An Appeal to the Political Leaders of India


Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra – TRANSCEND Media Service

Protests against corruption in India or other parts of the world are not new. History shows enough evidence of such kinds of protests from time to time. In case of India, there appears a mismatch between concept of public service and political power as a means to realize that goal. Political power when used as a means to itself in collusion with traditional notions of feudalism, then public service emerges a camouflage. This deadly cocktail of power and traditionalism has stymied the vision of public service long cherished by founders of modern India.

I do not blame the political class solely for the mess in Indian political system. When I search root cause of this gangrene, I do not look at the persons who are managing political business of the country but at somewhere else. These persons are manifestation of a system which discreetly, or maybe openly, encourages greedy harnessing of political power not for public service but for personal gains. It is interesting to examine which factors led to evolution of this corrupt system, and how the political class imbibes those values which work as detriments against the ethos of service to the people and service to the nation.

I identify the following factors which can help explain the degeneration of a system which produced public servants and politicians like Mahatma Gandhi and Lal Bahadur Shastri. Gandhi epitomized in person the unique combination of a saint and a politician, while Shastri epitomized in person honesty with public service as sole guide in actions. The culture of hierarchy and feudalism has contributed to corruption. Though India claims to be an egalitarian society, respect for hierarchy and power goes deep into the Indian psyche. Feudalism in the context of India can be translated as an earlier version of power equation with the sole purpose of aggrandizement. Feudalism reinforces hierarchy, and conforms to a pattern in which the powerful, irrespective of their values and goals, is worshipped. With the onset of Westminster model of democracy after the independence and with the adoption of a democratic, socialist and secular constitution, this craving for feudal hierarchy did not die but assumed new forms. The political leaders took the place of feudal lords and their election to power by popular vote helped erase the negative varnish of feudalism. The political leaders in the immediate aftermath of the independence belonged to a different breed as they fought for the freedom, and for them freedom of India was equivalent to freedom of themselves, their families, and the whole of India. I admit there is a qualification to this argument even now. I do not argue that all political leaders are corrupt or of feudal mentality, but the number of corrupt politicians has gone up drastically. The miniscule politicians with noble values are marginalized or they deliberately remain coalesced to the corrupt system. Any observer of Indian politics will agree that most of the political leaders are corrupt.

This feudal approach leads to domestication of political parties. Political parties created during colonial India attracted bright and talented young women and men across divides. Dedication to social service, adherence to austerity in personal life and an avid sense of patriotism were the main motivators for the young people to join political parties. Politicians then did not promote their daughters and sons as their successors in politics because they knew that such an exercise would be futile because sense of service requires morality and ethics in personal life, which can not be imposed but cultivated with rigorous discipline. Feudalism was existed then, even in a more rigid sense, but that never clouded the vision of national-minded political leaders. Not wealth but wisdom, not power but public service, not muscle power but moral strength guided their actions and vision. Later years witnessed the degradation of this framework and the return of feudalism as the successive leaders succumbed to it lure. Democratic election and the legitimacy it brought along created a sense of impunity among the rising breed of political leaders. The people were no more considered agents of change as leaders manipulated people power for selfish gains. Electors were considered important at the interval of every five years and the disconnect between leaders and people were forced to be bridged by means of money and muscle power and by all kinds ingenuity the shrewd human mind can innovate. The degradation of democratic values accelerated this process.

The concept of babudom created during the British raj contributed to the corruption of the system. Though the concept is related to bureaucracy than to the politics, it contributed to corruption in Indian politics. The British created the formidable bureaucracy not only to carry administration but also to create a shield between the raj and the people. The bureaucracy trained with professionalism to carry the order of their masters and drawn from the Indian masses could be ruthless in their operations. Hence it was the Indian commissioner in most cases who perpetuated the British rule for years. In return, they were paid sumptuously, elevated to a higher prestige as almost a new feudal class and given a free hand to run affairs once they fulfilled the duty to protect the empire and make its machine run. After British departed the politician elected by the people, wielded power over the bureaucrats. They controlled the legislature as elected representatives of people. The politician who campaigned to garner popular votes and ran from village to village in sweltering heat, or cold or rain, and invested a lot of money and muscle in these campaigns gets little remuneration after getting elected to office. In a general sense a minister in the government gets less remuneration than a bureaucrat. Here appears the disconnect, fostered by relative deprivation. The sense of this relative deprivation was lacking in the earlier breed of political class as for them politics is a means for service, not a means for wealth accumulation and power. For the latter breed of leaders, the hard work before election must be compensated by the gains of the political office. What the babus get by qualifying meritorious examinations mostly deemed impartial, many politicians want to get that or higher leverage by means of their newly gained power. The political power opened up for them floodgates to wealth by manipulation and in this venture they were aided in many cases by the subordinate bureaucracy.

