A Poker Game

‘Politics and Principles’

Bibekananda Ray

The title is a phrase from Mahatma Gandhi's list of seven 'social sins'; six others are : wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, knowledge without character, commerce without morality, science without humanity, and worship without sacrifice. Of principles, truth is becoming the most grievous casualty. In public perception, like chalk and cheese politics and truth do not mix. Nobody expects truth, all the time, from politicians, be they in, or out of, power; they are not unlike ordinary people who occasionally resort to half-truths and untruths. In the Mahabharat, eldest Pandava Yudhisthir, the son of Dharma, told a lie to win the war. Absolutely truthful person is a myth. Occasional lies do not much harm ordinary people or the milieu they live in, but Iie (and mistake) of politicians in power can be disastrous for the society. That is why, common people expect politicians to be truthful. Great men in politics, like Mahatma Gandhi and Abraham Lincoln, were never perceived as untruthful; in fact, Gandhi titled his autography as 'My Experiments with Truth'. There still are many politicians in every country, who are respected for character, truthfulness and integrity.

In India, political culture began to be diluted during and after the regime of Indira Gandhi (1966-1983). She herself was perceived as not being 'wholly truthful' in justifying the internal Emergency (1975-77) and the excesses on the plea of enforcing discipline, that she and her son, Sanjay committed with the help of the pliant police and State governments. This Draconian rule tarnished her image and hastened her fall from power after the 1977 historic Lok Shabha election and led to her arrest and internment by the Janata government for a day. Gradually, conventional morality also began to be diluted. Corruption in the higher bureaucracy and among politicians had sprouted in the Nehru regime (1947-1964), which acquired the nickname of 'license-permit Raj'. Horse-trading and defection became rampant among unscrupulous politicians. Politics was perceived as the easiest and fastest means to acquire enormous wealth and power, both to do good and evil. A lot of riffraff infiltrated every party and indulged in crimes, related and unrelated to politics. Politics became criminalised and despite anti-corruption laws and a host of deterrent agencies, went haywire. Among legislatures in the Parliament and State Assemblies, a sizeable number were, and are even now, accused for sundry offences, true and fake. How can truth and morality be expected from them, many of whom would otherwise have been behind the bars? The Parliament and the State legislatures, as ever, have many tainted members and of dubious past; the Congress being the largest party, has obviously the largest number of them. As India's Constitution is much too liberal and made launching of new political parties very easy, these proliferated in the last 64 years. On 26th September 2014, the number of parties registered with the Election Commission was 1766; unregistered parties are just 60 less, i.e., 1706. Pre-Independence political leaders of diverse hues differed in ideologies they pursued, but they were not generally untruthful.

The Modi cabinet, in spite of tall promises by him before the historic April-May '14 poll is no exception. His initial slogan of 'minimum government, maximum governance' has yielded under political pulls and pressures to expand the cabinet to 65 members. Howsoever patriotic-sounding, all partner parties and groups in a coalition demand ministerial portfolios, if the biggest party wants to avoid a collapse. A major pre-poll promise that Prime Minister Narendra Modi made in Kolkata during his blitzkrieg campaign is that if his party formed the government in Delhi, it would grant the West Bengal government's sustained request for granting a moratorium, i.e., stay on payment of interest, on the back-breaking loan of some two lakh crore rupees, bequeathed by the Left regime, on which annual interest came to a whopping 26,000 crore rupees. When during a visit to New Delhi, the Chief Minister reminded him of the promise, he showed her the door to Finance Minister, Arun Jaitley who, like his Congress predecessor, P Chidambaram, refused to grant her prayer, reiterating the same reasons as of Mr Chidambaram. Mr Modi had also promised to repatriate illegal immigrants from Bangladesh into West Bengal, Tripura and Assam, but after becoming the Prime Minister has relegated the agenda to the back-burner. West Bengal Chief Minister who dismantled the mighty Left monolith by holding the vision of CHANGE (Parivartan), is often perceived, these days, as deviating from, or diluting, truth. About the Saradha fraud and the aftermath of Khagragarh blast of 2nd October 2014, she is whistling in the dark about her party stalwarts' involvement and her government's connivance, if not collusion. Reports by the CBI and the NIA respectively could be a Waterloo for her. These days, she is perceived as not being truthful and objective, just as, for 34- years until 2011, the Left top-brass stayed in power by the Goebbelsian practice of repeating lies to make them appear as truths.

Before any election, politicians make frantic bids to influence the heads and the hearts of the electorate, so that in the privacy of polling booths their fingers press the symbol buttons of parties. They spend a lot of money, time and energy on mass and street meetings, road-shows, cut-outs, banners, posters, leaflets, flexes and calculated expose of private lives of their rivals only to brain-wash voters. Abuses, character assassination and finding skeleton in the cupboards of candidates have become the stock-in-trade of electioneering. Naturally, in such fusillades, half-truths and lies pay. Rightly a medieval Bengali poet wrote: "one who speaks a lot, per se tells a lot of lies".

While no other age saw such a diversity of political beliefs and revolutions as it is today, people who question the rulers still face their anger and persecution. Has a cartoonist ever been arrested and harassed by police for lampooning a political leader, or a farmer for protesting against rise in fertilizer prices, going up a dais from where the Chief Minister was to address the public? In 1926, the USA and Japan were cool to Rabindranath Tagore when he visited them, for denouncing 'nationalism' that the people and rulers of these two countries were propagating to rouse hostilities that led to the Second World War (1939-1945). In the New Testament, Saint John and Saint Luke left an account of the encounter between the Roman Prefect of Judea, Pontius Pilate and Jesus before he was led to the crucifixion ground at the unanimous demand of the screaming crowd. As Jesus said, "I come into the world ... to bear witness to the truth and all who are on the side of truth listen to my voice",.. Pilate famously replied, "What is truth". (Quid Est Veritas). Thus, it is not easy to define 'truth', but everyone feels, when it is violated.

Although Pilate did not wait to hear Jesus's reply, his question, "What is truth?" reverberated through history. Hindu ascetics say, truth is synonymous with God and should be man's prime search in life. Mahatma Gandhi used to say, truth should be the staple of politics too. In everyday life, if nobody speaks the truth, the society will collapse. The worst thing that can happen to society, Plato memorably said, is to have a "lie in our souls about the things that are". Cynics say politicians just can't help lying; it is well-nigh impossible for them to be always truthful. Politics is like a poker game, where deceit is the rule. The virus is so contagious that the whole societies morphing into a state where truth, morality and principles are no longer prime values. An Upanishad said, "The face of Truth is hidden under a golden lid". The Indian society is resurging with abundant wealth and assets for a few, but none for the majority; this is the 'golden lid' that is hiding Truth. Mahatma Gandhi once said,

"An error does not become truth by reason of multiplied propagation, nor does truth become error, because nobody sees it. Truth stands, even if there be no public support. It is self-sustained. To see the universal and all-pervading Spirit of Truth, face to face, one must be able to love the meanest of creation as oneself. And a man who aspires after that cannot afford to keep out of any field of life. That is why my devotion to Truth has drawn me into the field of politics; and I can say without the slightest hesitation, and yet in all humility, that those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means."

Vol. 47, No. 23, Dec 14 - 20, 2014