Perspectives on Standards in Public Life & Swaraj
Dr Anirban Ganguly

Of late the debate on standards in public life, of probity in public life and of the use and abuse of power in a democratic framework has been occupying the centre stage. While the debate has often developed to no-holds barred level it is nevertheless heartening to see that it is taking place and that too with full gusto and participation from the people and their representatives. Democracy is all about discussion and the freer, more vocal and varied the discussion the more resilient is the texture of democracy. Our founding fathers, leaders of the independence movement, were all concerned with defining and upholding standards in public life, they were concerned about the working out of true Swaraj and quite early into the movement began applying their minds to the issue and to setting the parameters of the debate. A look at some of their thoughts, concerns and observations on the subject may perhaps provide some indicators in the presently surcharged atmosphere and in the animated debate that it has generated.

I. When power outstrips ability…

Jawaharlal Nehru’s, now legendary ‘Tryst with Destiny’ speech on the night of 14th August 1947, was followed by another speaker who had already earned world distinction as a leading Indian philosopher and thinker. Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, while speaking after his high-profile colleague in the Constituent Assembly, made two points that he hoped would serve as pointers to the fledgling republic in the making and its first batch of leaders. He saw great opportunities before the newly liberated nation but sounded a note of caution as well. ‘Let me warn you’, he said, ‘that when power outstrips ability, we will fall on evil days. We should develop competence and ability which would help us to utilise the opportunities which are now open to us.’ He asked all to get rid of the general habit of damning the colonizers for all the ills, ‘From tomorrow morning, from midnight today we cannot throw the blame on the Britisher. We have to assume the responsibility ourselves for what we do. A free India will be judged by the way in which it will serve the interests of the common man in the matter of food, clothing, shelter and social services. Unless we destroy corruption in high places, root out every trace of nepotism, …profiteering and blackmarketing which have spoiled the good name of this great country in recent times, we will not be able to raise the standards of efficiency in administration as well as in the production and distribution of the necessary goods of life.’ In this first part, the philosopher-statesman was making a case for the dominance and lead of the ethical spirit in all matters of governance. He saw the triumph of such a spirit as enabling the fruits of governance to percolate to the grassroots. Dr. Radhakrishnan was speaking in support of a pledge that all members were to take at the stroke of midnight and the final point he made before putting the resolution to vote, was concerning ‘humility’ – a key attribute that he felt all members of the Assembly ought to exude. ‘I support with very great pleasure this Resolution which asks us as the representatives of the people of India to conduct ourselves in all humility in the service of our country and the word ‘Humility’ here means that we are by ourselves very insignificant. Our efforts by themselves cannot carry us to a long distance. We should make ourselves dependent on that other than ourselves which makes for righteousness. The note of humility means the unimportance of the individual and the supreme importance of the unfolding purpose which we are called upon to serve.’ Through that pledge thus the members dedicated themselves in ‘all humility to the service of India and her people to the end that this ancient land attain her rightful and honoured place in the world and make her full and willing contribution to the promotion of world peace and the welfare of mankind.’ The key words here then were ‘humility’ and the ‘unimportance of the individual and the supreme importance of the unfolding purpose’. And what would be the sustaining attitude in this new state of Swarajya? Dr.Radhakrishnan was clear on that as well, - it had to be an attitude and an approach of concord – ‘Swarajya is the development…of [a] tolerant attitude which sees in brother man the face Divine. Intolerance has been the greatest enemy of our progress. Tolerance of one another's views, thoughts and beliefs is the only remedy that we can possibly adopt.’ The speaker was not a self-abnegating monk but one who eventually rose to occupy the highest office of the land.