Poverty and unemployment contributed to political corruption. It is not farfetched to argue that in the prevalent political scenario in India most of the young people join politics not for service but for livelihood and for power. Thousands of young women and men sacrificed their lives during freedom struggle as for them there was no separation of the cause of their life from the cause of the nation. The political leaders played a significant role to invoke in them the spirit of service. The case is different now. A young man who played an active role during the electoral campaign of his leader seeks remuneration after the election of the leader. That appears ‘legitimate’ as for him politics is a ‘job’ and politician is the job provider. It is no surprise to see the rise of a new breed of young lower rung leaders at village or town level, who express loyalty to leaders and get contracts to build roads, schools, primary health centers, etc. This may be called trickling down of corruption, but in this case the two poles – politician at the top and the apprentice at the bottom – reinforce each other. The politician thinks ‘benevolently’ for his followers who have done so much for his success and rewards them with largesse not from his own pocket but from the public treasury of which he is the elected custodian. One may not be surprised to see young people flocking to political leaders or roaming around political offices or taking part in college and university student union elections for the sole purpose of recruitment and power. In many Indian colleges and universities, the criminalization of campus politics is the result of politicization of education institutions as these are seen not as temples of scientific inquiry and wisdom but as recruiting grounds for political parties.

The noble values guiding political actions have deteriorated. It is not to say that there are no values in political life and we have not a single political leader who is guided by values but the chasm between values and political actions have never been stark as it is now. For Mahatma Gandhi clear conscience and inner purity is more important than visible success in life. He would rather sacrifice his life than compromise his values. Once this inner core is established, Gandhi would argue, actions in life naturally flow from this core. Once this core is different, alloyed with craving for wealth and power, outer actions would be devious. Gandhi would never use muscle or money power to win elections because for him political power is not the end rather a means to serve mankind. Shastri’s vision and ideals were deeply embedded by this Gandhian principle. In the current breed of political leaders this inner core is lacking. The quest for power by hook or crook has clouded the inner core. When power becomes the sole aim, the finer human qualities become subservient to this aim. As a result, a political leader will not hesitate to exploit the fault lines in a society whether in terms of differences in caste, religion, ethnic identity, language or region to realize his goal. While Mahatma Gandhi would prefer to rush to dowse the communal fire, a present day politician would rush to stoke communal passion to gain votes. The purpose of human life and the purpose of living daily as a life to live for the good of society have become alien to the political class. The famous Gandhian dictum (paraphrasing) ‘when you are confused as to which policy among plethora of policies to adopt then think of the most grieved and confusion will melt away’ has been thrown to trash bin without second thought. A politician may not hesitate to bribe people to vote, to deliver false promises, play tricks and feign innocence, play dangerous games in terms of silencing opponents as these are for him means to gain power and wealth and the ‘prestige’ associated with them.

Hence, when I survey the current protest against political corruption I am not surprised at the lackluster attitude of the political class across spectrum. Many political leaders smirk at these protests and even mock the protesters as if they are lesser mortals. There may be genuine feeling behind these protest movements against corruption but I am skeptic how far they will succeed unless the political class is convinced of the urgency of reform. The political class, the wielder of political power, comprising of master tacticians are adept in using carrot and stick policy. They will use all kinds of policies and machinations to swim over the tide of protests. They will apply all their ingenuity to show the protests in a poor light. They know when to baulk and when to intimidate and when to eliminate the opposition. My central argument in this article is unless political class is convinced of self-transformation; the endeavor to change them from outside will be very difficult. Unless they feel the pinch from inside, unless they feel the urgency to change, unless they want to transform India from a developing to a developed world, all these protests may go in vein or will have little effects. I do not doubt the motives of some of the protesters, but I doubt how far they will be successful in moving this colossal machine steeped deep in corruption.

