Politics, ethics and democracy

Naresh Gupta

Democracy is at stake if the loudest voice counts as the voice of wisdom or when coercive pressures take the place of reason and persuasion

Democracy was never alien to India. In fact, India could be considered to have been the cradle of democracy. The roots of Indian democracy can be traced back to as early as the Vedic age. There was a time when India was studded with republics. Even where there were monarchies, they were either elected or limited. They had to function in accordance with dharma, or the rule of law. Pali texts provide interesting details of how the assemblies of republics in the post-Vedic period functioned like parliaments and followed highly sophisticated procedures. However, the parliamentary system in its modern connotation owes its origin and growth to India’s British connection for some two centuries.

The Indian Independence Act, 1947, provided for the setting up of two dominions of India and Pakistan with effect from August 15, 1947. It was, according to Lord Samuel, “an event unique in history — a treaty of peace without war.”

The Founding Fathers of the Constitution chose the system of representative parliamentary democracy with universal adult franchise. Freedom brings responsibility. Building on the traditions of the national movement, Indian leaders strengthened the foundations of democracy in the country by the manner of their functioning. They gave due importance to the institutional aspects of the democratic system and adhered not only to the forms of democratic institutions and procedures but also the spirit.

From an electorate of around 173 million in 1951 when India went to the polls for the first time under the Constitution, the number of electors swelled to nearly 672 million in 2004. The fair and peaceful conduct of elections periodically with a large turn-out of voters, especially of the rural folk and women, and the participation of all groups with differing ideology and religious faith, is an indication of the acceptance of the framework of the Constitution and the growing political awareness among the people. India is the largest democracy in the world. These elections have demonstrated that the democratic urge is very deep-rooted among the people of India and their faith in a constitutional system of government very strong.

Jawaharlal Nehru was quite amazed at democracy functioning so successfully in India. On the last day of the second Lok Sabha, he could say with some satisfaction on the floor of the House: “Democracy... is the hallmark of India at present. But democracy does not consist of 210 million people voting. Democracy, ultimately, is a way of life, a way of reacting to circumstances, a way of thinking and a way of putting with the things we dislike even. And I think we have done fairly well… and considering the state of the world today when every other day we read bout coup d’ etats in various countries, it is surprising how we have carried on in our normal way.”

If we are to live in peace and happiness, every nation, community, and the individual must envision universal and humanitarian ideals and must strive to practise them in thought, speech and action. Religion and even politics must be founded on moral and spiritual fundamentals. In ancient India, politics was regarded as a branch of ethics. Peace, justice and liberty for all were the prime purposes of politics.

Mahatma Gandhi recommended that politics should be a branch of ethics. While there has been considerable progress on the economic front, there has been regression of the values in the society and devaluation of the institutions.

The expectation at the time of Independence that public men would sacrifice their personal interest for public welfare has not been fulfilled. Mahatma Gandhi did not want the constructive workers, the men and women who had directed the several organisations over the years to remove untouchability, extend basic education, improve food cultivation, develop village industries and encourage hand spinning, to go into power politics. That would, he felt, spell ruin.

Democracy is at stake if the loudest voice counts as the voice of wisdom or when coercive pressures take the place of reason and persuasion. Referring to his tours, especially concerned with the general elections that were approaching at that time, Nehru wrote: “Elections were an inseparable part of the democratic process and there was no way of doing away with them. Yet, often enough, elections bring out the evil side of man and they do not always lead to the success of the better man.”

In his address on October 18, 1951, Nehru laid great emphasis on the importance of the right means to achieve right ends. He said: “... [I]f in our eagerness to win the elections, we compromise with something that is wrong, then we have lost the fight already and it matters little who tops the poll...”

(Naresh Gupta is an Indian Administrative Service officer serving as Chief Electoral Officer, Tamil Nadu.)

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