II. Needed persons with true public spirit: Rajendra Prasad’s concern

Radhakrishnan’s speech is hardly remembered today – his statesman identity has in the course of time been deftly merged into his philosopher and teacher identity which continue to be comfortably perpetuated. In his address to the Constituent Assembly that night, Radhakrishnan was simply restating in the modern context the traditional Indian injunction to the ruler in his state of power. In fact, the necessity of formulating an ethical guideline and the requirement of a higher standard of comportment among those endowed with the responsibilities of governance and legislation had exercised many a front ranking minds in the early period after independence as well as during the rough and tumble of the struggle for freedom. In a statement dated 13th February 1949 made on the issue of ‘qualifications of representatives to the State Assemblies and the House of the People’ Dr.Rajendra Prasad, soon to be the republic’s first President, made certain deeply insightful observations that to this day keeps setting in perspective the issue which itself remains as yet unresolved. Rajendra Prasad’s fundamental question was as to why one who ‘formulates the policy and issues the orders or who makes the law is not required by the Constitution to possess any moral or intellectual qualifications.’ He saw this as a ‘serious lacuna’ that would lead to serious consequences unless removed and expressed apprehension that under these circumstances ‘an unscrupulous demagogue without real knowledge and character’ could always impose himself on the electorate. Elaborating the point further, Prasad made some very relevant observations; perhaps he had an inkling of future political situations, formations and attitudes. ‘When parties and groups are formed’, wrote Prasad, ‘based not on principles but on narrow parochial, sectarian or even personal and selfish considerations, the presence in legislatures of persons with true public spirit, wide sympathies and appreciation of the requirements of the country as a whole becomes apparent and essential. This requires both intellectual and moral equipment of a high order which must be ensured in the candidate who seeks election.’ While setting such high standards for legislators he also realised the unusual difficulties in ascertaining and evaluating such qualities in them – qualities that he felt were essential prerequisites for clean politics and people-centric governance. ‘The most difficult although the most essential to lay down is a test which will ensure in an ascertainable form the moral and spiritual qualities of a legislator. Honesty, public spirit and such other qualities are impossible of measurement and ascertainment. The only measuring rod which can be employed in judging whether a person possesses them is his own life and experience of his past activities, but even these are difficult measures.’ By placing these arguments Rajendra Prasad hoped that a larger debate would be generated on the issue. He saw the resolution of this as indispensable for the future well being of the state and its various organs of governance.

III. Gandhian real Swaraj: acquisition of the capacity by all to resist abuse of power

The ideal of Swaraj, as envisaged by our founding fathers laid down stringent criteria for governance, the wielding of power and for public activities. Our founding fathers hoped that the succeeding generations of national leaders would prepare themselves to fulfil these. Gandhi was his usual uncompromising self when it came to standards in public life and especially on the need to devolve real power to the people in a democracy – in Swaraj. ‘Real Swaraj’, he wrote in the columns of his Young India in the early 1920s, ‘will come not by the acquisition of authority by a few but by the acquisition of the capacity by all to resist authority when it is abused. In other words, Swaraj is to be obtained by educating the masses to a sense of their capacity to regulate and control authority.’ (Young India, 29.1.1925). Earlier while discussing the capacity and the way of maintaining a hard earned Swaraj, the Mahatma argued that ‘Swaraj can be maintained only when there is majority of loyal and patriotic people to whom the good of the nation is paramount above all other considerations whatever including their personal profit.’ The meaning of Swaraj, he continued, is ‘government by the many [but] where the many are immoral or selfish, their government can spell anarchy and nothing else.’ (Young India, 28.7.1921) Gandhi’s vision of the ‘Ramraj’ was thus based on a deep and effective ‘moral authority.’

