April 12, 2013

Relevance of Satyagraha today

It would be more empowering to recognise the freedom of the people, and encourage them to find their own solutions.

Politics must have a moral foundation. However, it is difficult to deny that in the last few years, moral authority of the political leadership has declined substantially. It should not be a surprise that the legitimacy of the democratic institutions is also being questioned.

Moral authority stems from one’s credibility, competence and confidence. Confidence in oneself, and confidence in those who are being rallied around. Confidence in the ordinary citizens ability to rise to the occasion, and meet the high moral standard expected of them. It is only then that political leaders can lead from the front.


Without that moral credential, leadership inevitably loses its appeal and authority, sermons instead of inspiring the audience become hypocritical. With weakening legitimacy, the institutions too begin to lose their credibility. Consequently, the law too loses its ethical underpinning and therefore its larger social appeal and acceptability. As a result, law is seen as a mere instrument in hands of law enforcers, to be used in any which way. In such an environment, harnessing police power of the state to enforce the law, is only seen as a ploy of the powerful, to protect their own interest, rather than an impartial system rooted to the spirit of justice and morality. Hence the degeneration of the moral authority of the political leadership, undermining the fundamental ideals of “rule of law” and “equality before the law”, are almost an inevitable social regression.

Such a situation where breaking the law has generally become the norm rather than the exception, calls for civil disobedience- to protest against what are perceived as unjust laws or regulations- may act as a dual edged sword. It may further undermine the sanctity of the very idea of the “rule of law”. Or the proponents of such a campaign, through their moral standing and social-political leadership, may help bring the focus back on the essential ethical aspect of rule of law in the popular domain.

The newly formed Aam Admi Party (AAP), led by Arvind Kejriwal, has called for civil disobedience. It has urged the people, particularly the poor, to refuse to pay what they perceive to be inflated bills for electricity and water. The AAP believes that allowing private companies to provide public utility services, has led to corruption, and contributed to higher than necessary tariffs which has amounted to defrauding the public.

The AAP wants to build awareness around this issue, mobilise public opinion and build pressure on the government to rethink its policies. Kejriwal has been on an indefinite fast, which started on 23rd March 2013, to stress his point. This protest rather than making a direct demand to the organs of the state, is seeking to mobilise wider public opinion against the unfair and corrupt practices in public administration and failure of governance. But in democratic India, with periodic elections, citizens do get an opportunity to hold their elected representatives accountable. Therefore, there is a qualitative difference between civil disobedience during colonial rule, when the population had no institutional mechanism to hold the colonial administration accountable.

Gandhi gave a new political meaning to the idea of civil disobedience during India’s freedom movement. The word preferred by Gandhi was Satyagraha –– the quest for truth. Apart from the historic and institutional differences between India under colonial rule, and India as the world’s largest democracy in the world, there are structural differences between civil disobedience and Satyagraha. Civil disobedience is aimed at an external agency such as the government, rulers or an imposed law, for which there may be no institutional or politically acceptable mechanism for redressal such as free and fair elections and independent judiciary. Civil disobedience, therefore, is primarily an attempt to delegitimse the organs of the state and its laws before the public.

Satyagraha, as Gandhi stressed, was not aimed at any external agency or person. It was primarily an effort at self-understanding and bearing the price for self-deprivation and suffering that may follow. Gandhi in the Non-Cooperation Movement in the 1920s, did not demand that the Government stop import of foreign goods, but wanted the people to voluntarily give up such goods. Likewise, in the 1930s, during the Salt Satyagraha, against unjust tax on salt, Gandhi urged people to publicly break the law by making their own salt. There were the inevitable political dimensions to all these movements in terms of defying and opposing the British colonial rule. But it would be a folly to ignore the more fundamental aspect of Gandhi’s moral ideals and leadership- that of cleansing oneself, and developing the capacity to take the decision at the individual level. Swaraj to Gandhi was not merely self rule in the political sense of independence from the British, but good governance, and more importantly good citizenship- self rule at the individual level.

