April 19 , 2021
We need an electorate which is impartial, independent and intelligent. If the electors do not interest themselves in national affairs and remain unconcerned with what goes on in their midst, and if they elect men with whom they have private relations or whose aid they need for themselves, this state of things can do no good to the country. On the contrary, it will be harmful.
Mahatma Gandhi, Young India, June 9, 1920
Corruption will go when the large number of persons given to the unworthy practice realize that the nation does not exist for them but that they do for the nation. It requires a high code of morals, extreme vigilance on the part of those who are free from the corrupt practice and also have influence over corrupt servants. Indifference in such matters is criminal.
Mahatma Gandhi, Harijan, February 1, 1918
Much before the idea of Indian democracy began taking shape, Bapu had warned people of potential pitfalls. He realised that the addiction to power and the lure of immoral practices accruing from it would be difficult to resist. So, he started reminding the electorate about its responsibilities. He realised that the health of a democracy is dependent on the moral and ethical health of the individual, and so his sole advice about elections was not addressed to candidates or parties but to electors – we, the people.
Although he said it in 1920, it feels as though Bapu was talking about the situation today. How elections are fought and how we – the electorate – are a major contributor to what ails our democracy today and the absolute corruption – ethical and moral – of the electoral process. If the bribe givers are to be blamed, those who have begun treating elections as opportunities for personal benefits are equally to blame.
On many occasions, after Indians were given partial autonomy and allowed to elect governments for provinces, Bapu warned people’s representatives to not fall for the lure of the perks of power, both legitimate and illegitimate, but soon realised he was fighting a losing battle. So, he thought of creating an honest and ethical electorate but we betrayed him even more spectacularly than the politicians. By the time we became independent and established as an ‘electoral democracy’, the rot had set in too deep.
Corruption stronger than democracy?
Since independence, India has grappled with corruption; it continues to do so even under governments that grabbed power on the plank of eradicating it. It has been proven that in Indian politics corruption is something one resists only when one does not have the ability to indulge in it. Since elections are the paths to power, they are manipulated by the corrupt to stick to power and by those who want to grab it to get on the gravy train. But, as Bapu warned, corruption thrives because the electorate has also become a commodity; it too has abdicated its duty towards the nation and powers the corruption engine as its fuel.
Although it has been prevalent from the time elections were held even in colonial India, in recent times the corruption of ethics and morality has permeated every segment of society.
Initially, it was the lollipop of reservations that was expertly used to lure voters – the extension of a timebound mechanism of social engineering to bring about equality envisaged by Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar. The electorate fell for it.
Ethical corruption was practised by the formulation of vote banks and their cultivation by political parties. To make this more efficient, caste divisions were perpetuated and amplified. The culmination of such divisive opportunism was VP Singh using the Mandal Commission card to cling to power. But none of these would have worked had the electorate been ethical and moral and not venal and greedy. The rationalisation of collective greed was: “If they enrich themselves on the basis of my vote, why should I not exploit its potential to enrich myself?” This is how corruption thrives.
Gandhi spotted it early
This is what Bapu had warned against as early as 1920. He realised that in a fractured community such as ours the divide-and-rule strategy would be used with much more devastating results by Indians themselves than it was ever used by the British. Independent ‘democratic’ India has proven him to be spectacularly correct.
Once the era of charismatic, vote-magnet leaders waned, the path to power was to exploit the venality of the electorate. One glance at party manifestos shows how packed they are with bribes, not to mention the cash that is distributed clandestinely.
In recent times, the process has been further corrupted by money power. Look at the astronomical spends by parties and how the electorate is dazzled by the vulgar display of wealth. It illustrates how we want to be represented by candidates who monetarily invest in the business of politics, rather than those who fight elections ethically and honestly. In two Assembly elections during the COVID-19 pandemic, the vaccine was offered as a bribe for votes. These succeed because there is a lack of ethics amongst politicians but there is an unrestrained venality amongst the electorate too. The greed for power thrives on it.
We let ourselves down
Bapu assumed that the only way to defeat the demon of corruption was to create an incorruptible electorate. But, just as political descendants betrayed him, the greater betrayal was by those for whom he toiled all his life.
Today, hate has become as successful a lure in elections as wealth and bribery. Hate-filled campaigns have become essential ingredients for electoral success. The Narendra Modi era is an example of the politics of hate. It has become much more successful in ensuring electoral success than all other corrupt electoral practices. Every election Modi has won has seen the escalation of this campaign of hate.
Other parties are rapidly succumbing to it. The recent campaigns in West Bengal and Assam, Kerala and Tamil Nadu were rife with divisiveness. Hate has become a contagion more deadly than COVID-19.
There is a saying in Gujarati: “Lobhi hoy tyan dhutara fave.” It means: “Where there are the greedy, self-seeking scoundrels thrive.” Indian electoral democracy has proven this to be true – spectacularly.
As we slip towards electoral autocracy, we must realise that the situation is of our own making. We, the basic and most vital unit of democracy, are venal.
Democracy, disciplined and enlightened, is the finest thing in the world. A democracy prejudiced, ignorant, superstitious, will lend itself to chaos and may be self-destroyed.
Mahatma Gandhi, Young India, July 30, 1931
Bapu believed in the ethicality of the method as much as the result. He practised it all his life. In a democracy, elections are the method and power is the result. When the method is rotten, the result is bound to be rotten too.
Tushar Gandhi, great grandson of the Mahatma, is an activist, author and president of the Mahatma Gandhi Foundation. Reach him here: firstname.lastname@example.org.