IV. Not Self-seekers but seekers of public welfare

But Gandhi was not the only one to be worked over this issue of standards in public life, of the use and abuse of power, and of probity and transparency while holding public office. Around the same time there were two other stalwarts – now obviously forgotten because they refused to perpetuate themselves and instead indefatigably focused on national welfare and cohesion – who in fact, in their own way, gave much thought to the issue. Rajendra Prasad in his statement of 13th February 1949, interestingly, took care to refer to their work and vision. In 1923, C.R.Das (1870-1925), the once celebrated Deshbandhu (Friend of the Nation) and his equally versatile and erudite colleague Dr. Bhagavan Das (1869-1958) presented before the nation ‘An Outline Scheme of Swaraj’ drawn up by them. The Congress in its 1923 annual session adopted the scheme as party policy. The plan recommended decentralization of government after independence with the ‘higher centres of government being reduced and the organ of administration becoming the panchayat, organised into village, town, districts, provincial and all India units of government.’ C.R.Das in his presidential address to the Congress in its 1922 session argued for the ‘organisation of village life and the practical autonomy of small local centres’ as a requisite for Swaraj. He maintained that real Swaraj could only be attained ‘by vesting the power of government in these small local centres.’ In short, Das advocated a massive decentralization that would, he hoped, enable the fruits of democracy to reach to the grassroots and to bring about an effective socio-political transformation there. What is of interest to us however in the present discussion is that the ‘Outline Scheme of Swaraj’ discussed, at some length, the standards of people’s representatives. It advocated that ‘every possible care should be taken to ensure that the people’s elected representatives, who will constitute the chief authority for each grade of centre, local and higher, with power to make laws and rules, shall be, not self-seekers, but seekers of the public welfare.’ [Italics as in the original] In its Chapter five the document discussed ‘The Qualifications of the Choosers and the Chosen’ and made certain perceptive suggestions, far ahead of its time.

What should be of interest to us, are not the details or the semantics of the formulations but rather the spirit and the deeper perception of the suggestions, perhaps made in anticipation of a deeper malaise that would eventually set in the national body politic. It laid the criteria that the people’s representatives should have ‘retired from competitive business or other professional life of bread-winning or money making…’ and in its note on the chapter five as regards the ‘qualification of the elected’ it noted that ‘the condition for election should be such as would make it humanly probable that the elected may be seekers of public weal and not self-seekers’ and are the ‘outward symbols of [an] inward grace.’ The scheme called for ‘exceptionally selfless men for this essential and highest kind of public work.’ ‘Twenty-one persons in ten thousand’, it argued, ‘are not too many to expect. If the country cannot provide even so much self-denial, it may as well give up all attempt at Swaraj. The essential outlook of the legislator had to transmute itself from that ‘of selfish taking to that of unselfish giving.’ In its conception the legislator required ‘not brilliance [sic] but wisdom. Brilliance comes and goes, and plays false and proves tinsel, and makes messes, but wisdom lingers. Wisdom is mature knowledge plus philanthropy, patriarchal benevolence.’ The other qualification that it wanted was that the member ‘should have done outstandingly good work in some walk of life – whether literary, scientific, educational, priestly, medical, artistic, etc., or as a labourer and manual worker;’ and having done these the representative should have at the same time also acquired ‘a reputation for uprightness and honest dealing and sympathy for fellow creatures.’

In its following argument it also anticipated the contention that the poorly qualified or marginalized shall never be able to raise themselves to the level of legislators or policy makers. ‘An aged agriculturist’, it contended, ‘ who has tilled his few acres successfully, has raised up a good family, is respected and trusted in his own and neighbouring villages, and can express his views clearly, is a wise village-elder, in short, may be a more useful member of legislature which has to deal with agricultural interests like those of India, even though he may be only just able to sign his name, than may brilliant speakers or writers with only a college education that has little touch with reality.’ The legislator, it said, ‘should stand in the position of Trustee and Elder to the people’ and spoke of the necessity of such an approach in a dedicated spirit in order to actualize the ‘idea of spiritualising politics by changing the whole culture and civilisation of society from its present mercenary [sic] to a missionary basis, even as the work of the elder in a family is done for the youngers, not for mercenary motives, but out of “missionary” benevolence.’ It did finally warn that ‘if this atmosphere cannot be purified by the introduction of the missionary and patriarchal spirit in the Panchayats, the legislators and the Courts of Arbitration, then there is no hope of true Swaraj.’

