I have asked this question before, a couple of years ago, to the activist junta. And I am asking this question afresh in the context of Anna Hazare’s campaign Jan Lokpal Bill, as well as Baba Ramdev’s campaign for bringing back money stashed abroad, because I smell the stench of self-righteous pride in our midst. Baba Ramdev and Anna Hazare may be well meaning citizens, but their speech and actions — and the actions of their followers — are increasingly marred by an arrogance that is self-defeating and ridiculous. They are deluding themselves and the people of India into taking an untenable stand.
In recent years, I have visited several municipal offices, government offices, police stations, State Information Commissions etc. to collect replies to RTI applications, file complaints and hold meetings. I have also interacted with hundreds of activists. My interactions have made me reflect on the mindset of activists like myself which condemns us to failure in accomplishing our avowed mission of eradicating corruption.
We activists want to clean up the system — government, police, judiciary — abolish corruption, bring reforms, transparency, accountability, rule of law etc. But in our reformist zeal, we fail to see the obvious, and this earns us the contempt and ill-will of both administrators and the common man. We start out with the wrong assumptions, and therefore, we condemn our actions to failure.
Here are 3 obvious truths that activists (including myself) habitually overlook:
1) There are no villains. Municipal corporations, state governments, police, judiciary etc are systems designed by, headed by and manned by ordinary Indian people like you and I. Ministers, MLAs, MPs, Corporators, Commissioners, Ward Officers, Licence Inspectors etc. are NOT children of Gabbar Singh, Mogambo, Dr Dang and Shakaal! They are the same breed as you and I. They have studied in more-or-less the same schools and colleges as you and I, and their children go to the same schools as our children. So why are we habitually considering them as conspirators, hypocrites and sinners?
Yes, many of them have privileged access to ‘the system’, and insider knowledge of the key decisions being taken. True, they are abusing this access and knowledge for private gains… but ask yourself, if placed in their positions and their context, would you not? I am forced to admit that I would think and act like them if placed in their shoes. Let us understand this and be humble. Let us avoid self-righteousness, and let us stay focused on reforming the system that breeds corruption.
2) You can’t fix a system without understanding it first. We activists arrogantly believe that we know “everything”. Without trying to understand the complexities of governing a nation that consists of mega-cities like Mumbai where skyscrapers and slums coexist in the same municipal ward, with extremely divergent interest-groups, and without understanding the relevant rules and legal framework and ground-realities, we presume that we can offer remedies to the nation’s various ailments. Our understanding is negligible… but we cry out from the rooftops that if the city and country are governed as we say, everything will be all right! (As an analogy, think: If your car has engine trouble, can it be fixed by a bunch of people with many ideas but zero mechanical knowledge and experience? Or can it be fixed by a bunch of people who say that it ought to be fixed, but have never handled the toolbox?)
There are some — such as Prashant & Shanti Bhushan, Arvind Kejriwal and Justice Santosh Hegde — who have a fairly deep understanding of the system. However, there are others who have never shouldered the responsibilities of governance; ironically, they are the ones whose voices are the most shrill when they condemn Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi, who have shouldered these responsibilities for decades!
3) The yardstick that applies to government also applies to us. It is true that our government and administration at every level are far from ideal. To a large extent, they are neither democractic nor transparent… but how could it be otherwise? Are our decisions and actions truly transparent and democratic within our families, business circles, cooperative societies, activist groups etc? Having closely associated with the managing committees of chambers of commerce, trade associations, clubs, cooperative societies, Gandhian institutions, NGOs etc, I can vouch that they generally don’t function in a democratic and open manner. I am yet to see elections of such bodies held through secret ballot, or one general body resolution passed with a truly informed consensus, without social coersion. So let us not have unrealistic expectations from people in governance; hum sab usee mittee ke baney hain. We all are made of the same clay.
SO WHAT AM I SAYING HERE? Am I saying that we have to give up activism and sit at home? Am I saying we have to learn to live with shoddy governance and corruption? NO!
What I am saying is: let us individually and collectively CORRECT OUR VISION. Let us stop dividing India into US (crusading activists who are purer than milk) versus THEM (villainous adminstrators who are blacker than tar). Unless we — civil society as a whole — learn humility, we don’t deserve to be taken very seriously, no matter how good our intentions may seem.
Yes, I am one with India Against Corruption (IAC). Who isn’t? I want what they want; who doesn’t? But that does not automatically mean that I am an enemy of the people who are currently running my country, my state and my city.
Yes, Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev are good men who are putting their lives on the line, going on indefinite fast and rallying the citizens to fight to eradicate corruption. But that does not automatically mean that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi are bad people. Yes, Manmohan and Sonia have shown bad judgment in many cases, but then, so have Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev.
As a free citizen of this country, I refuse to be manipulated by the cheerleaders of Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev into taking a position that is anti-government and anti-establishment.
BOTTOMLINE: LET US BEFRIEND ADMINISTRATORS, AND FAMILIARIZE OURSELVES WITH THE SYSTEMS. To become capable of changing the system, we must clearly understand the system, and learn to engage with the system. This is a time-consuming and painstaking process… but our patience will be rewarded with the power to bring about lasting and genuine changes.
Let us not unnecessarily alienate all the people who are running the systems. They deserve our respect… because, all said and done, they are doing a messy, difficult and often thankless job. (I wouldn’t want to wear the shoes of a typical IAS or IPS officer for even a month, thank you very much!) If some of them are corrupt, so is a large proportion of the Indian public engaged in various professions, businesses and occupations.
Let us be grateful and gracious. God chose to make them — and not us — ministers, administrators and policemen; maybe they are better than we would have been if placed in their shoes! Who knows?
Personally, I would like to offer a sincere apology to every minister, administrator, policeman etc if I ever appeared holier-than-thou. I am attaching the picture of roses with thorns… thorny side up. I want to use this picture to tell politicians, administrators, policemen and others who run the system that although we may criticize them a lot, we regard them highly. Despite our prickly and sometimes opinionated ways, we would like them to be our friends. We would request them to help us understand the system, its complexities and their genuine constraints.
And then, armed with this understanding, we shall consider ourselves blessed if we can help these people to overcome some constraints and make some positive changes. I think this should be the mindset with which we pursue our patriotic agenda.
Philosophical footnote: Can we achieve health by being only conscious about what is sick and unhealthy in our government? Commonsense tells me that this is not possible. Commonsense tells me that for nation-building to happen, we must concentrate on what is good and wholesome in our government, and build on that. If we rubbish our entire government, we will have nothing to build on. True patriotism cannot exist in an atmosphere of hatred of our nation’s entire government, which is akin to self-hatred. In our impatience for change, let us not destroy the foundations of this nation.