Saturday, January 13, 2007

If good men do nothing, January 14, 2007

Considering that the year gone by was one of our best, it is dismaying that Indians continue to be so down on politics. 2006 was the fourth successive year of unprecedented prosperity. India emerged on the global stage, and its arrival was hailed in part by the Indo-U.S. treaty, which finally de-hyphenated it from Pakistan. Justice caught up with three murderers of high status who had subverted it with rishwat and sifarish. Many states began to implement the Right to Information Act. And the new SEZ policy raised hopes for a true industrial revolution.

Yet Indians continued to believe that their politicians are mostly ugly. For good reason. 25 percent of MPs have a criminal record. In 2006, politicians hit India where it hurt the most. By introducing OBC quotas in education, they cynically continued to divide and rule us, undermining the little excellence that we possess. When they sneaked in the creamy layer, true nastiness was revealed.

It is not healthy for the world’s largest democracy to have such a poor opinion of its political class. It devalues public life. As it is, Indians are mesmerized by the figure of the Renouncer, who stands “tall and splendid, a theatrical figure in ochre robes” as Louis Dumont described the sanyasi. I know too many fine Indians who could make a difference but they refuse to join politics.

Western philosophical tradition also devalued the political life. Plato was the chief culprit. In The Republic, he describes the world of human affairs in terms of shadows and darkness, and instructs us to turn away from it and pursue the sublime life of contemplation. Aristotle, however, tried to redeem politics. The basic fact of human life, he said, is that we are not alone and must learn to live sensibly with others in society. Thus, attending to civic matters was central to his idea of the virtuous life. But Aristotle’s thinking got submerged by the contemplative spirituality of the Christian Middle Ages, until the 14th century when Petrarch found merit in politics, and this marked a transition to the active political life of the Renaissance.

In the 20th century Hannah Arendt attempted the formidable task of rescuing the worldly life from the depredations of philosophy and religion. She had also to contend with Marx, whose politics exalted ‘labour’ at the expense of an equal commitment to all members of society. Communism as practiced by Lenin and Mao did untold harm to the idea of a civic life of mutual respect among equals.

In India, the Gita and later Gandhi rescued the political life. Gita’s notion of karmayoga gave new meaning to the life of the ordinary householder, who has to make a living, look after his family, and live as a citizen in society. Gita tells him to live in this world selflessly with the renouncer’s “attitude”. It’s ideal of a “secular ascetic” was a fitting reply both to the rituals of the Brahmins and the Renouncer’s life.
We find it easier today to nostalgically admire vanished heroes of an earlier generation who had fought for freedom. But the practice of democracy continues to require the same heroic qualities. Decent Indians need to look into their hearts and take the plunge before criminals completely swamp our politics. If the best shun politics, they will leave it to the worst. All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing, Edmund Burke reminds us.

1 comment:

Sabarish said...

My dad has been into literacy campaigns for more than 10 years. I know how dedicated he is and how dedicated his friends are. They have the heart to serve people (at the expense of their own family life), the very same heart that is missing in many of our politicians and government machinery. But then when i ask him why no good men like him and his friends consider politics, he just stayed silent and moved to a different topic.

I think they are afraid of losing their peace of mind.