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Mainstream, Vol XLIX, No 15, April 2, 2011

Morals and Politics

Friday 8 April 2011, by Nikhil Chakravartty


Very often nowadays one hears the catch-phrase that “the system has broken down”. It is a common cliché in the intellectual circle all over the country, and has now been taken up by the politician as well—a sort of convenient alibi to cover up their own misdoings.

There is no denying the fact that the acknowledged set of values by which a democratic system functions have been largely abandoned, with the result that while the facade of democratic functioning is somehow maintained, the spirit behind it has evaporated and corruption in various walks of public life has reached a point when the very foundation of our civil society is grievously undermined. One discerns a marked shift in the attitude towards corrupt practices in the arena of politics. In the decade following independence a case of corruption would be taken as a veritable scandal, and the politician would fight shy of being tainted with it in the public eye. Over the years, the volume and magnitude of corruption having expanded, one notices that it has been more or less accepted as one of the inescapable features of political life. Gradually, though not imper-ceptibly, corruption has become part of the stock-in-trade of politics and has, therefore, gained a degree of accepta-bility not to be seen before.

When Indira Gandhi sought to underplay charges of corruption against her establishment by blandly declaring that corruption had become a global phenomenon, she was trying to put up a rather feeble explanation bordering on justification of all the corrupt practices going on at the time. With the current globalisation of the economy, the dimension of corruption has signifi-cantly enlarged: the securities scam and the sugar scandal are no ordinary cases, just as the Bofors kickback account is sought to be hushed up on devious grounds. What the politician gains in cash, he loses in credibility. Not only at the time of the election to office, but throughout his political career, an average well-oiled politician indulges in uninhibited corruption. From his election campaign to his links with the so-called builders, and the more daring ones with the mafia underworld, the stink of corruption today reaches out to the high heavens.

The social consequences of it has been the conspicuous undermining of the public faith not only in the politician but in the system of party functioning. Honestly speaking, none of the accredited parties—none at all—can claim that its own ranks are not visibly disturbed at this invasion of corruption into their party. This by itself leads to demoralisation since the party ranks as much as the general public become cynical at the politician’s bogus promise that the corrupt practices would be combated. Nobody takes such promises seriously as everybody seems to be convinced that nothing, really nothing, would be done. Many a prescription could be seen floating around, but these can hardly restore public confidence in their practicability or efficacy. The result has been a sense of all-round helplessness.

It is in this background when the political parties and their leaders have by and large forfeited the confidence of the public in general in their profession about commitment to democracy that a strange development has been taking place. The political leader—the neta—finds an unwanted actor on the stage. Rather this actor threatens to spoil the politician’s time-honoured game of hoodwinking the public with promises galore while he himself wallows in corruption and double-talk. First comes Seshan and then Khairnar.

Seshan anoyed the political party bosses by threatening to haul them over the coals for any irregularities in their management of poll campaigns. From election expenses to rigging and violating electioneering rules, Seshan for the first time questioned the conduct of political parties, particularly the ruling parties. By his action and fiats, he might have overplayed his role, as the Supreme Court sometimes had to pull him up. However, in the eyes of the general public, he has acquired the image of a strong upholder of the sanctity of the ballot box, which the established parties of all political complexions have been guilty of desecrating through money power or muscle power, and sometimes through both. With all his overbearing behaviour, T.N. Seshan has come to symbolise the restoration of the independence of the election process. In fact, that is the main reason why the government thought it wise to beat a retreat instead of forcing through a constitutional amendment to curb the authority and powers of the Chief Election Commissioner.

Take the case of G.R. Khairnar, the Deputy Municipal Commissioner of Bombay. An unknown non-descript officer has shot into limelight by quietly standing in the way of the rapacity of the building contractors violating laws under the protection of important political leaders with whom they collude for unspecified gains. Khairnar has become a hero figure before the public, not only of Maharashtra but in the rest of the country, for having quietly objected to the depredations of the law by anti-social operators in cahoots with political bosses. In this case, Maharashtra Chief Minister Pawar has made the mistake of crossing his path. Few political leaders can claim chastity in relation to financial manipulation, and certainly Sharad Pawar is not one of them, and he is realistic enough never to have claimed to possess that virtue.

Both Seshan and Khairnar may have transgre-ssed the bounds which in normal circumstances an officer has to observe particularly in dealing with political leaders. Seshan can, of course, claim to be holding an august office, whose authority and autonomy are guaranteed under the Constitution. In the case of Khairnar, he has no protective shield whatsover except the moral approbation of the public, progressively disgusted with mega-size corruption of many a political leader. It is not surprising that Khairnar has been suspended from his post for having trespassed into the area which is reserved exclusively for politicians, namely, going public with his serious charges against political bosses. However, his misconduct as a government employee is outshun by the tremendous popular support that has spontaneously rallied behind his forthright stand against the corrupt practices that the political bosses of the government wallow in.

Here are these two shining examples of two officers gaining massive public support for their adherence to the moral code that is supposed to be observed by all those engaged in public activity. The anomaly of the situation lies in the fact that the leadership of our elected political parties ensconced in power are quoting rules and quibbling about administrative discipline to provide them shelter against the moral onslaught of officers unmasking their misde-meanour. It is not difficult to realise the enormity of this anomaly in which the elected represen-tatives of the public, claiming to run a democratic government, are being shown up by honest bureaucrats while they themselves have been trying to come out with unconvincing excuses for their misconduct. No doubt democracy will be hampered if the honest bureaucrats trying to show up their political masters are put down to the relief of the very same bosses.

Contrast the position of these two, now under attack from the politician, with that of another character—the high-profile police boss of Punjab, Sardar K.P.S. Gill. Apart from his early recognition as a notorious bottom-pincher of ladies in receptions and parties, Gill has built up for himself the image of a ruthless leader, who depends wholly and solely on the pamperings of his favourite politicians. With the Punjab Chief Minister virtually playing second fiddle to his police boss, it is nothing unexpected that Gill should appropriate to himself the credit for having brought normalcy in Punjab. If the Khalistani militants have been nearly suppressed in Punjab through the brutal black-and-tan that Gill has specialised in that State, the glimmerings of normalcy in Punjab is followed by unrestrained police zoolum.

It is through methods of terrorisation that K.P.S. Gill has become an important factor in Punjab politics. The political leaders who have been applauding him seem to forget that Gill’s methods are totally antithetical to any democratic order. Emboldened by this indulgence offered by his political backers Gill has had the impudence to send his terror police even to distant places in far-away Bengal, while his latest exploit has touched off a first-class embarrassment for the government as his hoodlums pounced upon press reporters in the Capital while he and his cronies were celebrating his capturing the Presidentship of the Indian Hockey Federation. The incident has provoked widespread resentment so much so that the Vice-President of the Federation has resigned in protest, and the watchful eyes of the public are now focussed on the ruffians whom Gill maintains.

Here is another test for those in authority. If Khairnar is penalised for having exposed high-placed corruption and Gill permitted to go scot-free after his terror gangsterism against the public, how will one measure the credibility of the people in authority? These are signs of a new awakening in the public. The system is cracking up no doubt, but not in the way its reckless manipulators wanted it to happen.

(Mainstream, July 9, 1994)

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