Many of us can be forgiven for liking Sanjay Dutt. His friends can be forgiven for defending him. And as a nation oxygenated by cinema we can all be forgiven for harbouring a secret sympathy for him. It’s difficult to dislike and judge Sanjay Dutt. There’s something vulnerable and heart-warming about him, life’s golden child gone wrong. Son of Nargis and Sunil Dutt — star parents, upright, gifted, parliamentarians of unquestionable integrity — his life should’ve been bathed in gilded light. Instead, he’s been dogged by tragedy, death, his own recklessness and bad judgment. He has stumbled, erred, tried, changed, and erred again. This doomed arc of struggle and failure is the stuff of literature, the parable that reminds each of us what it means to be human.

So, yes, many of us can be forgiven for liking Sanjay Dutt. But nothing can excuse him being received at the Prime Minister’s house last week as a celebrated guest at a public function, being hugged and applauded by Home Minister Shivraj Patil and feted by Sonia Gandhi. Our leaders’ chronic unmindfulness of public propriety is one of our most depressing national traits. Sanjay Dutt is a convicted wrong-doer. He has been convicted under the Arms Act by a TADA court — the most stringent court in the land — not for some minor misdemeanour, but for illegal possession of weapons and for making others commit a crime. And what is the context of the crime? One of the biggest ruptures in recent Indian history. The Bombay blasts. 257 people died. 123 people faced trial. 12 among those face death. 100 are convicted. 20 are incarcerated for life. And several who, unlike Sanjay, neither knew Abu Salem nor spoke to Anees Ibrahim nor bought AK-56s and hand grenades, have been punished much more severely than him. Do none of them have a story that might make us warm to them as humans? Will that make Prime Minister Manmohan Singh felicitate them publicly in his house? Will Shivraj Patil hug poor Zaibunissa Kazi, convicted under TADA for merely letting Sanjay’s guns be stored in her house for two days? Or here’s the more befuddling question. A lowly constable was suspended and seven others placed under departmental inquiry for shaking Sanjay’s hand as he walked out of Yerwada jail on interim bail. Right or wrong, they were not forgiven their weak moment with the star, a moment that perhaps for a brief second lifted them out of the incomprehensible drudgery of their lives. Where does that leave the more august keepers of the nation — Manmohan Singh, Shivraj Patil and Sonia Gandhi?

The measure of a country lies in its understanding of propriety and public conduct. Propriety is the delicate chromosome from which a nation derives its entire character. A few years ago, British home secretary David Blunkett resigned amid accusations that he had used his position to fast-track a visa for his exgirlfriend’s nanny. The sum of evidence against him? An e-mail in which he had requested “No favours but slightly quicker.” Such finesse is unthinkable in India. Much of Tony Blair’s troubles rested in his country’s perception that he had lied to them. Does lying have any repercussion in India?

We have all railed at our plummeting national behaviour. Our parliamentarians throw shoes rather than arguments at each other. Gangsters walk unafraid through our corridors of power. Men of influence sup openly with those who seek their favour. We can no longer tell right from wrong, we cannot sift cause from effect. Our prevarications have dulled our brains. If mobs vandalise our galleries, we ban the art not the mob. If people are caught on camera, we blame the camera not the act. Even if evidence is piled skyscraper high against Chief Justices of Supreme Courts and Ministers, all they have to do is brazen it out.

Nothing is shame-worthy in India anymore. Not crime, not bribes, not violence, not abuse of privilege, not incompetence. You don’t even need to hide it. Exposure counts for nothing. Exposure brings no repercussion. At the core of all this lies a single trouble: we have collectively stamped out the idea of propriety in public life. It seems a specious gripe in the face of all the monumental misconduct in India. But it is the delicate chromosome. When Manmohan Singh, Shivraj Patil and Sonia Gandhi cannot distinguish between private liking and public conduct, when they cannot understand the small things — the impropriety of having a convicted man as an official guest in the Prime Minster’s house — how can we expect them to discriminate on larger issues? Mohandas Gandhi made Kasturba account for every naya paisa she used from the ashram funds. That might seem like cantankerous excess to our jaded heads, but in that act of propriety lay the making of a Mahatma. Does our inability to appreciate this explain why Sanjay Munnabhai Dutt has just been awarded the Global Indian award for spreading Gandhianism?