Gopalkrishna Gandhi was conferred the Lal Bahadur Shastri Award for excellence in public administration, academics and management. The following is the text of his acceptance speech, which has been edited for clarity.
The word ‘politics’ is in trouble. It suggests intrigue, manipulation and rivalry – every conceivable form of it, ranging from simple envy to the most complicated of psychopathic jealousies. In other words, politics has come to be seen as a calling that simple people are wary of and keep a safe distance from.
The word ‘politician’ is in even greater trouble. Today, it conjures a person who is one thing in appearance, quite another in reality. There is a song that goes ‘Naqli chehra saamne aaye, asli suurat chhupi rahey’. A politician may be trusted to forget a favour received by him, but always remember a favour done by him. In other words, a politician today is a person the mirror would rather it did not have to reflect. Not at the start of the day and certainly not after the sun has set.
Siyaasat aaj diqqat mein hai; uski sifat taqliif mein hai. Aawaam kaa aitbaar us par agar aataa hai, to ruktaa nahiin. Siyaasii insaan aaj mushkilii mein hai. Aam log usko apnaa rakhvaalaa samjhte hein lekin rahbar ya rahnumaa nahiin. Log us mein prerana dhundhtein hein, paate hein kuchh aur. Yah afsos kii baat hai, intahaa afsos kii.
(This is more than a pity; it is a tragedy. For, until not long ago, politics meant public service of the highest, most self-denying, self-effacing kind. Those who wanted to be useful to society and earn an honest wage, joined the civil or military services, the magistracy, took up professional careers. Those who wanted to be useful without bothering about earnings, took to political work. Politicians were volunteers in a spontaneous self-conscription for national service. Politics was, almost, a monastic order.)
Politicians once lived unostentatiously, often frugally and never flaunted their wealth, which they had either inherited with dignity or acquired outside politics – through other careers – with honesty.
Above all, politicians had a cause or a set of causes beyond and larger than themselves. Self-interest, self-protection and self-advancement did not occur to them. They stood for selflessness. ‘Stood’, I say that in the past tense.
Khadaa honaa rajnitigyon ko aaj bhii aataa hai, chunaavon mein khadaa honaa, leaderon ke saamne jhat utth khadaa honaa, manch par khadaa honaa, Sansad mein bulaye-na-bulaaye khadaa honaa. Aur haan, adaalat ke kathghare mein khadaa honaa. Lekin paidal chalnaa aaj viral ho gayaa hai. Zamaanaa thaa jub siyaasat apne pairon par chaltii thii. Aaj vah chalti kam hai, chalaatii ziadah hai.
Mostly, politicians do not walk now as much as they move. Literally, in moves and manoeuvres. Just like chessmen, they move adroitly, some with smartness, some moving sideways and then leaping forward, some two steps at a time, displacing the person ahead and moving in the swift sweep of a knight or the slow swagger of a castle. Those who walk one step at a time, are pawns, mere pawns.
The other requirement for politicians, namely, of them being able to talk, explain and persuade is now practised in a slightly different way. They talk to clarify what they have complicated and explain what they have knotted up. And so they also hector and harangue to overwhelm.
Besides that, politics has found a new ally in money. I have said new ally, but that is not quite right. Politics has always needed money – for elections, for publicising its programmes, running its campaigns and for offices. Politics once used money and now money uses politics. That is the difference. It is not as if all politicians are in the clutches of money, certainly not. But the surface density of politicians who are not has become alarmingly thin.
Were it not for Shastriji, the Santhanam committee on corruption would never have been constituted. Today, we must ask in Shastriji’s name and in that of K. Santhanam, why is the Lok Pal eluding us? Why are whistleblowers in danger? Why, to put it differently, is honesty looking for a home?
Politics has always known risks of failure, mainly of defeat and even violence. But today, politics is not just risky, it is full of danger. The politics-money nexus has made it so. Not just those in politics, but also those who question the nexus, are in danger, just look at the number of RTI activists who have been killed. ‘Ask and it shall be given’ has acquired a new meaning.
In this state of our political reality, our siyaasii haqiqaat, I ask myself: would the strong yet gentle, the soft-spoken but utterly clear-worded, the self-effacing patriot of patriots Lal Bahadur Shastri recognise Indian politics today? He would not. And conversely, do politicians in India today – especially the young ones – recognise that soul of probity, dedication and service? They do not. How can they, for he was the very antithesis of Indian politics as they – or we – know it now.
Shastriji knew his India and was thus in Indian politics. Today, you need to know your politics to be in Indian politics. Like the extraordinary Congress president K. Kamaraj, he was trusted, relied on and loved. Shastriji enjoyed the confidence of his times. He was the very personification of vishvaas, of bharosaa and of aiitbaar.
When he told an agitated Tamil Nadu that Hindi would not be imposed on them against their will, Periyar Ramasamy and C. N. Annadurai trusted him. His word was enough. In Tamil, one would say, he enjoyed nambikkai. Being true to one’s word was a quality that marked other Congress leaders of the Gandhi-Nehru-Patel generation as well, and of those outside the Congress in the Left, like Acharya Narendra Deva, P. Sundarayya, E.M.S. Namboodiripad, Jayaprakash Narayan, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Aruna Asaf Ali, Renu Chakravartty, and on the Right like Nanaji Deshmukh, Homi Mody, Nani Palkhivala.
Which is why his exceptional leadership of India through the 1965 war brought to him the spontaneous solidarity of all classes of its people. Shastriji was not spared opposition, but neither did he resent it, nor was he unnerved by it. When Rajaji referred to the concept of autonomy in the context of Kashmir, a Congress leader appealed to Shastriji, who was the then prime minister, to invoke the laws of sedition against the octogenarian leader.
Shastriji gently admonished his colleague, saying “Have you heard of Bertrand Russell? Rajaji is our Russell. Britain will never call Russell a traitor. We cannot call Rajaji seditious.”
Intolerance is not a sign of patriotic strength, but of political insecurity. Dissent, as long as it stays non-violent, is democracy’s proudest expression. Free speech and honest, frank expression of views, whether in politics or administration, or in the conduct of foreign relations, comprise a republic’s true signature.
In a democracy, as it is wrong to expect a single political line to be observed by all, it is also wrong to seek to make robots of bureaucrats and digits of diplomats. Respect is not a protocol to be observed by the calculating mind, but an emotion to be felt in one’s unconditional heart.
Shastriji showed that great as the victory in a just war was, a greater victory lay in a just peace. Even as the lamp of his mortal life went out in Tashkent, his stature found eternal light. President Radhakrishnan, in conferring the Bharat Ratna on Shastriji posthumously, recognised in the Tashkent Declaration a supremely Ashokan moment – Ashokan in its strength, Ashokan in its humanity.
The Shimla Agreement of 1972 took that further into an agreement reached in a new context. More meaningful than Shastriji’s brilliant leadership in the 1965 war and more relevant than his inspired ‘Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan’ thought, was his firm refusal – throughout his political life – to hurl stones, arrows or bullets at colleagues or opponents. He rose sky-high in dignity because he never trampled on the dignity of his fellows. Wanting no one to feel small, he towered great.