Monday, August 3, 2015

We had values in public life, then we lost them. Now we have only dream-givers to guide us

Bharthruhari, king of Ujjain, elder brother of Vikramaditya and sage poet who gave us subhashita, inspirational verse, was talking of life's abiding values when he wrote

It is generosity
that ornaments the hand;
for the head, it is
bowing to one's teacher's feet;
upon the lips, true speech;
within the ear
the faultless words of scripture;
pure conduct in the heart,
and in victorious arms
brave self-reliance:
Such is the jewellery of the great
which needs no riches.

That was in the 5th century. The values he mentioned were no doubt universal and eternal, but how relevant are they in our times? Ours is not an age of poets, thinkers, philosophers and mentors. Ours is the age of politicians. Not politicians who make at least an effort to honour their promises, but politicians who are beasts of prey -- and the only ones who prey systematically on their own species.

There was a time when politicians did have a sense of values. It is fashionable these days to say that the first 60 years of India were wasted and that the next six years will make the country great. This is a political untruth. During the first 30 of the 60 years, there was indeed a sense of values among politicians. The Nehru years might have lost precious time on account of socialism, but let us not forget that socialism in those days stood for fairplay and social justice. That was why when a reckless businessman used the government-owned LIC for corrupt dealings, the finance minister took moral responsibility and resigned. Or when a nasty train accident shook the country, the railway minister resigned on moral grounds.

It was with Indira Gandhi and the Emergency that things changed and a ruling class emerged with diminishing respect for values. Today even chief ministers caught in indefensible misconduct never say sorry, let alone resign. Democracy has become no more than a shell: Where those in power should be serving the people, today the people serve those in power.

Plato must have known this when he outlined his utopian theories about the philosopher-king. His principal proposition was that only politicians who would gain no personal advantage from the policies they pursued would be fit to govern. Could the father of Western philosophy have been unaware of the impracticality of his theory? By defining who was fit to govern, he was perhaps warning us that those who were unfit to govern would in reality govern us.

That was what happened across the world down the ages. Look at just a few of the personifications of cruelty and corruption that marked the present generation -- Idi Amin of Uganda, Nicolae Ceausescue of Rumania, Bokassa of Central African Republic, Pinochet of Chile and Henry Kissinger who set US policies when Pinochet rose and Allende was assassinated, Richard Nixon who turned the Vietnam war into the most ecologically destructive in human history, the George Bush-Dick Cheney team that wiped out the civilisational history of Babylon on false grounds. (For politeness' sake, let us leave out the Indian examples of corruption and malfeasance). Obviously much of the world is governed most of the time by people unfit to govern.

When elephants are hunted down by ivory agents with the connivance of forest guards, when our mountains are levelled by the quarry mafia and our rivers are killed by the sand mafia, when half of Goa was dug up and exported, when politicians benefit from every project put up in the name of development (in Kerala's Vizhinjam Port project, there was only one tender; how convenient), then we know -- and accept helplessly -- that we are governed by people unfit to govern.

That helplessness, and the sense of despair emanating from it, have been the conditioning influences of our life for many decades now. We protest and fight, but we also adjust and compromise for people everywhere just want to get on with their lives and make the best of what they can. When they see a rare straw of hope, they hail it and cling to it and derive from it the happiness they desperately seek. This explains the unprecedented outpouring of love and admiration for APJ Abdul Kalam. He told us that dreams were not something we saw in sleep, but something that made us too excited to sleep. He was a teacher of India in the line of Mahatma Gandhi. He was a dreamer for India in the tradition of Jawaharlal Nehru. Kalam will live on.