V. Training in discipline and national honour: a historical conversation

A conversation around the same period (1925) between three stalwarts of the national movement also veered around to the same topic and came up with strikingly relevant insights for the political discourse today. It was a discussion that took place in the then distant French enclave of Pondicherry between Lala Lajpat Rai (1865-1928), Purushottamdas Tandon (1882-1962) and Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950). The former two had gone to visit the latter then in his retirement. The conversation turned to politics and elections to local bodies. Tandon, discussing political programmes in his home town Allahabad argued against entering local bodies as that would eventually lead ‘to lust for power and then personal differences and jealousies’ and the high hopes the people had reposed in their representatives would then be unjustifiable. Under such circumstances, Tandon called for maintaining purity through abstention from the offices and positions of power. Rai followed with another though connected point, in a democratic framework, he observed, high hopes had to be given to the people; ‘if you want to enter governing bodies you must make big promises; that is the nature of democracy.’ Sri Aurobindo, on his part, intervening in the discussion made an interesting point, ‘the lust for power’, he argued, ‘will always be there. [and] You can’t get over it by shutting out all positions of power; our workers must get accustomed to it [power]. They must learn to hold positions for the nation. This difficulty would be infinitely greater when you get Swaraj.’ He saw two cardinal attributes – ‘discipline and a keen sense of national honour’ – as lacking among those holding public offices. The only way perhaps, to mitigate the adversities of power and position, was to inculcate in the future legislators and leaders in particular and the people in general this ‘discipline and [this] sense of national honour.’

In a letter dated 21st February 1937 to a disciple who had just been elected to the Bengal Assembly Sri Aurobindo gave certain broad directives for the leader aspiring to maintain certain high standards of integrity and transparency, ‘Since you have joined [the] party, its programme must be yours and what you have to do is to bring to it all the consciousness, ability and selflessness which you can command’ and work not for the self but for the country. He advised him to take office only when he could do something for the country by it and not until ‘he has proved his character and ability and fitness for position, ‘You should walk by high standard which will bring you the respect even of opponents and justify the choice of electors.’ As a point of clarification, the advice proffered did not come from a mystical-spiritual tower but was made with the acceptance that the nature of work in the Assembly is ‘not of a spiritual character’ and depended on circumstances, [and] on the practical needs of the situation which can change rapidly.’ But even then a certain standard and modicum of rectitude, of self-discipline and of selflessness could still be put into practice. These were some of the essential pre-requisite for elevating the standard of public life as well as for a successful working out of Swaraj at all levels.

VI. The first servant and bearer of conscience: an unusual experiment in Swaraj

A step away from the usual track on the Mahatma and his concept of Swaraj is the story of a rather unusual experiment in grassroots democracy undertaken at his behest and more effectively implemented with the help of a polish Jew convert to Hinduism with the name of Swami Bharatananda (1901-1976). The story of the ‘Aundh Experiment’, between 1938 and 1947, is a fascinating tale of how the ruler and the ruled cooperated and supplemented each others efforts in effectively shaping and guiding the destiny of their state. We shall not enter into the subject of the implementation of grass-roots democracy and the merits of the experiment itself but shall seek instead some supporting perceptions on our current topic of discussion. It is also indicative of the attitude of the ruler vis-à-vis his people that Gandhi envisioned. Aundh was one of the princely states among the southern Maratha states of British India and consisted of 72 villages scattered over the districts of Satara and Sangli in Maharashtra and Bijapur in Karnataka and for a decade or so it became the field of experiment for a truly responsive and cooperative democracy. In the Constitution, whose drafting he influenced along with Swami Bharatananda (Maurice Frydman), Gandhi ensured that power was devolved to the people and the ruler essentially became the benevolent patriarch. The section 24 of the ‘Aundh State Constitution Act of 1939’ clearly laid down that ‘Shriman Rajasaheb is the First Servant and the Bearer of Conscience of the People of Aundh.’ The venerable Raja, a keen enthusiast in the experiment, gladly made this declaration and created a tremendous impact by changing the hierarchy of power and the ‘relationship of the individual with “authority.” He was able to ‘establish a relationship with the people free from conflict of power and of possession [and] this made him supremely happy.’ As an active participant in the experiment in his capacity as Prime Minister of the state and one who made an impact among the people with his ‘transparent simplicity and willingness to work hard for the good of all’, the Rajasaheb’s eldest surviving son and later India’s diplomatic envoy to several countries, Apa Pant (1912-1991?) made a number of comments on the effort. It shall suffice here to highlight two of these. In his 1945 ‘Administration Report of Grampanchayat’ of Aundh, Pant noted that, ‘We in Aundh firmly believe that if democracy were to be really established in India, and the people were to get an equitable share of the fruits of a decentralized democracy…training of every villager [citizen] in the art of democracy is necessary. Otherwise a few will rule and these few will profit. For Indian democracy to succeed, the individual in the village has to be trained and educated in self-help and self-governance and made aware of his destiny.’ The core point that the experiment went on to establish, as Pant described it, was that ‘those who seek power or profit from it, cannot run a democracy or build up a community of civilised individuals’ and that the keywords for those aspiring to work for the community and the people were to be ‘service, sacrifice, dedicated and efficient work, and caring for all the individuals of the community.’

