“Judge not, that ye be not judged. 2For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.
3 And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”
(Matthew 7:1-3, The Bible, King James Version)
“Something is rotten in the State of Denmark” (Hamlet, Prince of Denmark: William Shakespeare)
It was extremely depressing to read the 60 page note purportedly penned by Kalikho Pul, former Chief Minister of Arunachal Pradesh, before he committed suicide in August 2016. The note, which virtually amounts to a dying declaration under Section 32(11) of the Indian Evidence Act (though there may be some legal quibbles about this) is a searing indictment of the Indian system of governance and leaves no institution with even a fig leaf of credibility. This is not the place to go into the details of the note and one hopes that there will be at least some anguished introspection about the incident which saw a new, rather ignominious first for the Indian republic: a public representative taking his life out of despair at the prevailing state of affairs.
Recent years have been ones of deep disenchantment for the people of India. Illusions about politicians died many years ago: most of them are seen as representative of the corrupt, venal strain of society. The socialist economy of the 1960s and 1970s established political corruption as part of the “command” economy, a legacy of the Nehruvian era. Political life has continued to touch newer and newer lows over time, as criminals realised that they could be direct participants rather than sponsors of the political drama-farce. 1991 was only a minor hiccup for the politician; by 1994, it was business as usual again. In any case, state governments continued to blithely operate by their own rules, with the new breed of politicians unconcerned about probity in public life.
The less said about my own tribe, the bureaucracy, the better. Till the mid-1970s, the uppermost echelons, the IAS, IPS and the Central Services had relatively few black sheep in their midst. Over the 1980s, shamelessness started to pervade even the elite services. The middle and lower bureaucracy in the states were infected with the twin evils of corruption and politicisation to an extent where, returning to field level administration in 2000 in the same area I had served in ten years earlier, I could hardly believe the extent to which the rot had set in. Things have only worsened in the new millennium and the ugly politician-bureaucrat nexus is now caught in a fatal embrace (fatal for democracy, that is).
Faith in the judiciary was the one reassurance one sought in an increasingly darkening scenario. Unfortunately, the judiciary never used whatever independence it had to set its own house in order. The backlog of cases piled up at a dizzying rate; measures that might have made a difference, like written arguments (in appeals), summary disposal procedures and specified, limited recourse to legal remedies were never pursued. Lawyers who, as officers of the courts, are expected to assist in the speedy provision of justice have often resorted to tactics aimed at deflecting rather than delivering justice, with judges remaining silent spectators. We now have an unseemly conflict between the highest levels of the judiciary and the executive on the manner of selection of judges to the upper echelons of the judicial system. That India has a woeful per capita judicial officer quota is beyond doubt. But neither have serious efforts been made by the government to rectify it nor has the judiciary tried to at least make the best of a bad situation and enforce accountability in performance and propriety.
The press started to crawl in 1975, when shown the whip by the government of the day. Print media at district levels had always had its share of doubtful characters, who lived off the largesse of government advertisements and downright blackmail. But the print media at national and state capitals was still peopled by stellar characters. The downward slide started with the domination of electronic media and the larger than life image of well-known media personalities. Given the incestuous ties of journalists with North-South Block and Dalal Street, it was only a matter of time before something like the Radia tapes exposed the seamy side of journalistic wheeling dealing. Today, it has become common to associate any media group with a specific political party or business house (in terms of ownership and/or ideological slant).
The biggest casualty in the morality stakes has been civil society. Corruption was endemic in Indian society, but, till the 1970s, at least attracted some opprobrium. It has now gained respectability; the honest officer faces the ire of her superiors, peers and even family members. Systemic reforms face hurdles at every level, with the Indian propensity for jugaad at its inventive best when devising methods for circumventing the law. Post demonetization, a fair amount of government energy has been expended on plugging loopholes in implementation.
Poor Mr. Pul was trying to draw attention to these national drawbacks in his impassioned letter. The meaninglessness of his heartrending wail lies in our hardened attitudes to lawbreaking and looting public money. As a nation, we have also developed the habit of blaming every institution except that one of which we are a member. The politician seeks alibis in the intransigence of the judiciary, the non-performance of the bureaucracy and the hostility of the media. The bureaucracy, when it is not cosying up to the politician, either blames the political executive/judiciary or outdated procedures and rules. The media relishes hauling the executive over the coals without seeking to understand the complexities of policy making and implementation. And, of course, the judiciary has extended its reach to virtually telling governments and other agencies how to run their businesses. No one seeks to set their own house in order. How many Ministers at Central or State level have foregone their discretionary powers in dispensing patronage or finalising contracts? None, barring the Union Railway Minister. How many officers have resisted the temptation to bend rules in their last years in service to secure post-retirement appointments? Probably a handful. How many journalists do not seek their mess of pottage in terms of house allotments and foreign junkets? The fingers of one hand may suffice for this. Members of the judiciary are yet to raise the bar of accountability to deliver speedy justice, enforce norms of integrity in their ranks and restore waning public faith in the effectiveness of the judiciary. And the general public has let institutions of governance get away with sub-optimal service delivery levels, adopting the prevailing motto of “each man for himself and the devil take the hindmost.”
In his book on the Mahabharata, the author Gurcharan Das had talked about the impossibility of being good. Our human failings make it impossible for us to stay on the straight and narrow path during the course of our tumultuous lives; even Yudhisthira had to utter a falsehood to get rid of Dronacharya. And yet, the beauty of human existence lies in our attempts to surmount our weaknesses and struggle to attain the noblest expressions of our humanity. Else, we will all be like the citizens of Mohenjo Daro in their open air baths, our nakedness visible for the entire world to see.