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Learning to Govern Ourselves
J.P. sharma

Fifty five years is not a long period in the history of a nation having seen a continuous civilization stretching over several thousand years. What sets apart the post August 1947 era of our existence is the fact that in this period We, The People of India, had perhaps for the first time, the opportunity and the responsibility of governing ourselves. Judgements on our performance vary from abject failure to outstanding success. The truth obviously lies somewhere in between. 

Any objective assessment of Independent India’s success in governing itself must take into account the sheer enormousness and complexity of the undertaking. The territories which formed part of Independent India in August 1947 had never existed as a single political unit except during the last100 years of the British Empire (that too including the Princely States). The bewildering variety of factors claiming the loyalties of the population—religion, sect, ethnicity, caste, sub cast, tribe, language, region etc and producing conflict of interests among sections of people is unlikely to be found in any other country in the world. Abject poverty and illiteracy afflicted large sections of the masses. Communal passions which had led to the Partition of the country were running high. Industry was weak and undiversified. Scientific research institutions were too few. Our former masters and their powerful cousins did not look kindly on our emerging as a strong country with an independent mind. That we chose parliamentary democracy of the Westminster type based on universal adult suffrage as the vehicle of governance seems to have made the task, according to many observers, even more difficult. 

Independent India has been successful in safeguarding its sovereignty and to a large extent its territorial integrity in a difficult world where might continues to be right and the old and new forms of imperialism continue to impinge on the sovereignty of weaker nations. India also happens to be among the few countries which became independent after the second World War and where democracy has struck strong roots. We have a good Constitution articulating our hopes and aspirations and laying down the broad contours for the functioning of the various organs of the state. Our production of food grains has outpaced the threefold rise in the population. Our scientists, engineers and doctors have achieved brilliant successes in their respective fields. We have a strong, independent Judiciary and our media are more than free. Internationally India enjoys a respectable position in the comity of nations. 

Our failures too have been many. Although the incidence of abject poverty has been alleviated we still have the world’s largest poor population. Literacy rates are still among the lowest in the world. Substantial sections of our people are still under the sway of superstitions, prejudices, beliefs and practices associated with the Middle Ages. Our agriculture still seems to depend heavily on the mercy of rain gods and no satisfactory solution has yet been found for the country’s energy needs. The Kashmir problem continues to fester, North Eastern States continue to be plagued by insurgencies, armed extremists continue to challenge the law in Andhra Pradesh and Bihar and a notorious bandit keeps on collecting fabulous ransoms by kidnapping and releasing high profile individuals, mocking at the might of the governments of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Our legal system has proved to be totally powerless against the rich and the politically powerful. Corruption, nepotism and inefficiency have permeated all levels of the state apparatus and we seem to have gone quite far on the road to becoming a ‘soft state’. 

We did not start with disadvantages only. Our population despite its poverty and illiteracy possessed the essentials of culture and contained a vast reservoir of brains waiting only for the spark of education. Our leaders mostly drawn from the ranks of lawyers, teachers, doctors, journalists etc were not only well educated but had imbibed modern democratic values and were fired by an idealism which had led them to make great sacrifices for the sake of the country. Our legislators and bureaucrats had considerable experience of running a modern administration. We had a well-organized political party enjoying countrywide support of the masses. 

How have we created the mess in which we find ourselves today? Are we still merrily sliding downhill or do we perceive any hopeful signs of correcting our course? More importantly, what should be done ? These are the questions which are troubling many of our countrymen and it is necessary that citizens at every level get interested in asking the questions and trying to find the answers. 

We did reasonably well in the first few decades following independence. Our troubles seem to have aggravated with the leaders and the idealism of the freedom struggle era getting replaced (as was bound to happen) with a younger generation of leaders facing the realities of the present times. The problems had started manifesting even while the old guard was still in charge. The real reason of our difficulties seems to be that our leaders could not cope with the challenge of handling power in today’s world. As is well known, power corrupts and in our case all those wielding power or seeking to wield power seem to have steadily fallen prey to temptation. 

Ambition and avarice are among the weaknesses shared by most human beings. Democracy however presupposes that all those who are entrusted with power shall wield it only within the limits prescribed for them by the law. Ideally the law should be observed in letter as well as in spirit but the letter has to be inviolable and violators must be dealt with according to law. Unfortunately for us, our leaders apparently decided that in the pursuit of power, means did not matter. And one must record, with much shame and pain, that the political party which led the country to freedom and to which the poor masses of independent India repeatedly entrusted their governance must bear the responsibility for much of what ails the country now. This party saw nothing wrong in shielding corrupt leaders, misusing the constitution for dismissing a state government enjoying the support of the legislature, buying the loyalty of newly elected MLAs to cobble up majority in state legislatures, taking the Muslim League as its partner in the coalition government in Kerala and justifying its action by claiming that the Muslim League in Kerala was not “communal”, encouraging foreign nationals to settle in Assam to enlarge its vote bank, encouraging potential monsters like Bhindranwale, annulling a centuries old law protecting Muslim women’s right to maintenance for appeasing obscurantist Muslims and bribing MPs to defeat a no-confidence motion in the Parliament. Use of money and muscle power, misuse of the state machinery for winning elections even by tampering with the results were mere peccadilloes. Forcing wrong decisions on the heads of autonomous bodies and attempting, often successfully, to degrade the functioning of constitutional bodies which are the pillars of the democratic system is another serious charge made against this party. 

