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Saturday, December 27, 2003

I am compelled to talk about a strange syndrome that is endemic among the Indian population. The initial symptoms of this disorder are acute:  the heart begins to beat rapidly, tongue gets tied in knots and the victim temporarily loses all intelligence and memory power.   The chronic symptoms are more dangerous: the victim’s spine slowly loses its strength and then disappears altogether; the knees remain permanently bended.  In some extreme cases (seen in parts of Tamil Nadu and Bombay), the victim is simply unable to get up from the prone position (‘saashtanga pranam’).

You must have guessed already:  this disease strikes when ‘ordinary’ people meet the ‘powerful’ or ‘influential’ people.  It could be a President, Cabinet Minister, Chief Secretary or even a DIG - we do not discriminate.  Getting anywhere near 50 feet of them seems to rob us of our individuality, dignity and grace.

If it is any comforting, the ‘pandering-to-power’ disease is also found in other oriental societies, immature democracies and dictatorships.  Just take the case of Saddam Hussain.  Until March this year, he was literally living a life fit for ten kings.  We used to see him on TV with fawning courtiers or delirious crowds chanting his name and extolling his greatness.  What happened to his highness?  A fortnight ago, he was caught like a “mountain rat” from his spider hole where he was hiding.  The ruthless dictator who lived in vulgarly large palaces was caught hiding in a 6-by-8 feet hole in the ground.

And now, every respectable citizen in Iraq is queuing up to condemn Saddam. Many want to see him dead even before his interrogation is completed.  Anything and everything wrong in Iraqi society is directly attributed to his 25 years of dictatorship.   Instead of blaming it all on Saddam, they also need to carefully analyze the systemic reasons for the collapse of Iraqi civil society.

To a lesser extent, we experienced the same phenomenon when past Prime or Chief Ministers in India went out of power.  This is the result of citizens’ incorrect perception of the meaning of ‘power’, especially political power.  We pander too much to those who are in power but do not show even a minimum respect to those who are out of power.  The leaders who are raised to the heavens today are simply condemned once they lose their elections.  First deify; then crucify. First lionize; then demonize.

This tendency to place all the credit or blame on a single politician prevents us from recognizing our strengths and realizing our own responsibilities.  As a result, the citizen’s capacity to influence governance and political affairs is reduced.  Gradually, the link between political power and good governance is broken.  Just look at states like Bihar.

We, the citizens, have to be very clear about our own position vis-à-vis those who are ‘in power’:

1. Political power, in essence, is the capacity to influence change.   Nothing more and nothing less.

2. In democracies like India, the true political power flows from us, the ordinary people.  The elected leaders are there only to implement our agenda.

3. Since we live in a representative democracy, we temporarily entrust our political power to an elected representative.  For example, we entrust legislative power to an MLA or MP for a maximum period of five years through elections.  These leaders are nothing but temporary custodians of people’s power.

I am not suggesting that we show disrespect to those who are in positions of power and influence.  There are many Indians, including politicians, who did not get into such positions by mere good luck. They have worked tremendously hard and served the society.  They took unimaginable risks and dared to stand by their convictions.   Such leaders truly deserve our respect for their sincerity and courage, and our admiration for their vision and leadership.  But, we can always show our sincere respect in a dignified and graceful manner.


Fortunately, the times are changing.  Until recently, most of us were literally terrified of our political leaders. But Indians today are much more knowledgeable and confident.  We are not afraid to speak to our political leaders directly. Since the last few elections, we are seeing very ordinary people question the antecedents and policies of bada netas on TV, in front of millions of viewers.  We have now realized that it is not difficult to assert our constitution-given rights, in a polite and graceful manner.   The leaders are there only to serve us.  The time has come to eradicate the ‘pandering-to-power’ disease from our society.


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