The Habit of Being Dishonest

Allow me to share something personal with you: I cannot go to bed without brushing my teeth. I may be sick as a dog, or bone tired, or totally sozzled, or massively sleepy. It does not matter. I feel all yucky if I lie down without brushing. I am glad that I have that habit. I don’t have to think about it, I don’t have to struggle, I don’t have to force myself in any way. Almost as if on auto-pilot I end up brushing my teeth before bed. It would be good to grow into the habit of being honest.

It takes time to make honesty a habit. It takes repetition and practice. It also requires demonstration. You see people around you doing something routinely and you do it too. After a while, being honest becomes an inflexible part of one’s nature. Once that habit is developed, being dishonest makes one feel yucky. It becomes hard to go to bed.

From the individual’s purely utilitarian point of view, dishonesty is individually profitable but only in the short run. In the long run, a dishonest person interacting in a population of honest people will be found out and have to suffer the cost of being an outcast. But what if being dishonest is a population characteristic and not merely limited to a few individuals?

A population that does not have the habit of being honest will end up being materially poor. (I am leaving aside for the moment the moral argument for being honest not because it is not important but rather that even the utilitarian argument is sufficient to establish the need for being honest.) The short argument for why this is so is that dishonest people end up not cooperating, and the outcome is that of a repeated multi-player prisoner’s dilemma game. When people don’t cooperate, gains from mutual trade are not obtained. With time, losses accumulate and impoverishes the society.

It is good for a population to be honest because then people can trust each other, which is important because trust forms the foundation of beneficial economic activities. Being honest is materially good (regardless of whether it is spiritually elevating.)

I have been talking to groups of college students about India’s development recently. I have asked them to ponder these questions. Why does India have dishonest politicians? What does it say about us that the dishonesty of public figures is routinely publicly paraded and yet there is no outrage? Why is it that these dishonest people continue to hold on to their public office even after it is general knowledge that they are corrupt and dishonest?

I then ask them to consider this proposition: India is ruled by seriously dishonest politicians because Indian are collectively a very dishonest people. Needless to say, often that does not go down too well. Responses vary, from the defensive — “But we do take action against dishonestly. See the Anna Hazare movement?” — to the neutral — “But even in other countries you have dishonest politicians. The US, for example.”– to the belligerent — “You hate India.”

Evidently we Indians have our pride. My gripe is that we are not proud enough. We should be too proud to be ruled by thieving cretins. We should not stand for them to rule over us for even a day.

In February, I met Arvind Kejriwal of the Indians Against Corruption group. Rajesh Jain and I were both in Delhi and we took the opportunity to talk to Arvind about what should be done. Arvind talked about his Jan Lokpal Bill. I said that adding another layer of laws and another massive layer of bureaucracy would not do much. What would you do, Arvind asked. I suggested that we should gather 50,000 people and sit around the appointed prime minister’s house, and demand that since he has presided over corruption, he should resign. It sends a signal that anyone in that position should be prepared to be honest or leave.

I said that instead of fighting corruption, we have to make it personal and name a corrupt person in a position of authority and make an example of him. Just sit peacefully outside MMS’s house, make sure that he is immobilized. That tactic is being used in places — Occupy Wall Street, for example.

I have always believed that dishonesty starts at the top. If the top guy is corrupt, the one’s below him become corrupt. Or, corruption at any level points to corruption at the next higher level. MMS’s ministers are corrupt? Then it means that MMS is corrupt. And if MMS is corrupt, that means MMS’s boss is corrupt. (MMS’s boss is the Grand Panjandrum and no one is above it.)

MMS is a despicably dishonest person. But he has been the prime minister for years. That means that Indians are alright with it. I conclude that Indians are dishonest since it cannot be that the people are honest but the leaders are not.

Take the recent case of one Ms Sagarika Ghose. She pretended to her audience that she was conducting a live debate when in truth one of participants of this “live debate” was not present live. She actively deceived her audience. Will she be shunned by that audience? Will she be taken to the cleaners and hung out to dry? Not likely. The audience will be there, willingly and happily giving her their attention even after being informed that she lied to them and manipulated them.

(What’s the difference between a lying TV journalist and catfish? One is an ugly bottom-feeding lowlife scavenger and the other is a fish.)