For any political reforms to be successful, the methods that Gandhi adopted continue to be relevant. During the tumultuous mid-1970s in India, with civil and political rights suspended, freedom of expression curtailed, opposition leaders imprisoned, and elections postponed, there was perhaps no option but to call for civil disobedience. Thankfully, the issue was decided at the ballot box, thus avoiding a possible civic collapse.

The AAP’s campaign against alleged inflated electricity and water bill, could be carried out in a number of ways. If corrupt practices in the utilities were being suspected, then the evidence could be provided to the regulator or anti-corruption agencies. The evidence could also be taken to a court of law seeking a proper investigation under the supervision of the judiciary. If the existing policies are thought to be breeding corruption, an alternative set of policies could be proposed to policy makers and administrators. The issue could, of course, be taken to the people, as part of a political campaign against the existing policies.

With the avenues for advocacy, awareness campaign, legal recourse, and political action available to anyone or organisations seriously interested in their particular issue or idea, it is worth deliberating on the validity and utility of a call for civil disobedience, particularly breaking the law by not paying the utility bills. Even if one accepts the problem of inflated electricity bill, one could perhaps draw some lessons from the experience of Satyagrahas from the days of Mahatma Gandhi. Satyagrahis were expected to voluntarily deny themselves the goods or services that they do not agree with.

On the other hand, in the Salt Satyagraha, Gandhi opposed the salt monopoly and unnecessary tax, by calling people to make their own salt. Millions across the country heeded that call. The campaign’s political success lay in the sense of empowerment it created among the people by providing a simple yet very powerful illustration of their own productive potentials. This, together with the symbolic defiance of the British law on salt, generated political awareness and mobilised millions. It forced even the British to realise that the threat to their rule did not come from the avoidance of the tax, but from the prospect that a very significant section of the Indian population may get the social and political confidence to defy the colonial rulers. Gandhi’s political strategies typically rested on his belief in people’s ability to rise to the occasion. And the people generally responded by recognising his moral authority and leadership.

On the question of electricity tariff, as in case of salt during Gandhi’s Satyagraha, there seems to be a range of options available to the leadership of the protests movement, and the people. For instance, instead of refusing to pay the electricity bill, the protesters could voluntarily refuse to consume electricity provided by the utility companies. Thereby demonstrating their total commitment to the cause just as the boycott of foreign goods during Gandhi’s days. Gandhi had shown how people could make their own salt. Today, technology allows a range of options to people to generate one’s own electricity, from gensets and batteries, to solar and other renewable sources. More importantly, the Electricity Act of 2003, allows bulk consumers of electricity to directly purchase their electricity from any generating company. The electricity, so contracted, could be transmitted over the transmission network by paying the wheeling charges.

In two weeks of campaign, AAP claimed to have attracted 1 million signatories to the petition against inflated electricity bills, and pledged not to pay them. Mr Kejriwal and his colleagues might consider leveraging this demand, to negotiate with electricity generators in any part of the country for a short or long term contract, at a mutually acceptable price. They could then approach the transmission company and the local electricity regulator to allow the electricity to be transferred to the respective distributor companies and to the consumers. If the consumers are able to access the electricity producers directly, then the monopoly nature of the local distributor company would be greatly undermined. This will stimulate competition among generators and distributors, reduce the possibility of corruption, and bring benefit to the consumers.

Instead of calling for a pledge not to pay electricity bills, it would be far more empowering to recognise the freedom of the people, and encourage them to find their own solutions. More importantly, by actually showing how change is possible, they would demonstrate the power of true Satyagraha. Such a change will then not be restricted to electricity or to Delhi, but the wind of change may sweep across the country. It is only by such positive actions can one hope to revive morality in politics, recognise people as moral agents, and begin the journey to reclaim the country for which the Mahatma and countless others had given their life to.

Satyagraha will remain relevant as long as human societies exist. The only question is whether we as citizens are able to grasp its essence, apply it in our own lives, and live up to its ideals. We have to be the change we want to see, and we can.

Photo: Danny Howard

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