Anachronistic as these may sound today, they continue to remain unalterable constants in standards of public life – of any country for that matter. The Aundh experiment remains relevant today in as much as it generated debate and practical efforts at working out democracy and redefining power equations in an India then on the threshold of freedom – the long awaited Swaraj. But whether from these have lessons been learnt or memories retained is the moot question. Whether the present class of people’s representatives, inheritors of that rich legacy of public life, is yet alive to these debates and thoughts of some of the best minds of our times is a question that is perhaps best left unanswered.

VII. The debate: past injunctions and present dilemmas

Ancient Indian texts abound with instructions and injunctions to the ruler – and in all of these the leitmotif that is evident is the need for the ruler’s self-culture, his compassion, benevolence, and his capacity to absorb and be bound by Dharma. A ruler firmly embodying these qualities could ensure the prosperity and happiness of his people. A number of these injunctions continue to have deep significance for the present times and its debate on the subject. For example, in his ‘Gleaning on Social Life from the Avadānas’, Nilakanta Sastri highlights and discusses a number of these exhortations. The land where a ‘dharmic king rules in the dharmic way’ is lyrically described in the text,

‘…sphitam ca ksemam ca subhiksam ca ākirnabahujana–manusyam ca praśānta-kali-kalaha-dimba-damaramtaskararogāpagatam śāliksu-go-mahisi-sampannam dhārmiko dharmarājo dharmarājyam kārayati’

‘…The land described [above] is flourishing and prosperous, well-populated and perfectly peaceful; there are no quarrels among men, no thieves and no disease, there is an abundance of fine rice, sugar-cane, cows and milch-buffaloes; such a kingdom it is that a dharmic king rules in dharmic ways.’ But Sastri also discusses the usual argument against such texts and injunctions. He does not dismiss them but makes instead a point that provides a clue on how to take the whole debate forward, ‘…texts like this are utopian in character’, he notes, ‘and it is easy to dismiss them as wild imaginings with no bearing on the realities of life. But a little reflection shows that in fact these apparently impossible ideals exerted a tangible influence on the conduct of all truly great rulers of India…The text cited above is the Indian way of exhorting kings to promote the economic welfare of their subjects and ensure harmony in society.’ This only reinforces the point that the current debate on standards in public life, on transparency and on the percolation of true Swaraj at the grassroots needs to be permeated with the Indian cultural-spiritual spirit and civilisational experience. The failure to do that will only turn the whole effort into an elaborate rigmarole and merely enhance its superficiality. For example, the Ethics of Committee of the Upper House – Rajya Sabha – of the Indian Parliament in its introduction notes this past culture of ethics and politics in ancient India, ‘Ethics and morality have been the hallmark of public life in India since ancient times. Rulers were expected to observe stricter ethical values and an unethical king was shown no mercy. Ethics and politics, in other words, were inseparable.’ It accepted the fact that the ‘ideological base and the spirit of service which should activate most of them [ people’s representatives] is getting eroded and the kind of elements who are trying to influence the political parties and the political system at large, make everybody think as to how probity in the entire system could be ensured.’ In its First report submitted in December 1998, the Committee accepted the gradual demise of this inseparability, ‘There is a general feeling’, it noted, ‘that all is not well with our political system which is functioning under a great strain. In such a situation, the representatives of the people have to set high standards of behaviour in public life. Members of Parliament have not only to represent the society but have also to lead it. Therefore, they have to function as the role models and this naturally casts on them a heavy responsibility’. The Committee also ‘painfully [observed]’ the ‘decline’ of the ‘high ethical and moral standards in public life’ set and ‘scrupulously’ followed by ‘our freedom fighters and national leaders’ and called for evolving certain self-disciplining mechanism as one of the ways towards ensuring probity in public life.

