Chinua Achebe was much more than a great novelist, not just Nigeria’s but the world’s. He was a conscience-keeper, not just Nigeria’s and Biafra’s but the world’s. When he said famously “Nigeria is what it is because its leaders are not what they should be”, he could have been saying that of many countries, including ours.
“I can trust you” says a character in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. “I know it as I look at you”.
To how many in our public life today would we say “I can trust you, I know it as I look at you”? Very, very few.
This is not about the way their faces come across. It is about the way their behaviour does.
Let me narrate a true story. During the height of the Quit India agitation, a woman sympathiser of the Congress but not a political participant went to a public meeting where leaders were berating the British Raj. She was carrying a handbag with some ‘normal’ valuables and house-keys.
As the meeting was about to end, a police van started picking up people randomly and this good woman found herself being asked to get into the van. She was shaken by her unexpected arrest but had the wit enough to signal to a stranger nearby who had been mysteriously left out by the cops. “Bhai,” she said, “You are wearing khadi…You are obviously a Congressman…By the looks of you, I know I can trust you… Please take this bag to my home where the family must be returning this evening…”
Would someone trust an unknown man because he looks like a politician with her personal belongings today? Very, very unlikely.
The phrase ‘trust deficit’ is insufficient to describe the one thing that has gone missing from our public life.
Try to visualise ‘trust’ in terms of people from our pre-Independence public life including that of the letters and music, and certain faces come to mind at once: Vivekananda, Tagore, Annie Besant, Tilak, Aurobindo, Gandhi, Patel, Subramania Bharati, Bankim, Premchand, Bhagat Singh, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Bordoloi, Sarojini Naidu, Nehru, Ambedkar, Karve, Rajendra Prasad, Radhakrishnan, Azad, Periyar, Prakasam, Visvesvarayya, Zakir Husain, Kripalani, Subhas Bose. There are at least a hundred names one can think of equal stature from that time.
Some names from the earlier era of trust overlapped with freedom but for a brief while only. Lal Bahadur Shastri seemed almost to be a miracle of values left over absentmindedly by the era of trust only to be quickly withdrawn into Time Past.
Jayaprakash Narayan and Ram Manohar Lohia kept the flame of democratic socialism tenuously alive, with EMS Namboodiripad, P Sundarayya, Bhupesh Gupta, Hiren Mukherjee and Aruna Asaf Ali doing that from even further left of those two stalwart socialists.
Kamaraj and CN Annadurai shone in contrastive lustre from the south, as did Balwantray Mehta from the west and BC Roy from the east. Among writers a rare Mahadevi Verma and Nirala in the north and Thakazhi in the south inspired trust, respect but by and large attrition far outweighed the accretion of trust and today the trust-drought has deepened into famine.
The evaporation of trust, vishvas, bharosa or aitbar from our political life coincided with two lamentable features in our national life: first the rise in the power of money and second, the dominance of family-based and crony apparatuses over political opportunities and political action in the regions.
The most honest of elections and the most earnest of political movements need money. The elections under the Government of India Act of 1935 which led to provincial elections and the establishment of Congress governments in Madras and Bombay among other places, saw money being spent.
But it was spent in highly proportionate quantities and was accounted for. The elections of 1952, 1957 and 1962 also saw money play its role with more or less honesty. But the story in later elections has been so different!
Elections are our pride. The Election Commission deserves our approbation for monumental patience, above all else, in the manner in which it keeps its cool, stays the course with the election laws, and after the catharsis of polling and counting, delivers the mandate which we have defined in the assurance of confidentiality, fairness and freedom. And in the EC, the people have trust, unreserved trust.
The EC knows how money, authorised and unauthorised, and human biceps and triceps, authorised in the armed personnel billeted to election duty and unauthorised in others, can play a role in the proceedings. Currency notes originate legally, through licit company donations or come from sources which go back to our natural resources. Illegal transactions in all these yield harvests of black cash. We can guess where most such notes come from.
In a throwback to medieval times, one of the concerns of family-based and crony-governed regional politics is the protecting of treasure-chests. In fortresses of old keys to the gold were held for scions by their minions.
Where can ‘trust’ go in such circumstances?
First, to some exceptional leaders of civil society and their movements like the one which has given us the Right to Information Act and may bring to us the Whistleblower’s Protection Act.
Second, to our social media and ‘main’ media but very mindfully of the risks of media overdrive.
But third and most importantly, to our constitutional authorities, starting with our judiciary that has reassured public opinion by its recent pronouncements on legislators convicted for criminal offences, in the EC and statutory institutions like the CIC, the CAG and the CVC. And, when she or he appears, in a Lokpal who will be the country’s Vishvas Pal to whom our equivalent of Chinua Achebe could say ‘I know I can trust you even as I look at you’.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor
The views expressed by the author are personal