For more on the deplorable mendacity of Sagarika Ghose, see Media Crooks’ article:

I have said often that it’s not possible to hide in the tech-age. Faster than she could say SriSri people on Twitter quickly pointed out the recorded interview of SriSri being misused by Sagarika on her programme. She later tweeted that it was a bug and that FTN will carry a full apology to the viewers and to SriSri. I believe one can apologise for a mistake or an error. This was neither a mistake nor an error but wilful deception. The apology can pass but if Rajdeep Sardesai has any moral decency left in him he has to let his deputy editor go. Willingly perpetrating a fraud on the viewers is not a mistake that can be covered up by an apology. It is far too serious a crime. It is time for Rajdeep, the Managing Editor, to sack Sagarika.

Did she really tweet that it was a bug? A bug as in something that crept into the code by mistake? That she was not aware that she was lying? That’s called a habit of lying. A habitual liar does it without being consciously aware of it.

Jeebus, that takes the cake. Now she says this:

Tweeple, I’ve repeatedly apologised, on web, TV, Sri Sriji has graciously forgiven us, now the endless abuse is verging on harassment pls

Clue to Sagarika Ghose: SriSri is not the only injured party. Your audience is at the receiving end of your mendacity. What have you done to demonstrate your contrition? Merely apologized. Endless abuse you say? Well, you are aware that you were on a program watched by a pretty large number of people. Can’t stand the heat — then get out of the kitchen. Take time off from strutting about as if you are above it all.

The original act of deception was bad enough. The cover-up apologies nauseate. She spreads the blame. She does not write, “. . . has forgiven me . . .” but instead ” . . . has forgiven us . . . ” Does she have frogs in her pocket that she refers to herself in the plural?

Anyway, back to the question of honesty. No body is perfect. I am myself not Satyavan. Even so I don’t brazen it out. When I am less than honest, I am acutely aware of it and feel ashamed of my weakness — for the strong don’t have to be dishonest. Therein lies the problem. Dishonesty is a sign of weakness. India has become weak and Indians have become dishonest. Which came first? I think dishonesty came first; and weakness followed. I am reminded of Oliver Goldsmith’s words–

Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay:

As long as foreigners and their lackeys (such as the TV anchors and “journalists”) rule the roost, India will continue to suffer the ills of dishonesty. Where does it go from here? How do we acquire a habit of honesty? I think it will happen when an honest person leads India. Somehow sufficient number of honest people will have to come together to demand change. Perhaps then we can reverse India’s descent into deepening poverty.

Related Post: The Habit of Being Honest. Feb 2011.

Author: Atanu Dey


18 thoughts on “The Habit of Being Dishonest”

  1. I would suggest that the socialist system has made dishonest people of Indians because in such a system the myriad and impractical rules force you to become dishonest otherwise it is impossible to survive.


  2. @ Doc Hudson: Now I know! No wonder she hangs Rajdeep by his b—, er…er… toes, upside down! How could he fire his fire-breathing battle ax?


  3. Sir, I have been pondering over the topic of what you have mentioned for quite sometime. Especially I kind of wonder, whether society as a whole in the western world is “morally ahead” of us back home ?(well, US is the only country that I have visited apart from my home country India, so most of my observations are from here).

    To your observation of – “….In the long run, a dishonest person interacting in a population of honest people will be found out and have to suffer the cost of being an outcast.” I feel that dishonest people will be dishonest even outside their comfort zone. I have seen innumerable Indians living in US, trying to register car for a lesser price than the one buying, going ahead and asking to buy any equipment / furniture etc. without bill/receipt etc. and many such instances that pass on as “regular life” in India. I somehow believe that if there is a rule and we follow it, Most Indian’s deem such people as dunces.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Atanu,

    I am curious to understand more about your following 2 statements “I said that adding another layer of laws and another massive layer of bureaucracy would not do much” and “I suggested that we should gather 50,000 people and sit around the appointed prime minister’s house, and demand that since he has presided over corruption, he should resign. It sends a signal that anyone in that position should be prepared to be honest or leave”

    Here are my thoughts on this topic…..The following 2 reasons in my opinion contribute a lot to why people in US are generally more honest. A) The laws are well written and well implemented B) the culture that is established (initial conditions that unfold into complex systems) either at the birth of a nation or by continuing leadership

