Against the glare of the morning light, the statue of the Mahatma was a dark silhouette. A bird sat on his shoulder, breaking the smooth flow of the outline of the figure. It was the 2nd of October and we had assembled early morning at the porch of the Secretariate, to pay homage to the Father of the Nation: a ritual we have been following for many decades now. It is another matter that there was but a smattering of officers and officials present from a staff strength of over three thousand in the Secretariate. The overwhelming majority stayed away; it was a holiday; why bother to get up early, merely to salute the Mahatma in a ritual that has lost its meaning?
I am not willing to go into the questions of whether Gandhiji’s message has any relevance today. Those who raise these questions must also introspect how the timeless and universal values such as truth and non-violence can ever lose their relevance. Be that as it may, the time has come to ask the question why it is that we pay lip service to the nation but on three days in a year, namely 26th January, 15th August and 2nd October. On these occasions alone are we awakened suddenly by patriotic thoughts and we extol the virtues of our freedom fighters and the sacrifices made by them in the struggle for Independence. But the clichés drop easily from our lips and it is clear that our hearts are not in the words we utter. Or is it that patriotism is roused only when the country faces a threat? At all other times we are too much in the present and its cares and worries, its pleasure and delights. The fact is that the joys and heartbreaks of love for the country –and yes, there are both these passions in it – do not suffuse us each and every day of our lives.
So the burden of this blog is – and I repeat the words of the old song:
How do we keep the music playing, how do we make it last?
How do you keep the song from fading, so fast?
How do we ensure that the lessons we have learnt from our history books remain with us as reminders of the perils we can face, should we turn lax and careless? Someone said it so pithily: Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom. We need to be conscious that at all times the precious liberty that we enjoy now, and so easily take for granted, can with one small misjudgement, be snatched from us, leaving us bereft of simple fundamental rights such as free expression or movement.
What does this mean for ordinary citizens like us? How do we stand up and turn ourselves, as a people, into a resolute and impregnable fortress which no insidious power can manipulate and weaken. If we think about it, it is not so difficult to achieve. How do we remain patriotic, not merely on these three significant days, but at every moment of our lives?
So let me ask: What are the prerequisites of a strong democracy that will never fall to subversive forces?
Let’s count them on our fingers:
a. A strong constitutional framework that guarantees fundamental rights to its citizens which are enforceable by the courts.
b. The legislature: A democratic form of government that places faith in the ballot and the vox populi. And enacts laws for the good of its people.
c. The executive: an administrative system that provides the benefits of good governance and all that it means.
d. The judiciary that is rigorously impartial and makes no compromises, but dispenses justice with compassion and understanding.
e. The press, vibrant and fearless, not tempted by sensationalism or lurid voyeurism, but which dares to address public issues and disclose crimes on the people of the country.
f. Also, vigilant civic society groups which voice the aspirations of the voiceless.
But we know all this, don’t we? As a nation, we can be proud of the fact that we possess these institutions in abundant measure. Our constantly evolving Constitution does indeed reflect in broad measure what we expect from ourselves. Or legislature reflects a democratic election process that earns the envy of the world. Our judiciary has been unbending and correct for the most part. Our press has exposed scams and scandals with a boldness that is unmatched. We have many committed non-governmental organisations that espouse lost causes with fervour and empathy.
But having said all that, the real questions that must be asked are in the realm of the executive; the governance of the people by the State. The real question is why, despite almost seven decades of freedom, we still falter when the fruits of governance are passed on to the people. This is the question that that civil servants -and by that I mean not merely officers in the national and state services, but all those who are in the line of delivery of services and governance in the country – must deeply consider.
Why does graft and rent-seeking torment poor people while the rich and the influential can get away with murder? Why do doctors and nurses, or engineers and mechanics refuse to go down into the last village and check for themselves the quality of the services that the government delivers? Why is it that our public distribution system still suffers from leakages and theft? Why do our schools in far flung villages have no teachers and pitiable quality of education? Why are our towns and cities unclean with overflowing garbage and hardly any civic amenities? Why are land grabbers and real estate mafia distorting laws while extorting poor people for their personal benefit? Why are officers and petty officials lining their pockets and allowing contractors and middle men to make huge killings?
It is all right to blame the politicians and to say that this country would have been better but for them. But that is merely to deny the truth and to live in a cloud and cuckoo land. The hard and inescapable fact is that it is we, with the large and mammoth hierarchical structure of public administration behind us, who are wholly and squarely responsible for good governance. And if the delivery of government services is poor and faulty, then it is we, and none else, who are responsible. We cannot dodge the blame or seek to find shelter behind someone else. We have to take that huge and onerous responsibility on our own shoulders.
No doubt, the task is difficult and unending. At the higher levels of government, we are faced with the glaring results of that faulty execution of our programmes. And each day we face a thousand issues that defy resolution. People, or should we call them supplicants, come to beseech us to set things right. We hear and see and try our best to dispense justice as best as we can. We know, but do not acknowledge, that there is a deep malaise afflicting our body. With the passage of time, however, the skin gets hardened, the heart no longer weeps at injustice, and we let the grievances that flood our offices pass over us with no thought of their gravity or import. Everything is passé and déjà vu. Nothing stings us like they once used to. It would seem that the grey hair on our heads has made us insensitive, indeed the tears no longer burn our eye.
That is why I ask the question, how do we keep the song from fading? How do we retain the child-like innocence we all once had, to feel, to hurt inside, to agonise, to lose sleep and shudder at the crimes around us. And to rise with a righteous wrath and send the godless scurrying like mice to their holes. If we can do that, then we will be what the Constitution wanted us to be. And then see how we transform this country.
I wonder if this is what the Mahatma meant when he said: “Be the change you wish to see in this world.”