In the end, Dr.Radhakrishnan perhaps summed up the whole issue as well as the entire malady. Pointing at our whole social existence and basing himself on our civilisational wisdom, the philosopher-statesman observed in one of his monograph discussing the future of civilisation, that, ‘An acquisitive society with competition as the basis and force as the arbiter in cases of conflict, where thought is superficial…and moral loose represents a civilisation of power (rajas) and not of spirit (sattva) and so cannot [eventually] endure.’ His contention was that a society based on and overwhelmed by the ‘acquisitive’ principle which only encourages and nurtures the spirit of competition and accumulation and where force remains the principle arbiter of conflicts or differences cannot survive in the long run with its ethical, moral and spiritual foundations gradually disintegrating. Those entrusted therefore, with the shaping of our collective national destiny need to perhaps ensure, starting with their own selves and through their ethical and responsive approach to public life that the degeneration is eventually stalled and reversed.

The debate on the standards in public life and on the nature of true Swaraj must necessarily be a continuing one – only then can the imperative of linking ethics and politics be felt uninterruptedly in the national life. Speakers in the Constituent Assembly that fateful night of August 14th 1947 had in fact launched just such a debate with themselves as the starting point. A look at some of their thoughts and arguments on the issue confirms that stand.


  • Aurobindo Sri, Autobiographical Notes and Other Writings of Historical Interest, (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram), 2006.
  • Austin Granville, The Indian Constitution: Corner Stone of a Nation, (New Delhi: Oxford University Press), 1972.
  • Bates Crispin, ‘The Development of Panchayati Raj in India’, in Bates Crispin & Basu Shubho ed. Rethinking Indian Political Institutions, (New York: Anthem Press), 2005.
  • Choudhary Valmiki ed., Dr.Rajendra Prasad: Correspondence and Select Documents,i vol.9, (New Delhi: Dr.Rajendra Prasad Vichar Sansthan & Allied Publishers), 1987.
  • Constituent Assembly Debates, vol.5, New Delhi, 1950.
  • Das C.R., & Das Bhagavan, An Outline Scheme of Swaraj, (London), 5th ed., 1930 (copy in private collection of the author).
  • Ethics Committee – An Introduction, accessed at: (14.9.2011)
  • Gandhi M.K. India of My Dreams, compiled by Prabhu R.K., (Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House), rev edn. 1959.
  • Purani A.B., Evening Talks, (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram), 4th rev. edn. 2007.
  • Radhakrishnan S., Kalki or the Future of Civilisation, (Bombay: Hind Kitabs), 1948.
  • Rothermund Indira, The Aundh Experiment: a Gandhian Grassroots Democracy, (Bombay: Somaiya Publications), 1983.
  • Sastri K.A.Nilakanta, Gleaning on Social Life from the Avadānas, (Calcutta: The Indian Research Institute), 1945.

Published Date: 29th September, 2011

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