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Just one hour a week is the answer to our political discontent

Democracy is as depressing in practice as it is uplifting in theory. There have been so many corruption scandals in the past few years but political parties refuse to learn. In Uttar Pradesh, which always leads the country in bad behaviour, workers of the Samajwadi Party are back to their crooked old ways while they settle scores against Dalits. At the centre, the UPA has pushed through a dreadful food security law via an ordinance in a desperate move to shore up its popularity before the coming elections, knowing full well its potential for fraud and waste.

The new food law comes at a gigantic cost to a nation that cannot afford it. It will not solve the problem, which is malnutrition and not hunger. But it will undoubtedly result in a colossal scam when a large part of the grain mountain is diverted into the black market. Instead of improving delivery of the current PDS system, we have burdened a weak, corrupt institution with a massive new mandate. When institutions cannot implement existing laws, it is madness to create new ones. It only widens the gap between aspiration and performance, damages the nation’s moral character, and undermines the trust between rulers and the ruled.

Anna Hazare’s movement has proven that crowds may awaken people but they do not achieve the goal, and Arvind Kejriwal is discovering that it is not easy to turn a protest movement into a political party. What then is the answer to our democratic discontent? The key lies with decent individuals to move out of the dogged pursuit of material comfort and engage with politics. The right place to begin is one’s neighbourhood. When public spirited individuals engage in the community they help create new ‘habits of the heart’ in society. This was the great insight of Alexis de Tocqueville who wrote, Democracy in America, perhaps the best book on democracy. What impressed Tocqueville about Americans almost 200 years ago is that they were ‘joiners’ and engaged in volunteer activities for a few hours a week. By joining local clubs and social activities, they connected with neighbours. And when neighbours meet, what do they talk about? They discuss the condition of the roads, the schools, garbage collection and so on. Thus, civic life and ‘citizen’ are born.

Between 1947 and 1949 a diverse assembly of deeply principled men and women worked selflessly to create the concept of ‘citizen’ through a fine Constitution. It was one of the great moments in our history. India was blessed with an amazing first generation of leaders who thought of politics as the noblest of endeavours. In the Mahabharata, Bhishma returned from his deathbed to give the same message to Yudhishthira, who wanted to renounce the throne after the bloody war at Kurukshetra. Sixty five years after independence the nobility of politics has been replaced by criminality. The best spurn politics, leaving it to the worst. If decent men and women do not take the plunge, criminals will take over entirely.

What inhibits decent people from entering politics in India is black money and political dynasties. A talented, high minded person will not join a party without inner democracy where merit is not rewarded. Fortunately, a new generation of political leaders has begun to realize that a young India is waking up politically and it will not tolerate the old sycophantic politics of ‘rishwat’ and ‘sifarish’. Political parties will have to learn to value talent the way India’s companies’ do, and a party with inner democracy and meritocracy is bound to gain competitive advantage in the end. Dynasties are thus warned.

All of us struggle to give meaning to our lives. The standard Indian solution is to turn inwards and seek liberation from human bondage through meditation. But there also exists in our tradition the path of action, karma yoga, which means to leave the world a little better than we found it. The answer to our democratic discontent is thus to dive into one’s neighbourhood and assume the duties of a citizen. Don’t worry about the corruption of 2G, Commonwealth Games, or Coalgate. Act instead against the sleaze in our locality. Just one hour a week in the neighbourhood is the best way to reciprocate the compliment that our founding fathers paid us.

Gurcharan Das July 30th 2013

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