Many years ago, I wrote a piece which I posted on my blog called, ‘Same Chairs, Different Bottoms’. Here it is for those who may not have read it. It is necessarily full of Indian (and Hindi) idiom which is not translatable so I apologize to those who don’t understand Hindi in advance. Also you need to know something of the history of India around 1947 when we became free of the British to appreciate the satire. But here goes.
I was in South Africa in August 2016, just before the Municipal Elections which are a big indicator of the mood of the nation with respect to the party that fought for and got them independence from apartheid, I can’t help but recall sadly our (India’s) own journey down that road. The inability to gain independence of the mind, while we got independence legally from a foreign ruler. It is for this reason that even today in India, a British national has more status, privileges and aura than an Indian, especially an Indian Muslim or Dalit.
The Indian National Congress which was the party that ‘got us independence’ if I may say so, lasted around forty years before it was ousted. Same evils of the euphoria of hubris that the ANC seems to be suffering from; the apparent belief that independence was the destination instead of the reality, that it was the beginning of the journey, even the race. Bringing a nation out of slavery is easy compared to making it own the responsibility of being free. Freedom is in the mind. Not in the law books. Free people behave differently because they believe that they’re the owners. So they don’t steal from themselves, they don’t abuse privilege, they don’t seek to enrich themselves at the expense of the nation.
That’s why in countries like Sweden you have the Prime Minister riding a bicycle to work and nobody even comments. It’s not a publicity gimmick like our Indian politicians do once in a while. It’s normal. Being PM is like being a teacher or a bus driver. All equally dignified and important. But that’s also because Sweden was never a colony, was never subjugated. But countries which have had oppressive governments for generations like South Africa and India have learnt a different equation with the government. India went from monarchy or monarchies to British colonial rule to democracy. Government was always alien. The few with the power to rule the many. To this day we use the term, Modi’s rule, Congress Raj, Collector’s Peshi (means ‘August Presence’…a Mughal Court term, used today for the District administrator). If you used the term ‘rule’ for Stefan Löfven they’d laugh you out of town. The titular ruler of Sweden, which is a constitutional monarchy is King Carl XVI Gustaf who has been King of Sweden since 1973. He is the 74th King of Sweden, and also rides a bicycle normally. He’s a ruler like the British Queen, more a tourist attraction than anything else.
Democracy is supposed to be ‘government of the people, for the people, by the people’. At least this is what we were taught in school 45 years ago. But for this to happen, it is the people who must be educated and who must understand the meaning of ownership and exercise it. So whoever may be the political party in parliament, the power always belongs to the people of the nation who give it to a set of leaders to exercise it on their behalf for their (the people’s) benefit. It is the like the driver of a car. The car belongs to the owner. The driver drives it at the pleasure of the owner, as long as the owner employs him, to wherever the owner orders him and then when his day is over, he gets on his own personal transport and goes home. That is the actual meaning of government and ‘ruling’ party in a real democracy. It would never be acceptable for the driver of the car to take it home or to do with it anything at all without the permission of the owner. The driver will never be the owner of the car no matter how long he drives it. He will always be a driver. And be judged and rewarded on the basis of his driving and the care he lavishes on the car to keep it in pristine order. But today whether you look at the drama that’s called US elections or in UK or in the many other countries including India and South Africa you are looking at drivers whose real intentions seem to be to grab the car and dispossess the real owner.
Free nations have dignity. Self-respect is a characteristic of free people which prevents them from being corrupt. You can’t steal from yourself but when you see yourself as an outsider you can steal from the “Other”. Corruption is a sign that you don’t consider yourself to be a part of the nation.Corruption is treason. It is the most anti-national of acts. It is an act of war on the nation. But in all our countries, it is rampant, accepted, even aspirational. India and South Africa are not alone in this by any means. This seems to be the fate of almost every erstwhile colony which gained independence after a struggle. All are struggling from the phenomenon of ‘Same chairs, different bottoms’. They don’t seem to see the fact that it is the chair which must be changed. The change is not in the bottom which sits in the chair, but the mindset which defines what the chair actually means.
The change is by no means easy. It means that people must elect leaders based on principles, ethics, morals and character; not on tribe, caste or community. It means that leaders then have to behave like elected representatives, not like rulers, kings and queens. It means that they must be scrupulously objective, honest, non-partisan and just. It means that integrity, not anything else, must rule every transaction. It means that there must be no financial, social or other benefit in being a leader. It means that we need to take away every ‘benefit’ that we enjoy today when we are elected to office – yet want to be there only in order to serve.
It means that public servants must reflect, even meditate on the term ‘public servant’ and consciously accept it as their self-concept. They must act like servants of the public, not as their rulers. It means that we must remove all privilege that goes with so-called public service today in countries like India. It means that almost every reason why most people opt for public service today must be removed. Then only those who still want to serve will be there to serve; quietly, unsung heroes whose love will fill the hearts of those whose difficulty they alleviate. It means we need to create a generation which finds satisfaction from drying people’s tears and seeing their smiles.
It means that the public must behave with self-confidence, self-respect and fairness and not demand more than they are due; nor seek privilege over others based on caste, creed, community, tribe or social status. It means that the public must value and want justice, not injustice which they personally benefit from. It means that people must value the law and want to follow it even when it may be painful, because they know that it is good for everyone, including themselves. It means that the law must be superior to people. That crime doesn’t pay, criminals do. It means that if a crime is committed, the criminal will be punished no matter who he or she is. No exceptions. That is the meaning of rule of law and what differentiates a democracy from a dictatorship or feudal rule.
It means that the election process itself must be changed where it is the people who pay, not aspiring leaders. As long as elections involve fund raising by candidates, they will breed, even enforce corruption. Good leadership is the need of the people and we the people must pay to have good leaders. It means that campaigning must be dignified with candidates (and parties) speaking about what they have to offer. Not spend time in maligning and demeaning others. Elections must not be a circus nor a drain on the exchequer. Media must be restrained and report facts and give space to information. Not become the spokespeople for vested interests and peddle propaganda, innuendo and lies in the name of news. Media must be and keep itself free from external influence and be the conscience keepers and champions of the values of the nation. It means that accountability must be objective, absolute and unquestioned.
When we are able to accomplish this then and only then will we be truly free. Only then will we regain our self-respect. Only then will we be able to hold our heads high as a nation that has truly thrown off the chains of servitude. Slavery is in the mind. Subjugated nations become subjugated and remain subjugated because they accept these chains of the superiority of man over man based on external causes; race, position, power, authority or anything else. Equality means to treat yourself as equal to the other – not the other way round. If you say that equality means to treat the other like yourself, you are unconsciously placing yourself at a higher level and feel satisfied at ‘bringing’ the other to your level. That still means you are doing them a favor. So I prefer to describe it as seeing and treating yourself as equal to the ‘other’. In essence, it means eliminating the ‘other’. For in a free nation, all people are citizens; albeit with different responsibilities, but all equal to one another and all accountable to the nation which comprises of all of them.
Fantasy, you say? Well, I am a poor old man. Please indulge me. Or accept the fact that when you are far removed from reality, it looks like fantasy. Searching for justice, equity and dignity in our feudal, patriarchal nations, is the real fantasy. Change it or suffer.
Mirza Yawar Baig is based in Hyderabad, India and is the founder and President of Yawar Baig & Associates; an international leadership consulting organization. He can be reached at [email protected]