King Dasaratha could have breached the promise he gave to his Queen Kaikeyi citing 101 reasons of statecraft, including the potential threat of anarchy and carried on with the coronation of Prince Rama. Force of such arguments was in his favour as the people of Ayodhya wanted Rama as their King.

But King Dasaratha did not invoke higher principles of governance to avert the imminent disaster to the prince regent. Only because, despite being devastated, he would have had no quarrels with his conscience.

However, a loftier purpose or greater good may necessitate breach of promise despite possible pinches by their conscience. Practical politics being what it is, even conscientious among politicians can never be expected to say, to quote Levin: "I would rather lose the election than deceive the people".

It would be subject to a higher truth: "I must deceive the people because otherwise the safety of regime would be endangered" or "I will deceive the people when, but only when, the people will benefit more from being deceived than they would from not being deceived".

Even ordinary mortals like us often confront this dilemma: Our course of action depends on whether we want to be remembered as the ones who kept our word or the ones who acted with the best of motives.

R. Sundaram

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