Monday, November 29, 2004

Draupadi's question

Times of India, Nov 28, 2004

Every Indian child knows that Yudhisthira loses everything--his kingdom, his brothers, himself and even his wife, Draupadi-- during the epic game of dice in the Mahabharata. Duryodhana then orders Draupadi brought to the assembly to humiliate her. She refuses and sends the messenger back to find out if her husband lost her first or himself. The implication is that if he had lost himself first then he was no longer free and couldn’t stake her. Draupadi’s prashna unsettles everyone in the assembly. It forces them to think about dharma, about right and wrong, and who has the authority to decide this. This is the central theme of the Mahabharata. They confront too the Faustian question about what it means to wager one’s soul, says Alf Hiltebeitel in his admirable book, Rethinking the Mahabharata: a Reader’s Guide to the Education of the Dharma Kings.

Draupadi has been on our minds recently ever since the Congress spokesperson compared her to the equally defiant Uma Bharati, who walked out of the BJP conclave just before Diwali. Draupadi’s question is relevant to our governance as well, and why so many public servants behave as badly as the Kauravas. Manmohan Singh knows this only too well, which is why he keeps promising that improving governance is his first priority. Well, the nation waits, and impatiently, to hear how he is going to redeem his promise.

What makes Draupadi’s question admirable is her concern for dharma, for doing the right thing. There will always be nasty types--Shakuni, Duryodhana, Duhshasana—but good institutions are designed to punish them and to reward decent behaviour. Why then does the opposite happen so often? To find out, read Arun Shourie’s new book, Governance and the sclerosis that has set in. Each day we look to the government for justice, for solving our basic problems, but insolent bureaucrats respond by cloaking these behind miles of red tape. Instead of attending to us, Shourie recounts how 4 departments took 12 months of endless meetings to decide if an official may use green or red ink in place of the usual blue or black for noting on a file. He gives new meaning to Franz Kafka’s bureaucratic nightmare, and one official I know hung his head in shame and wept after reading the book.

Similarly in the epic, no one answers Draupadi’s question. The most moral Yudhisthira--incapable of telling a lie yet addicted to gambling--he remains silent. Vidura, a most sympathetic character, also endangers dharma when he doesn’t speak up. The good Bhishma gets away by proclaiming that dharma is subtle (sukshma), and hence not easy to know. True, it is often difficult to tell right from wrong. This difficulty seems to hang over the entire epic, and Yudhisthira is still trying to fathom it till the end. This is also why I prefer the Mahabharata--it is about our lives, about good people acting badly. The Ramayana, on the other hand, is tiresome—an ideal king, his ideal wife, his ideal brother, ideal subjects; even the villain is ideal, says Iravati Karve.

A few weeks ago I warned Mr. Chidambaram, our finance minister, that his excellent work in policy reform might come to nought by the bad behaviour of a few income tax, customs and excise officers. Hence, I pleaded with him to devote his considerable talent and energy to improving systems and processes in his revenue departments, and bring more transparency in the citizen-official interface. As for our officials—they too should stop and ponder over Draupadi’s question, over dharma, each time they plan to entangle us in their red tape.


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Dr. Health said...

The good Bhishma gets away by proclaiming that dharma is subtle (sukshma), and hence not easy to know.

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