Political authority has to go with moral responsibility


Both India and the US go to the polls next year and election campaigns have already started heating up in both countries. As I look at those in power in my country, my mind goes back a few years to when I willy-nilly became a member of my apartment building’s Managing Committee in India.


It is most difficult to get volunteers for such positions. There is just too much work, too much responsibility, with little or no compensation. Despite our initial reluctance and griping, it was surprising how soon we settled down and started relishing our jobs.


There were decisions to be taken, disputes to be arbitrated, financial matters to be determined, maintenance contracts to be awarded and favors to be conferred. Residents rarely attended the meetings where such decisions were taken.


Decisions are easier when nobody cares enough to question them. These were decisions that influenced the daily lives of human residents in just small ways, but even this petty sense of authority seemed to change our personalities. Very soon, the allure of power and influence bred competition and turned managers into politicians. Within months, the committee had become a hotbed of petty but vicious rivalry while the welfare of the homeowners was relegated to the backbench.


Politicians are the same everywhere, whether elected in an apartment building or in a nation.


Absolute power is an impossible concept, for power never considers itself absolute. There is always more power to be attained. Absolute corruption is also therefore impossible. There is always more greed to be satiated. Power and greed are self-generating, self-sustaining. They thrive on themselves, like cannibals eating their own limbs that grow back like fingernails.


Today, all over the world, billions of dollars are spent in electing representatives to our parliaments. Not only do politicians garner unimaginable amounts of money from businesses, but also it is now no longer considered gross to spend the equivalent of a small nation’s GDP on your own election. We have gone one step ahead. Leaders are chosen on their fund-gathering ability. Nobody feels ashamed talking about such things anymore.


The ideal government was not supposed to interfere in business. Today it is the other way around. Businesses invest so much in these representatives that governments function like their subsidiaries.


The government machinery needs more people and money to do much less than it ever did for its citizens.


Governments were supposed to evaluate options and select the most beneficial. Instead there are lobbyists and pressure groups and caucuses, whose effectiveness, more often than not depends, not on the strength and morality of their arguments, but on their proximity to those in power. We accept such professions and such terminologies without a thought.


We have failed miserably in designing our systems of human governance for it has become possible for a handful of individuals to make and implement decisions without reference to the people’s will. Somewhere down the line, we have allowed representatives to cross the line and become politicians instead of administrators.


Citizens too are the same everywhere, in an apartment complex or in a nation.


In 1998, a meager 36 percent of registered voters turned out in the Congressional elections in America and only 51 percent in the 2000 presidential elections. In India, 35% of India’s 625 million registered voters never vote. Almost 220 million people in India don’t care who is elected or what he does.


We have surrendered so much of our own responsibility to our rulers, so much of our own power that we have lost all control. We have taken out accountability and handed over unbridled authority. We do not even expect them to listen to us anymore and answerability is nothing more than a shrug of the shoulders. We have stopped electing representatives; instead we elect leaders. We have abdicated our lives and signed them over to these leaders. We have elected to merely follow.


There are two ways to numb a human being – make his daily life such a struggle for survival that he has no time to care or fill his existence with so much creature comfort that he has no reason to.


We have become like insignificant, inconsequential puddles of rainwater, wanting nothing, going nowhere, content to let our lives evaporate or seep into the ground. We have become so involved in the constricted horizons of our petty lives, so locked in the narrow confines of our daily existence that we don’t care as long as we can get home in time to watch the game on television tonight.


Like charity, political reform too has to start at home. Civic apathy and irresponsible leadership are directly and viciously proportional. More than just a choice, a vote signals vigilance and a large turnout indicates a watchful, involved electorate, something every politician dreads. An angry voter can suddenly become a recall election.


In countries like India, sheer numbers hinder access to leaders. But in highly organized and automated societies like America, the local Senator is just an email or even a phone call away. And yet, this powerful tool remains underutilized.


Unless we snap out of the inertia of privation or the illusion of well-being, unless we carry the burden of our own responsibility, unless we lunge forward and snatch back the power that is rightfully ours, we will continue to be exploited and used, we will continue to be led by these self-seeking opportunists, meekly and loyally, like lambs to the slaughter or rats to the drowning.


I did not last long on the Committee. My disillusionment did. Conscience is a comfortable possession only if its walls are soundproof. In politics, everybody rises to his own level of immorality.