In the days when TV dinners took on a new meaning, when the stories about alleged wrongdoing in the preparations for the Commonwealth Games (CWG) became the meal itself at dinner time in homes across the country, I heard this story. One of the scam accused walks into a swish south Delhi Chinese restaurant with some friends. As they settle down with the menu, diners at tables around him notice who he is. Some shift in discomfort. And then in welling anger. At sharing space with a person who by then, had become the face of corruption in India. Then the unprecedented happens. As a group, the other diners ask him to leave. There is a scene. The management is called in. He is booed out of the place.
The story has the feel of an urban legend (these are usually based on an untrue story which acquires a life of its own) but may be based on some truth judging by the public reaction at the opening and closing events of the CWG. Public displeasure of corruption and the corrupt is a new weapon that middle India is experimenting with tentatively.
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Since it breaks no laws, those who rule can’t really curb it. Did I say rule? But we are a democracy and today is the 62nd Republic Day of India. Are we a democracy or a republic or both? Why do we not have a Democracy Day, instead of a Republic Day? I wish I had asked these questions in school in those drop-dead boring civics classes when one droning civics teacher after another sonorously read out the long definitions of what India was. Textbooks written to compete with sleeping pills made me use short-term memory to mug definitions with the aim of forgetting all the useless stuff 5 minutes after the exam. (Small digression—do you agree that our best teachers were those wonderful ladies who taught English? And that the chemistry and civics teachers compete always for the bottom place?) Civics had no connect with our lives and did nothing to stimulate thought on who we are as a nation.
So what are we? The democracy piece of the definition of who we are says that the majority will “rule” the political entity created. This can work as in a referendum on an issue—where what the larger block of people decide will happen. Or a representative democracy, where citizens elect people to represent them and the party with the largest votes wins and “rules”. The immediate problem with a democracy is that the majority of the population “rules” and minority interests are at stake. Remember when India was transforming from a ruled country towards freedom, the word “majority” and “rule” had religious connotations. That was clearly not going to work, because we chose to define ourselves as secular.
The republic piece of who we are says that the majority will not “rule” but that the source of official power lies in a set of rules, a charter or a constitution. The democratically elected representatives will “govern” (and not rule) according to the charter. In a democracy, for example, the majority (who could be men) can decide that women will not wear trousers or will be veiled. Or that all signboards on shops and malls will be written in the majority language. Clearly, the nation as a republic is a superior entity to the nation as a simple democracy. Which means that we (in the form of our ancestors) chose not to be “ruled” by the majority but “governed” by a set of rules that they collectively decided. When we use words such as “high command” and “ruling party” and talk about being “ruled”, we are accepting the majority rules road. But we are a republic and must be governed by the rules that are written down. Those who are democratically elected are there to make sure that the collective set of ideas on who we are, as written in the Constitution, are adhered to.
The current crop of corruption scandals and the public outcry defines another inflection point in India’s evolution. The doubling of the rate of growth needs a different style of governance. From being ruled to being governed. And if each of us knows how we are defined, the voices raised in protest can get stronger. The class eight civics debates that did not happen in classrooms across the country have cost us. The cost is the current lack of governance and appropriated power by those who “rule”. The future is what we collectively think today. This Republic Day let’s remember who we are as a nation and begin to omit the word “rule” to define those who are there to serve the constitution.
Monika Halan works in the area of financial literacy and financial intermediation policy and is a certified financial planner. She is editor, Mint Money and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org