Why politics needs the ashram

We need to reinvent the institution to give ourselves a body of rules and the habit of observing them

Written by Peter Ronald DeSouza | Published: April 13, 2013 3:47 am

In a small book titled Ashram Observances in Action,where he had set out the rules to be observed for ashram life,Gandhiji made the following comment on politics towards the end of the book that has continued to intrigue me: “Last of all,when you have observed these rules,think that then,and not till then,you may come to politics and dabble in them to your heart’s content,and certainly you will then never go wrong”. When one thinks about politics in India,63 years after we gave ourselves a body of rules,a constitution,and when one worries about the widespread corruption and perversity found in every occupation,in every community — examples of which are legion — one keeps returning to this comment in the belief that a profound truth lies hidden in it,and we must find it.

Three phrases invite attention. The first,“when you have observed these rules”,is quite straightforward and emphasises the fact that all members of the ashram must be rule-observant,for only through such observance will the collective life of the ashram be possible. This is quite unambiguous and is valid for members of any social collective,whether a housing society,an association,institution or community. Those who do not wish to be members of the collective because the rules are too stringent or offensive or objectionable have the venerable option of exiting the collective. Remaining within it voluntarily,however,places on the member the obligation to be rule-observant. The second phrase,in contrast to this normative injunction,introduces a psychological dimension to the discussion. It suggests that such rule observance must become the second nature of all members,a habit,for only “then and not till then”,will the member be incorruptible,that is,not susceptible to rule-deviance. Routinisation of rule-observant behaviour produces in the member a subconscious self that would be able to withstand the rule-deviating inducements of power,status and wealth. The challenge is to identify the processes and perhaps replicate them to produce the incorruptible inner self that acts in a norm observant way. The third phrase is the promise. If one achieves such an inner self,if one has reached the “then and not till then” point,one can be certain that in future,one will “never go wrong”’. One is now ready for public life.

Reflecting on this passage I recalled two episodes which,in retrospect,do not seem unrelated to this issue of rule-observance. The first concerns the last meal of the late socialist French President Francios Mitterand. In an article in Esquire titled “The last meal”,Michael Paterniti describes in great detail how Mitterand willingly partook of a meal of the endangered songbird ortolan,the killing of which is illegal and the preparation of which is cruel. Paterniti describes in great detail how the president devoured the bird following all the rituals of covering his head as he savoured the juices and chewed the bones. Explaining the significance of the meal,the chef said,“It takes a culture of very good to appreciate the very good. And ortolan is beyond even the very good”. So a socialist,who had led a stellar public life of fighting for the common good,and a president,whose occupancy of the high office committed him to upholding the constitution of the republic,willingly and consciously participated in breaking the law. Killing and eating an ortolan may be a small legal matter,but when it was done by Mitterand it was loaded with significance. What was it that seduced him to break the law? Was it his impending death or his imperial ego? Is this case a state of exception? A live songbird had to be drowned in a glass of Armagnac to make the dish. The rules of the republic could be kept aside for Mitterand’s last meal. He was dying of cancer.

The other episode is more mundane. On the day,some 12 years ago,when I planned to travel from London to Brighton,British Rail announced that because of rail repairs the train would terminate at a stop earlier than Brighton,from where buses would take us to a connecting station so we could resume our journey. It had been raining for several weeks that winter. The ground water levels were high,leading to subsidence of the rail track. At the station,hundreds of passengers alighted,including women,children and the elderly who,with great discipline and patience,stood in the serpentine queue that had formed for the buses. The famous British queue,all very orderly and all very quiet,was very much in evidence. The buses came. They were too few. It was clear that many trips and many minutes would be required to ferry all of us to the connecting station. It soon began to rain rather heavily. The northwesterly was in a mischievous mood. And then suddenly,as if to prove a point,the famous queue began to dissolve,and the even more famous rule of “women and children first” began to be cast aside as men rushed into the buses to grab a place. What was being saved for a rainy day? Why did it seem like the ISBT bus stop in Delhi?

What is the connection between the Gandhian injunction,the Mitterand indulgence and the British Rail impropriety? The two episodes illustrate the threats to rule-observance. Mitterand,the socialist,faced with the finality of his death,submitted to hedonism. Mitterand,the president,having succumbed to this hedonism hence saw the law’s constraint as a trivial matter. These seductions of material life produce the same attitude in people in power. The law’s constraint is a trivial matter. In the British Rail case,we see the weakness of a public culture of rule-observance in situations of resource scarcity. The famous British queue broke down. In this case,social norms lose to a social Darwinism as the fittest get the scarce resources that they save for a rainy day. Resources are always scarce in a capitalist world,and seductions are many. This is well known. And yet,Gandhi’s injunction is the only way to bring about rule-observance. That is the hidden truth. To bring it about is a superhuman challenge. How and when will we know that we have met the “then and not till then” condition? How does one free the inner self from material seductions? Should those in public life be required to spend a month every year in ashram life? Is the ashram the institution we must reinvent for the modern age,for our democracy,so that when we have got accustomed to its observances we will “never go wrong”? The ashram I am referring to here is Bapu’s,not Asaram Bapu’s.

The writer is director of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study,Shimla. Views are personal

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