We are five days away from Independence Day.
But are our hearts celebrating Swaraj?
They are more likely to hearken to what a fighter for India’s freedom wrote with prescience, some 25 years before freedom :
“We all ought to know that Swaraj will not at once or, I think, even for a long time to come, be better government or greater happiness for the people. Elections and their corruptions, injustice, and the power and tyranny of wealth, and inefficiency of administration, will make a hell of life as soon as freedom is given to us. Men will look regretfully back to the old regime of comparative justice, and efficient, peaceful, more or less honest administration. The only thing gained will be that as a race we will be saved from dishonour and subordination.”
He mentions four betrayals of Swaraj’s goals which, in his words, will “make a hell of life” – 1. Electoral corruption. 2. Injustice. 3. The power and tyranny of wealth. 4. Inefficiency of administration.
All four betrayals point to the condition of the Indian State. But they also implicate us, the people of India as a whole, no less than the political class or the bureaucracy.
To take electoral corruption first. No electoral corruption is possible without the voter acquiescing in it, one way or the other. We are bought up, we are bussed, we are bull-dozed. We let our brains be washed, our prejudices to be stoked, our hates, fears, insecurities to be played around with.
Injustice is practised by all of us, not just directly as in the way Indian employers treat those who work for them, India’s men treat “their” women, India’s men and women neglect, mishandle, maltreat the mentally challenged, the vulnerable.
If money in its nexus with political power is tyrannical, who is providing that money but us? If our administration is so often inefficient, who is populating it, perpetuating its inefficiency, but us ?
Let us not blame the neta. Or his acolyte. We, as electors, have created and are sustaining both.
Let us not blame the babu or his attendant. We, as citizens, have bred and are nourishing both.
We cannot say, “Oh , the political class, it is incorrigible!”. We are, all of us, political. The moment we become citizens we become political. The moment we become electors we become actively political. What we are, the political class is. A neta is only the nagarik in temporary prominence.
We cannot say, “Oh the bureaucracy, it is impossible!” We are, all of us, integral to the ‘bureau’. The moment our birth is registered , we enter the House of Red Tape. The moment we begin to use a public utility or service, we become inseparable from the structure of governance. What we are, the governing echelon is. A babu is nobody but us, clothed in a brief authority.
The elective neta and the non-elective babu, both, fade. The nagarik remains and remains their author, editor, critic.
And so when we are furious with politicians when their corruption comes to light, let us not forget that they mirror our own small or big games with money. Our swaraj has taught those of us who have some money, to play not just one but many games with it. These games are often for freedom from harassment, delay, an avoidable visit to the police thana. To get past a traffic constable, to shorten the wait in a passport office or a driving licence office, to get an encumbrance certificate, a municipal approval for building or extending a residence, to get a telephone line, an electric meter repaired, to get an admission, a recruitment, a promotion, money is used as money is not meant to be used.
And for those who have not just ‘some money’ but quite a large amount of it, these games reach what may be called Asiad standards. They range from fudging tax returns, to sharing the loot from unauthorised exploitations of land and natural resources. Such contractors, developers , promoters are not ‘sarkar’; they are ‘us’, ‘we the people’, directly aiding and abetting the most sordidly corrupt practices.
In 1957, Tata Iron & Steel Co. wanted to change their Memoranda of Association in order to allow the company to make contributions to political parties. The matter went to court. Justice MC Chagla and Justice ST Desai ruled in the Bombay High Court allowing the change but with weighty obiter. They said: “The very basis of democracy is the voter and when in India we are dealing with adult suffrage it is even more important than elsewhere that not only the integrity of the representative who is ultimately elected to Parliament is safeguarded, but that the integrity of the voter is also safeguarded, and it may be said that it is difficult to accept the position that the integrity of the voter and of the representative is safeguarded if large industrial concerns are permitted to contribute to political funds to bring about a particular result…Before parting with this case we think it our duty to draw the attention of Parliament to the great danger inherent in permitting companies to make contributions to the funds of political parties. It is a danger which may grow apace and which may ultimately overwhelm and even throttle democracy in this country.”
Moving far, far away from that vision, Parliament now proposes to amend the Right To Information Act to ‘protect’ political parties from coming within the ambit of the act. The mutually self-protective consensus among political parties is astounding. Parliament must reflect on the ethicality of that move. But what of companies, our very own “private authorities”, contractors, promoters, developers, exploiters of natural resources, who are complicit in this? How many are asking them to stop funding the distortion of Swaraj?
Callous, self-serving, short-termist nagariks are different only in degree, if that, from the corrupt neta and the unfeeling babu.
Our ‘Jai Hind!’ cannot but be feeble.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor
The views expressed by the author are personal