The standards set by the GOP(Grand Old Party) were naturally followed by the other parties who added their own innovations to the repertoire of tricks for winning elections. Everything which could bring in votes became acceptable. Bogus voting and booth capturing were often resorted to. Rousing the passions of people by using any emotive issue, alluring voters by promising free electricity or rice at two rupees a kilo, providing jobs to friends and followers in government or in public sector undertakings were only a few of the commonly used methods without any thought being given to the consequences of such actions. One party sought to lure voters by promising to repeal the Goonda Act promulgated by an earlier regime to suppress cheating in examinations. Mafia dons and other criminals quickly realised that it was much better to become MPs /MLAs than to help others in winning elections and political parties of all hues had no hesitation in fielding criminals as their candidates if they saw a reasonable chance of their success. 

It is not only the political parties or leaders who are responsible for the present state of affairs. Senior bureaucrats particularly those occupying high positions in the central and state secretariats or working as heads of departments generally collaborated with the political bosses in wrongdoing for mutual benefit. Starting at the top the rot percolated downwards and spread sideways resulting in the entire structure of government becoming ridden with corruption, inefficiency and indiscipline. Accountability, integrity and productivity were forgotten and most public servants concentrated on maximizing the benefits, pecuniary and of all other kinds, they could secure for themselves, their families or relations. Bureaucrats, bankers and other luminaries got into the habit of having a good time in foreign countries at public expense without producing much by way of results. 

It is said that every society gets the government it deserves. As a people we Indians have several flaws in our character. Most of us tend to place our personal interest above national interest. Corruption is not regarded as evil and the corrupt leaders or functionaries are not hated or even disliked socially. Most of our businessmen, from the petty shopkeeper to the tycoon, regard bribes paid to officials as nothing more than business expenses or investments. Unscrupulous industrialists and brokers used the equity boom of late 1980s to fleece the small investors. Most of our Public Sector banks and Financial Institutions are saddled with huge NPAs while the defaulting borrowers live like maharajas. And almost everybody having the power to make the common man’s life a little more convenient or miserable loves to make an extra buck if he has the opportunity. 

Perhaps as a consequence of having lived for long under emperors, kings, sultans, nawabs etc. we have developed an unhealthy acceptance of extended dynastyism. When a big leader passes away (or sometimes during his lifetime itself) we readily accept his wife/mistress/son/son in law/daughter/daughter in law/grandson/grand daughter,or any other relation or associate etc as his successor without examining the credentials of the person for the leadership job. 

Another of our serious failings is to accept meekly whatever service is dished out to us. Let alone fighting for our rights, we do not even bother to register our protest. We could, with some justification, be called a nation of sheep. 

Lastly, we seem to be devoid of any sense of history. Even though we had made vast strides in developing literature, arts, mathematics and philosophy we repeatedly ended being defeated and enslaved by foreign invaders. Yet we do not seem to have learnt any lessons from our past failures. 

What is then the remedy ? Since most people, within or outside the government try to emulate the standards set by the top, the correction must start there. As regards the concrete steps to be taken one need not spell the specifics here. A number of experts, and bodies of experts have given serious thought to the matter and their recommendations are available. The recently retired CVC, Shri Vittal spent four years shouting from housetops spelling out measures to clean up the elections, control the generation of black money and generally to curb corruption. The National Police Commission, comprising of some of the best brains of the country, submitted a comprehensive report on police reforms as far back as 1981. The Vohra Committee report on criminalization of politics is already some years old. And most recently the National Human Rights Commission has reiterated the need to insulate the functioning of the police against political interference. Successive governments have refrained from implementing the major reforms recommended by these bodies. Even a writ petition filed by an upright police officer in the Supreme Court could not lead to the implementation of the Police Commission’s recommendations. 

Our politicians have repeatedly made it clear that they are neither interested in fighting corruption nor are they prepared to let go of their control over the police. In fact whenever a shocking scam is unearthed a well established pattern of action follows. The government orders an enquiry assuring that the guilty shall be dealt with according to law; the opposition pillories the government demanding the resignation of the minister concerned and disrupts the functioning of the Parliament, finally the parties agree on a compromise solution and thereafter it is business as usual. After the Tehelka expose it was expected that some positive steps will be taken to control corruption but nothing of the kind happened. All the sound and fury raised by the opposition in the Parliament seems to be intended only to tell the government “you have had enough opportunity to enrich yourselves, now get out and let us take our turn” 

Are we headed for inevitable disaster? In spite of all the gloomy conditions, one feels there is still room for hope. In our long history we have gone through many ups and downs but our innate genius has enabled us to survive. In the first quarter of the 19th century conditions in USA were much worse. They too got over their problems. We also have some positive signs. The Judiciary has maintained its independence and some constitutional bodies are functioning fearlessly. There is still no dearth of upright civil servants and police officers who would be happy to discharge their duties honestly and impartially if they are allowed to do so. The likes of Narayana Murthy, Sreedharan,and Arun Shourie, even though in a tiny minority are keeping our hopes alive. In course of time, at least the better informed sections of our voting citizenry will grow less passive and more intolerant of the prevailing corruption, inefficiency and waste of our resources and demand a better standard of performance from our politicians and public servants. And perhaps the government will some day wake up to realize that concepts like productivity or cost-benefit ratio are important not only in agriculture or industry but also in the sphere of public service. In the meanwhile let us hope that members of the intelligentsia and particularly those who have retired from service and have the freedom to speak the truth will perform their national duty of raising their voice against what they perceive to be against the country’s interest. One also hopes that at least the Indian language press will play its proper role in educating our middle classes about the perils the country is facing and in building up public opinion against the present state of affairs.

"Views and opinions expressed in the articles and notes published in this web site are of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Association of Retired Senior IPS Officers".




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Last modified: January 20, 2004