Saturday, April 24, 2010

Standards in Public Life I

Slightly over a month ago, The Hindu carried a short article about the Chief Election Commissioner, Mr. Navin Chawla, seeking an amendment to Article 324 of the Constitution. Specifically, he had urged for an amendment to clause 5 of the Article to bring all election commissioners on par with each other and to make a case for his call, he cited two instances, one involving the leonine T.N.Seshan and the other involving Chawla and his own predecessor, Mr.Gopalaswami.

As for the first incident, those interested may read this judgment of the Supreme Court interpreting Article 324(5). I then searched for literature to understand the constitutional underpinnings of the Election Commission of India, when I stumbled upon the fifth Report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life in the United Kingdom.

 This report discusses threadbare the standards to be expected of political parties beginning with the seven principles of public life to be observed by holders of public office- selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. It occurred to me that in the backdrop of the current fiasco involving Shashi Tharoor and a few other political bigwigs whose names are bound to surface over and over again, this report assumes greater significance.

Selflessness- According to the report, holders of public office should take decisions solely in terms of the public interest. They should not do so in order to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family, or their friends.

Integrity- Holders of public office should not place themselves under any financial or other obligation to outside individuals or organisations that might influence them in the performance of their official duties.

Objectivity- In carrying out public business, including making public appointments, awarding contracts, or recommending individuals for rewards and benefits, holders of public office should make choices on merit.

Accountability- Holders of public office are accountable for their decisions and actions to the public
and must submit themselves to whatever scrutiny is appropriate to their office.

Openness- Holders of public office should be as open as possible about all the decisions and actions that they take. They should give reasons for their decisions and restrict information only when the wider public interest clearly demands.

Honesty- Holders of public office have a duty to declare any private interests relating to their public duties and to take steps to resolve any conflicts arising in a way that protects the public interest.

Leadership- Holders of public office should promote and support these principles by leadership and example.

Sounds very utopian given the situation here, right? Makes one wonder if there'll ever come a time when these ideals/virtues are taken seriously in this country. If someone were to talk of applying these ideals in public life in India, somehow I get the feeling that the speaker is bound to be scoffed at and ridiculed, with some of us saying “you can’t survive in politics if you believe in these”. Stand Corrected! “you can’t survive in Indian politics if you believe in these” is more like it!

What else would explain the failure of people of like T.N.Seshan in elections? What explains the fact that the majority of Indians preferred Nehru over Patel for the post of the Prime Minister? Some might say that both Patel and Seshan lacked charisma(!) I'd like to know what have charismatic leaders done for us or even themselves? Shashi Tharoor oozes oodles of charisma (and this speech is proof of that), but with all due respect to him and his “unblemished record of public service”, his short stint in the Union Cabinet is replete with PR goof ups! 

As for Nehru, his aspirations of becoming a global statesman were cut to size by a shrewd peasant with a silly name called Mao Tse Tung, which indirectly caused Nehru’s untimely death. And let’s not forget that ultimately the country had to pay the price for their charisma in the form of loss of dignity and territory. So much for charisma...

But then, the point is not to vilify any of these undeniably great leaders. The point is that people need to start probing beyond mere face value and should restrain themselves from falling for looks or accent or lineage or anything else superfluous to the task at hand. What must matter is the person's ability to bring tangible and lasting change for the good in the lives of those he represents, if he is given an opportunity to walk the corridors of power.

The person must know how to get the best deal for his people, both in the short and long runs. More importantly, the question must be, does the person have it in him to take a strong call in the interests of his electorate even if it (the electorate) does not agree with his stance? Not surprisingly, these questions do not figure in our discussions because they are not issue-centric, they are individual-centric.

There’s a reason for this which most of us might find unpalatable and politically incorrect. Democracy in India has a different meaning altogether, our interpretation of “Live and Let Live” rarely finds parallels anywhere else other than in the sub-continent. We seem to think that as long as we are given a free hand to do whatever we want and in any manner we want, we live in a democracy. What this means is that every possible tradition which defies logic, and every atrocity thus far perpetrated must be allowed to continue, in the name of democracy

The moment the State steps in to straighten things out, it becomes draconian and dictatorial. Probably, most of us need the concept of a State only to keep this huge piece of earth together under one name so that we get a larger territory to continue the same (rotten, decadent and parasitical) way of life. (This again seems to explain why we keep electing a Government which has mastered the art of keeping almost everyone happy by doing nothing at all and just letting things be.)

It appears that this way of life or thinking is common to the people of this part of Asia, meaning India, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan and to a nominal extent Taiwan. Last April, Jackie Chan seemed to think on these lines only to be voted the least trustworthy celebrity of Hong Kong.

Not for a moment am I suggesting that this pattern of thinking and living is inherent to our culture, which some think is fashionable to do. The past can be blamed only to an extent; beyond that, we are accountable for the consequences of our actions because, culture is transient since people are transient.

If at some point in our history, invertebracy has crept in and has firmly entrenched itself in our national character, it does not give us or anyone the right to paint our entire past and heritage with the same brush. The true test of our core nature would be this period of transition that we are not just witnessing, but are participating in as well.

If I sound like I have problems with democracy, then either the reader has not understood my point or I have not been successful in communicating my point clearly. All I am saying is that unless people stop equating democracy with chaos and unfettered reign of the individual’s whims and fancies, democracy will be a monumental failure in India in the times to come.

If people have problems with the State imposing discipline on them, then they must learn to discipline themselves, because there is no way discipline can be altogether thrown out of the window.

Do I sound like a martinet? Oh I know the reason, it’s the word “discipline”... 

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