Feudal democracy

The PM or other high officials in the UK do not have car flags or red beacons. In India politicians and bureaucrats officially enjoy this privilege.

Before Independence there were two Indias — modern and feudal India. British India comprised 11 provinces and Native India, as the British called it, 500-odd princely states. The same individual wearing two hats was the supreme authority for both — governor general for the provinces and viceroy for the states.

The British exploited our country and committed atrocities as at Jallianwala Bagh, but the Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence they introduced provided equality under the law. They relentlessly pursued their imperial goal but individuals did not indulge in personal aggrandisement. The states were steeped in feudal ethos. They were considered the personal property of the ruler and his subjects dare not question his whims and extravaganza.
Provincial autonomy was introduced in 1937 with provinces having elected Prime Minister (now designated chief minister). The son of the Prime Minister of Bihar and I were in the same class at school. He failed in his examination and lost a year. No special consideration was shown or demanded for him. Over two decades after Independence, the wife of a Bihar chief minister expressed her desire to have a Ph.D. Overnight a thesis was written on her behalf and the vice chancellor of the university within days came to her house to present the degree. An incident that occurred in my days at school, in a princely state, is worth recalling. Sir Ali Imam was a national figure who had been the law member of the viceroy’s executive council, equivalent of today’s Union minister for law. He was held in high regard by all, including the British. His Exalted Highness the Nizam of Hyderabad (other rulers were only His Highness) was the leading potentate in the country. He ruled over a state as large as France. He was also the richest man in the world. He invited Sir Ali Imam to be his Prime Minister on a salary much higher than that of an executive councilor. Sir Ali accepted the offer and went to Hyderabad.
But he found the feudal culture prevailing there very unpalatable. The Nizam would not even offer him a chair during audience. He would address him in a very derogatory manner saying “Abe Ali, idhar aa” (You Ali, come here). Sir Ali Imam resigned and came back to Patna. The saying doing the rounds in Patna was “Khafa hue hazrate Nizam, laut ae Sir Ali Imam” (The exalted Nizam got annoyed and Sir Ali Imam came back). Half a century later, as ambassador in Nepal, I saw feudal culture in vogue there as well. I had won King Birendra Shah’s confidence and had put in my bit to persuade him to restore democracy. Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, a senior member of Nepali Congress, was released from prison and appointed Prime Minister. He told me that the King would not offer him a chair during audience and would address him as “tum” instead of the polite “aap”. This had been the tradition in Nepal for centuries. Mr Bhattarai urged me to convey to the King that he should change with the times. I politely mentioned this to the King. The next time Mr Bhattarai had an audience with the King, the latter offered him a chair but spoke to him in English. The word “you” in English, stands for both “tum” and “aap”. The Nepalese press wrote that the King spoke to the Indian ambassador in Nepali and to the Prime Minister in English.
Our freedom fighters who came to power after Independence were stalwarts who upheld high values. Jawaharlal Nehru was devoted to laying the foundation of a modern democracy in the country. He would get very angry if anyone tried to touch his feet. He considered that a show of servility. He maintained that he was the first “public servant” of the nation. He respected the majesty of Parliament and unfailingly attended all its sessions. Politics was a profession of sacrifice and service. There used to be no hoardings or advertisements to eulogise the leader. Ostentation was shunned. Dynastic rule did not exist. Sycophancy had not surfaced in public life. Nehru may have nursed political ambition for his daughter, whom he made president of the party in his later years, but she was not given any role in governance. More than any Prime Minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri epitomised political morality.
With Indira Gandhi coming to power, the grammar of polity changed. Relentless pursuit of power for dubious goals with no consideration for moral values became the order of the day. Dynasticism was practised blatantly and sycophancy became rampant. The reverse march to feudalism had begun. Although this process started in the Indira era, it had not reached the humongous proportions as it has now reached. The weddings of Indira Gandhi’s two sons were simple family and friends affairs, out of media glare. We now see weddings of progenies of political leaders, whether in power or in Opposition, organised on a most lavish scale, emulating the style of the princely rulers of yore.
Dynasticism has spread from the first family at the Centre to different political parties. In some states father and son work together as chief minister and deputy chief minister respectively. In one case, a virtually illiterate wife succeeded her husband as chief minister. Pedigree has become the passport to high political positions. Chief ministers hold janata darbars in feudal style to listen to individual grievances. Security is an excuse to display trappings of power. Ruling political families are treated like royalty. The ruler’s son-in-law holding no official position is extended security privileges at airports, initially not available to Service Chiefs. From being a profession of sacrifice and service, politics has become the most lucrative profession with hereditary benefits. Our legislators become millionaires overnight. The Prime Minister or other high officials in the UK do not have car flags or red beacons. In India we have political leaders, bureaucrats and many others officially enjoying this privilege. Now there is a demand for all MPs to have red beacon on their cars. The arrogance of power displayed by political rulers and bureaucrats surpasses what obtained in the colonial era. A common man going to a government office is made to feel small and finds it difficult to get his work done unless he greases palms or has political connection. Regional political parties have begun to call the shots and hold the Centre to ransom, like subedars during late Mughal rule.
We must get out of the feudal quagmire in which we are stuck to fulfil the vision of the founding fathers of our Constitution and emerge as a modern vibrant democracy practising high moral values, in keeping with our past traditions.

The writer, a retired lieutenant-general, was Vice-Chief of Army Staff and has served as governor of Assam and Jammu and Kashmir

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