Earlier this year, Harish Khare put forth a powerful plea in his article in The Hindu (Editorial page, “Time for house-cleaning in the Congress,” April 4, 2012) — for the Congress to rebuild itself and “find the verve and the energy to live up to its historic role of sustaining the centre.” Anchored in the earnest conviction of Madhu Limaye, the veteran socialist theoretician and an architect of the Janata party regime of 1977-79, and fortified by later experiences, the writer went on to offer practical suggestions for house-cleaning in the Congress. Six months have gone by but the encircling gloom has only worsened and appears well on its way to engulf the Congress in 2014 and plunge the country into chaos without precedent since 1947. Silver linings are few and far between.

Other solutions have come forth from thinking minds including one advocating a modified Kamaraj Plan (Editorial page, The Hindu, Aug. 29, 2012). Predictably enough, these have made virtually no impact in the face of a continuing crisis that escalates with each passing day.

Should we not pause here and hark back to the real resources of our greatness? Fortunately we may not have to wander far afield to seek a way to turn the tables decisively — if only we can grasp the inspiration behind Gandhiji’s parting gift, his last testament. Reproduced in Pyarelal’s Mahatma Gandhi: The Last Phase and many other publications including The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, the document delineates the framework of panchayati raj. But it is to the centrality of Gandhiji’s thoughts, to the spirit behind that which we need to focus on: that the Congress can lay no claim to a monopoly over patriotism and high character.

Responding to corruption

The job of winning political freedom was almost over. Even amidst the Partition conflagration raging on all sides, Gandhiji found time to respond to the first faint rumblings of corruption in the administration. A telling letter from a very old veteran from Andhra (reproduced in Pyarelal’s Mahatma Gandhi: The Last Phase, Vol.II) spotlighted the problem for him. With unerring prescience he could see that the corruptions of absolute power would one day overwhelm the state — and went on whole hog in his uncompromising way to propose dissolution of the 63-year-old Congress and its rebirth as a non-political Lok Sevak Sangh. One needs to pause and try to figure out: was he advocating hara-kiri — or was it a passing thought — or was it a characteristic Gandhian stratagem of stooping to conquer – don’t we remember the occasion when he said he was not even a four anna member of the Congress — and remained its most powerful voice?

Another 64 years have elapsed. Time indeed to grasp the essence of that vision and give it flesh and blood and adapt it to the here and now — the most far-reaching consequence is the recognition of merit, character and calibre outside the ranks of the Congress. This would mean that the Congress should not contest against candidates of outstanding character and calibre belonging to any party.

Steps to be taken

A well orchestrated campaign to underline the sincere quest of the Congress for high character can mean that lesser causes cease to monopolise everyone’s time and attention. Quietly and unobtrusively, yet decisively, the tables can be turned and the national preoccupation with the elimination of corruption turned to advantage and to lead onto an all-embracing and balanced approach.

I would like to outline one possible sequence of steps for immediate adoption:

a. The election manifesto for the next series of State Assembly elections can be issued as early as possible. Traditional election manifestos, usually brought out a short while before the elections, set forth a review of past promises and performance and promises for the future. Inevitably elaborate, in practice, the manifesto tends to become just one more statue put on a pedestal and conveniently forgotten.

b. The manifesto will stand as a powerful document that means business if it lays the utmost emphasis on character and calibre. Elections present an opportunity to renew and strengthen the foundations for probity and honesty in public life. No efforts can be spared in that direction. When we open and reach out to people, there is every likelihood of making remarkable finds and drawing into the net, persons of integrity who have kept aloof and shunned politics. One’s mind goes back to 1940 when Gandhiji chose Vinoba Bhave as the first Satyagrahi in the individual Satyagraha movement launched as a symbol of resistance to imperialist rule and decision to engage India in the war effort without the consent of the Indian people. Spotless character and wholehearted dedication to truth and non-violence were the criteria for the choice. The country took in its stride this transition of the chosen ashramite from near obscurity to centre stage. Veneration for high character is deep set in the Indian psyche — character worship in contrast to success or go getter worship.

c. MLA aspirants (and in due time ministerial aspirants) will be expected to conform to a code of conduct that befits the first servants of the people. They have first to furnish complete and truthful information about their assets and liabilities and those of their immediate relations in a prescribed format. These lists will be made available to the public long before the election. The object is to ensure that all aspirants realise that success confers only an opportunity for service and is not for personal aggrandisement and they are accountable five years hence for any illegitimate acquisitions during their tenure as MLA or minister.

d. If a person of irreproachable integrity offers himself as an independent candidate on his own steam or even as rival party man, the Congress may prefer not to contest the seat. There can hardly be any condition more calculated to elevate the standing and character of future Assemblies. The underlying expectation is that any person animated by high moral principles owes his loyalty not to individuals. His loyalty and devotion run along lines parallel to those of others of his calibre and there is no conflict.

This concept is the closest approximation in practical terms to Gandhiji’s final message to the Congress to convert itself to a Lok Seva Sangh rather than be just one other political party in a democratic set-up. After all, patriotism and high character are no monopoly of the Congress. Past elections have thrown up a few persons of sterling worth from other parties too who believed in plain living and high thinking and rose above the corruptions of office. The very recognition of this idea is bound to ennoble our vision, transform the electoral scene and set a premium on character and image — even if cases that genuinely qualify for unopposed returns after rigorous scrutiny of credentials are few and far between.

The citizen’s right to be heard is paramount. The interpretation of the immediate practical consequence of Gandhiji’s last testament is of urgent topical relevance for our future.

(A.M. Mahmood Husain is a retired civil servant who lives in Chennai.)

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