    The first reason is in contrast to what you said to Arvind. You may argue that we don’t have the system to write good laws and even if we can write them, we can’t implement them with the system we have in India. I don’t disagree but i am not sure that makes this path unworthy of an attempt because it does seem like a very credible way to approach this problem. Of course I need to come clean by saying that I have not studied Indian law system and don’t know a whole lot about what Arvind is proposing so my comments are worth whatever they are 🙂

    BTW….Its always fun to get a different perspective on things. I like that about your blog. I believe that by discussing extremely different perspectives is how we can make better sound judgements/well informed decisions of what path to take. So I thank you for keeping that spirit going!



  5. Hi Atanu,

    What a fabulous writer you are .

    I would like to know, what was Arvind’s reaction when you explained (If you got a chance )economic freedom as a solution to corruption and many of India’s problem.

    I feel he is left to center and thinks liberalization as the cause of corruption.

    Vijay Mohan


  6. “Does she have frogs in her pockets”….. ROFL…

    Atanuji I have learnt so much from you over the past one year. Please accept my gratitude. And keep the good work going. Jai Hind.


  7. Everything is all good here, except this line:
    “As long as foreigners and their lackeys (such as the TV anchors and “journalists”) rule the roost” — even if Sonia Gandhi/Antonia Maino was a Punjabi bahu or a Tamil Iyer girl, Indians still would have eaten her shit….that is just a fact – if you have the G of Gandhi in your last name, you will be golden in this god forsaken land…so its not necessarily true that this bitch being a foreigner alone shows us how weak we are – we are basically weak – period.


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  9. Trust deficit is a huge problem in India. It reduces the velocity of business transactions in India. Slow legal system and no-liability of supplier does nothing to help to improve the trust.

    I was wondering that Arvind’s Jan Lokpal bill and your dharna at PM’s house are not either/or demands. Both can be valid demands. One is demanding new methodology to deal with corruption. And your demand is forcing PM to resign for his dishonesty. Did you further plan your dharna?



    1. Siddharth, I mentioned the dharna as a substitute for the JLP bill. I don’t believe the JLP is a good idea. It will add another layer of bureaucracy, and worse yet, this layer will be unaccountable. Power, as Lord Acton noted, corrupts and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely.


  10. same here ..

    Atanuji I have learnt so much from you over the past one year. Please accept my gratitude. And keep the good work going. Jai Hind.


  11. fukiyama wrote a good book about how trust helps build a strong economy in japan, usa . People i know who have travelled in India have told me how every man and his dog tried to rip them off or deceive them. I come from Vietnam and most of the population has the same mentality. It can be quite exhausting to combat and in the in end you don’t feel like co operating with anyone and turn into a cynical bastard.


  12. It’s possible I’ve said this before in past on your blog itself, I feel a society becomes unethical / dishonest when there’s too much competition for scarce resources for basic survival. Deceit and coercion allow one to survive and eventually prosper. Of course, such people also carry the risk of being killed or incarcerated, but the other option is slow death. Even if such a society (or its smaller unit, a family) becomes eventually prosperous, the dishonesty that let them survive (including even rote learning and reproducing stuff in exam without understanding any of it) gets passed on to the next generation through nurture (samskaar) without questioning. Also, a vast proportion of remainder population that would still keep on struggling serves as a reminder how precarious their situation actually is. They would want to hang on to their advantage by crook. I don’t know whether what I’ve stated here is just a corollary of what you’d wanted to. But, I’ve noted you’ve not tried to delve upon the genesis of the stated dishonesty / weakness of character. You think Indians used to be more honest on the whole decades / centuries back? How did the Western economies turn into more honest ones (or they always were?)? Surely, colonization was not carried out without good measure of deceit?


  13. Ketan –
    First, the habit of being dishonest arises from slavery. When a lot of slaves have to compete for the master’s attention or favors, they do whatever is necessary to rise above their peers. In a few generations it becomes second nature to look out for yourself at the expense of others.

    Second, you learn habitual honesty by growing up in a rule-based environment. If the adults around you are breaking rules habitually, you learn to do that too. And the habit is sustained mostly by peer pressure. You are honest because it’s the done thing.


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