Time to cleanse public life

When character is lost…

A view of old Ambedkar statue at Town Hall in Mysuru on Sunday. -Photo by Savitha. B R

Jawaharlal Nehru once said, “We should found our Republic on these basic characteristics: high character, integrity of mind and purpose, a spirit of tolerance, cooperation and hard work. Our objective is to make it possible for millions in India to lead contented and purposeful life”.

How far have we lived up to Nehru’s expectations? How far have we cultivated the basic values of character, honesty and integrity to make our democratic system a meaningful device of governance? How far have we fulfilled the basic needs and aspirations of the people, particularly the poor and the downtrodden? How far have we respected the democratic institutions assiduously built up by our predecessors?  Unfortunately, the answer to all these questions, basic to the functioning of democracy in our country, is a resounding “no”.

Resultantly, the political life of the country has fallen below standards. Never before has there been so rapid a decline in moral and ethical values as is the case at present.  Personal ambitions have gained supremacy over people’s interests. Horse-trading, shifting of loyalties for personal gain, bargaining for offices, raising party funds by questionable means — ugly practices of the day invariably preoccupy our leaders —  leaving them hardly with any time for the service of the people.

Democracy is a delicate form of governance. It calls for compliance with certain norms of behaviour and adherence to certain rules of discipline on the part of those concerned with the working of the system. In the absence of that, democracy can degenerate into mobocracy. Our politicians, therefore, must be imbued with the spirit of idealism that inspired our founding fathers to enshrine these values in the Constitution assuming that each succeeding generation will observe them.

The crisis we face today is not due to any drawbacks of the political system but because of the failings of persons operating it. The sanctity of institutions and respect for conventions are being thoughtlessly violated. The quality of members has been deteriorating from one parliament to another. Those who sit in parliament and state legislatures are representatives more of their own parties than of the people. The majority of them have no interest in debates. Rather, they attempt to hold up the proceedings of the House by using all possible unparliamentary means at their command. It is not that we do not have clearly set out rules and procedures: we have as bulky a tome as “May’s Parliamentary Practice”. The only difference is that while in other working democracies their observance is the rule, their breach the exception, with us it is increasingly the  other way round. This is a dangerous state of affairs and we should not let it continue. Heavens will not fall if those with a shady reputation and poor image are thrown out with a view to cleanse public life. They must be replaced with those who have clean hands and who think not of their personal gain but of the welfare of the people.

When the Constituent Assembly first met to frame the Constitution, one of its oldest members, S N Sinha, told the members that whatever system they devised could only be preserved by the public spirit and vigilance of its citizens. We must earnestly heed his prophetic words: “The structure has been erected by architects of consummate skill and fidelity; its foundations are solid, its compartments are beautiful as well as useful; its arrangements are full of wisdom and order; and its defences  are impregnable from without. It has been reared for immortality if the work of man may justly aspire to such a title. It may, nevertheless, perish in an hour by the folly or corruption or negligence of its only keepers, ‘The People’. Republics are created by the virtues, public spirit and intelligence of the citizens. They fall, when the wise are banished from public councils because they dare to be honest, and the profligate are rewarded because they flatter the people, in order to betray them”.

At the concluding session of the Assembly, Dr B R Ambedkar also expressed similar views: “I feel, however good a Constitution may be, it is sure to turn out bad because those who are called upon to work it happen to be a bad lot. However bad a Constitution may be, it may turn out to be good if those who are called to work happen to be a good lot. The working of a system does not depend wholly upon its nature. It can provide only the organs of State, such as the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. The factors on which the working of those organs depend are the people and political parties they will set up as their instruments to carry out their wishes and their policies”.

If we do not have the right individuals following the right policies in seats of power, things will not improve, no matter what form of government we have. Instead, things will further worsen, not only due to the misdeeds of the bad but more because of the apathy of the good. Hence, men and women of ability and integrity who keep away from politics, thinking it to be dirty, must shed their inhibitions and contribute to restoring values in politics. 

We are lucky to have in our country persons who have made a mark in different walks of life, and who are known for their integrity, attachment to liberal values and vision.  It would not be too much to ask each political party to select some such persons as its candidates in the coming state and parliamentary elections. This would certainly lead to a fresh reorientation of the state of our politics and give a new complexion not only to each of those parties but also to our public life.

(The writer is a Supreme Court lawyer)

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