One of the most instructive stories I have read about democracy comes from 1865. Just to place the date in context, America had just saved the Union from a civil war; Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated; Paris was in turmoil; the fabulous Ottoman Empire was rotting at the roots; and Delhi was still a ghost capital, being punished for the temerity of having risen against the British Raj. Only America, with partial franchise, and Britain, with limited franchise, could claim to have governments which were accountable to civilian audit in the form of elections.
John Stuart Mill, the British philosopher, was an independent parliamentary candidate for Westminster that year. He was campaigning to extend the franchise to the working class. He was making his pitch before an audience when someone entered the hall carrying a billboard. On it was a quotation from Mill’s Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform: “The lower classes, though mostly habitual liars, are ashamed of lying.”
The proverbial thunderbolt had interfered, and it could have left the candidate dead. He was asked, had he written those words? Mill paused, but for only a second. “I did,” he said. There was another pause. And then audience erupted, applauding, clapping, whistling, and stamping their feet in approval. Their leader, George Odger, cheered Mill with a classic remark: “The working class had no desire not to be told of their faults; they wanted friends, not flatterers.”
Friends, not flatterers. If you emptied Delhi of flatterers and limited the political-bureaucratic ruling class to friends, the city’s population would come down by 99%. It is pertinent to note that Mill got elected. The point of the story is not the honesty of the intellectual, but that of the working class. The electorate would have punished a lie. Obviously, not everyone was blessed with such virtues, but you have to be blind not to recognise the value system that made Britain, a nation of shopkeepers [Napoleon’s phrase], into the 19th century’s pre-eminent superpower.
They had a word for it, character. Character was a moral asset that combined honesty and loyalty to a fellow citizen or comrade-soldier. It is a reflection of contemporary morality that we have changed the meaning of the word. Today a character is either a chap with a tic in his metabolism, or a role in fiction, film or television. From a truth, character has changed to artifice.
The front page of every newspaper in Delhi provides daily testimony to the fact that Indian power politics is about flattery, which is why loyalty has overlapped completely with obsequiousness. The sycophancy may be marked in Congress, but other parties are hardly immune. A new low was reached when two newly appointed ministers in Jammu and Kashmir showed their gratitude by prostrating themselves at the feet of the party president, Mrs Sonia Gandhi. They did not ask her permission, clearly embarrassing her. At least the sycophancy was secular: one minister was a Hindu and the other a Muslim. Mayawati routinely demands cringing obedience from those hapless enough to have taken a favour from her, and uses humiliation as a political tool. Stories from the South are worse.
Such political culture does not encourage honesty. The fraud at Satyam is not a mere economic offence. It is also a political offence. Satyam is a Hyderabad story. Crooks who steal shareholders blind cannot do so without political patronage. Bankers – some of whose hypocrisy is matched only by their pomposity – hand out huge amounts in the full knowledge that the money is going to be stolen by promoters they cozy up to. The kickbacks are substantial, because the first principle of dacoity is that there has to be equitable (if not equal) distribution of the spoils. The slicing order of the stolen cake is this: company promoter takes the biggest chunk, politician gets the second bite, and banker nibbles at the third.
Andhra Pradesh is rife with thuggery. There is one business group which claims a Rs 1,800 crore turnover in steel. It has only one small problem. It has no steel plant. A second company has got contracts for irrigation projects from the Andhra government worth Rs 15,000 crores, but has a working capital of only Rs 55 crores. Do the math, and you know that there are ghost projects hovering all over the state. Another company in the same racket (co-owned by a ruling politician’s son) has Rs 12,000 crores worth of projects on its order books and a working capital limit of only Rs 50 crores from a nationalised bank.
You might ask, legitimately, why newspapers do not expose this odious stink. The price of independence is high. When the chairman of the Eenadu group, Ramoji Rao, refused to be Andhra chief minister Rajashekhar Reddy’s lackey, the state government went after his businesses with vicious ferocity. Every instrument of coercion in the state government, the union finance ministry, the registrar of companies, the income tax department and even the Reserve Bank of India, was used against Ramoji Rao’s Margadarsi Financiers. When this did not break Rao, bulldozers were sent to demolish permanent structures in his Ramoji Film City on the excuse that they were built on land assigned to weaker sections. Quite clever, that: not only does Rajashekhar Reddy bludgeon the media, but he tries and milks it for votes as well!
The currency of political discourse has also been devalued. Confronted with a billboard today, the politician would have issued a press statement claiming that he had been misquoted. Misquoted in his own book? Yes, of course; the printer did it. What he had actually written was, “The lower classes, though mostly never liars, are always ashamed of lying.” It was obvious that the printer was in the pay of the Opposition.
But there is some hope. Corruption is the most venal sin in the checklist of the voter. Politicians might think that they have hidden the evidence by muffling or strangling the media. But you can fool all the voters only some of the time. Word travels, if not through print and audiovisual, then through the air, borne by the tongue. There is some evidence that no politician can erase: when there is theft, something has to be stolen, and in the case of irrigation projects it is the fact that there is no water where there should have been water for the farmer. Equally, the message is going out that those chief ministers who are clean will get re-elected.
Our saving grace may be simply this: greed for power will trump greed for money.
Indian politics is full of characters without character. The voter with a billboard is checking them out.