What Mahatma said on moral hygiene
In Mahatma Gandhi’s worldview, the end never justified the means. In his very first public speech after returning to India, on the occasion of the foundation-laying ceremony for Banaras Hindu University (BHU) on 4 February 1916, he criticised the hypocrisy of those shedding crocodile tears for the poor and living in opulence at the same time. His words were so scathing that many local rajas left the dais in anger.
Annie Besant tried in vain to stop Gandhi, whose words came as sharp barbs and rebuke to practitioners of rhetorical discourse.
Gandhi’s speech did not conform to the norms. He made enemies among India’s elite, who found his conduct quite disgusting and uncouth. Yet Gandhi continued. That was the beginning of a new political culture in which Gandhi led by example. His life was his message. He was unwavering in his commitment to truth and detested even the slightest trace of hypocrisy among his colleagues.
Did he not run the risk of getting marginalised? If there was such a risk, Gandhi never bothered.
Ninety-eight years down the line, Gandhi’s moral legacy in politics has practically become a parody of the hypocrites. Gandhi’s memory is frequently invoked these days to cleanse the dirt and maintain hygiene. It needs to be explored whether or not Gandhi’s idea of hygiene was mere cleaning of physical dirt! His legacy is often invoked selectively to pursue self-serving objectives. How else would one explain the sinister trend in politics of those convicted of corruption getting public adoration? This phenomenon is not sporadic but endemic, cutting across party lines, geographical boundaries and institutional precincts.
Look at the manner in which J Jayalalithaa was implicated in a corruption case after 18 years of stonewalling a legal process. Did her conviction trigger introspection? Far from it, she is emerging as a victim of circumstance and getting unprecedented popular support in Tamil Nadu.
Jayalalithaa’s case is not an aberration but a trend. Om Prakash Chautala, convicted in a corruption case related to the recruitment of 3,000-odd teachers, seems least bothered about the court verdict as he seems to enjoy popular support in Haryana that is going to polls. Though released on bail on health grounds, Chautala thundered, in true Robin Hood style, at a rally last week that he would take oath as chief minister from Tihar jail, where he was lodged earlier.
There is little doubt that his incarceration did not prove to be a moral deterrent for the guilty. He has been using it to generate sympathy. Chautala may emerge as the kingmaker, if not the king himself, after the assembly elections.
The situation is quite similar in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar where those implicated in criminal cases are being masqueraded as saviours. Lalu Prasad, despite his conviction, is the saviour of the Yadavs and Muslims in Bihar, and a messiah of secularism. His conviction endowed him with an aura of victimhood and he retained his support base – a fact that attracted his former archrival Nitish Kumar to forge an alliance with him. In Uttar Pradesh, Mayawati and Mulayam Singh Yadav managed to stave off criminal proceedings against them in corruption cases taking advantage of legal loopholes.
All these cases point to a growing distrust among people with the judicial process, and that is an alarming trend. A convict getting popular sympathy is as much a reflection of the process of law as of the degeneration of society. Obviously, courts mired in controversies and judges questioned on account of misconduct do not evoke the trust they are expected to do. This is precisely why judicial verdicts involving high-profile cases are often looked at with a certain degree of suspicion and scepticism. Such signs are ominous for a free and fair judiciary.
But who will bell the cat? Gandhi could do so, at a place where today a world-class institution stands on banks of the Ganga. He squarely faced criticism and ridicule from his peers in politics. Today those invoking his name at the drop of the hat are seen in the company of convicts and criminals without the slightest remorse. Perhaps nothing could be a greater service to Gandhi than forget him and search for moral moorings in social and public life.
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