I believe political class can change. There can be motivations for political leaders. There can be even higher allurements for them to undertake this adventure. When I appeal to them for change, I note these allurements which they need to take into considerations while thinking about transforming themselves. As on this transformation of the political class depend the present and future of not only them and their immediate families but also the present and past of the Indian nation.

First, it may appear crude but the fact is that most of the political leaders at top will survive few years, or say, about thirty years or maybe less. They must think after they pass away, how they will be remembered by their fellow countrymen? Will they prefer to be remembered as a corrupt leader who swindled public money and filled his coffers and did nothing constructive for the nation? Will they prefer to be revered as we revere the father of the nation or Shastri, or will they prefer to be remembered as a repugnant soul in the Indian public memory? I do not want to name here the deceased political leaders who are remembered as corruption personified. I understand this may not be an immediate allurement for the political leaders, but it may be a sufficient indication that the posterity may not be kind enough to forgive them for their actions of corruption which blight the Indian nation. It is but natural that once the top political leaders change their course and become transparent; the cronies will follow their footprints. I am optimistic. Why can not our political leaders become as great as Mahatma Gandhi? They can be. The clincher is that they must take a long term perspective of life.

Second, Indian people dread politicians because they use power not for the right end. I am reasonably sure when an Indian politician goes to a foreign developed country, there must be a time he must have craved to see India as a developed nation. Many of our political leaders will definitely be happy to conceive India as a developed country and as a super power. They must think and ask themselves – what contributions they have made to make India a rising power? How much their policies have contributed to the growth of India? How do they feel India’s rise as their rise, and India’s growth as their growth? How many of them can claim to be builders of modern India? One spiritual leader of pre-independent India had envisioned a free India as leader of the world. How far these leaders have contributed to such a vision? A political leader’s rise into grace and fall into disgrace are of less consideration than his contribution to the rise of India. A political leader’s worth will not be judged by how much bank balance he has, how much money he has stashed away, how much acreage of land he has, how much money he spent in parties, what was the weight of his birthday cake. None of us ask these questions about Gandhi or Shastri. Gandhi left the lucrative job of lawyer and plunged into politics for the reasons we all know. Let the political leaders learn a lesson or two from Gandhi not only in terms of wearing Gandhi cap or cotton. Millions of Indian youth are disappointed by the service of the political class. When we read in textbooks in Indian schools about the life of Gandhi and other great founders of India – we find a huge discrepancy in their life philosophy and the rules guiding the actions of current breed of political leaders.

Third, the political leader must ask – what is the purpose of life? It may sound philosophical but a life devoid of philosophy is no life worth living. Gandhi said (paraphrasing), ‘when I go to bed every night I think my life is coming to an end, and when I get up every morning I think I have a new birth.’ It has a powerful message. It implies when a person goes to bed in night he recapitulates his deeds whole day and find wrong and right he did, what lessons he drew from them and how will not he repeat the same mistakes. It has a moral imperative. Do our politicians think this way and judge themselves by following this Gandhian yardstick. My purpose here is to checkmate the degradation of the political system by appealing to the political class to think in a different way. How moral is it for a political leader to amass enormous wealth and offer largess to his cronies when millions of Indian children are malnourished and many of these children die of starvation? How moral is it to spend millions of rupees in parties organized by political class when millions of their fellow Indians suffer from abject poverty? Poverty tourism by some political leaders is a mark of humiliation to poor people. One article in New York Times calculated that if every American family contributes 200 dollars per year, no child will be malnourished in the world. My attention is on India. I think – how will it be if our political leaders use a fragment of their ill-gotten wealth for the poor of India?

Lastly, I do not consider Indian political class insensitive or heartless. We still have political leaders with finer intellect. Once the political leaders think in terms of India and Indian nation and give up the fragmented outlook, India will not only be a developed nation without poverty and malnourished children, the political leaders will themselves realize that they are true inheritors of vision that guided founders of modern India.


Dr Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, currently part of the research faculty at the Centre for Central Eurasian Studies, University of Mumbai, India. He specializes on areas of conflict, peace and terrorism, and strategic dimensions of Central Eurasian politics.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 12 Nov 2012.

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