BAREFOOT Harsh Mander

End of idealism

A still from 'Satyakam'.  

Independence Day each year is a good time to pull out my personal thermometer and evaluate the mood of our country.

This year I find a mood of optimism among people of privilege and aspirational privilege, but sadly little idealism. Their hopes are of a revived economy, which will yield better jobs and more individual wealth. But these dreams mostly exclude millions still trapped in impoverishment and want. Even less do they worry about the vast public moral decline: a political, bureaucratic and business class joined at the hip making great fortunes based on injustices to nature and working.

I look back on an old film that wonderfully captures the time in our collective life as a nation when idealism began to die — Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s philosophically-complex Satyakam.

Set in the relatively idealistic years just after Independence, it tells the story of a fiercely honest government official, who is not only uncompromisingly honest but also fights corruption among his peers and official superiors. What is fascinating about the narrative is that it shows the honest man not prevailing, but isolated, bitter and falling to ruin as the result of his principles, whereas his more ‘flexible’ peers prosper. Most chronicles on good and bad show the good to ultimately prevail and triumph. This account is a rare exception, because the life of the honest officer disintegrates into shambles. His fate indicates that, in the real world, choosing to do what is ethically right may not just block access to wealth, career growth and well-being, but may also cause suffering, persecution and loneliness.

In the end, knowing he is going to die and leave his wife and son penniless, he agrees to take a bribe for the first time in his life. But it is his wife who opposes him. In this act of his wife’s refusal — choosing to live penniless after his death rather than allow him to compromise on his lifelong convictions — his life gains meaning, and he dies satisfied.

In the first generation of the civil services, which included also my father, it was not unusual to encounter officers in the mould of Satyakam’s character: fiercely uncompromising, unshakeably honest, modest in lifestyle and driven by public service.

By the time I joined the civil service, 33 years had lapsed since Independence, and the numbers of Satyakams had significantly dwindled. Today they are even rarer, and are no longer regarded as heroes but cranks. This is not the fault of the young recruits themselves. I address almost every new batch of civil servants in their training academy in Mussoorie; every time I encounter a hall crowded with faces shining with idealism and hope. But the government systems that they encounter are so cynical and self-serving that most except the most heroic get sucked rapidly into these.

The meaning of corruption has also altered dramatically with the passing years. The protagonist in Satyakam is furious when his wife pulls a chair from his office into their bare sitting room to seat a guest. He offends an old friend because he refuses to leave office five minutes early to meet him after many years because personal work cannot be allowed on official time. And he shuns the company of wealthy businessmen.

In neo-liberal times, the idea of good government has changed dramatically from the defence of the poor and the weak, to success in attracting large business investment. In this new imagination of government, cultivating the company of the super-rich is no longer perceived to be corruption but is, instead, nation-building. The country is in the throes of spectacular levels of crony capitalism, and big business has found numerous ways of winning favour of public officials, not just through mammoth illicit cash transfers, but by many creative ways ranging from supporting the education of their children in the best foreign universities, to all-expenses-paid foreign holidays.

The newfound middle-class activism against corruption is schizophrenic because, unlike the poor who are only victims of corruption, the middle classes are not just victims, but also willing participants and beneficiaries of corruption. Popular philosopher Michael Sendel warns of the consequences of our transition from a market economy to a market society, in which social relations are valued using the narrow currency of profit and loss. I see an equal danger as a country, which is still home to every third impoverished person in the world, moves into what I can only describe as a market state.

No wonder then that I feel such great nostalgia today for the foolhardy idealism of the public official in Satyakam — prepared to place at stake and indeed sacrifice every reasonable personal benefit for the defence of what is true, just and good.

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Printable version | Jun 16, 2021 8:20:48 AM |

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