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Above: Swiss President Ueli Maurer

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First Among Equals:
True Democracy in Action

JOGISHWAR SINGH

 

 

 

As a Swiss citizen born in India, I am many times brought to think about my experiences of the democratic systems prevalent in the two countries.

Before Indian ‘patriots’ start screaming murder at what I am going to say, I should point out that I am fully aware that I am talking about two different historical realities.

Switzerland has been independent for over 800 years while India is a newly created entity, now a mere 66 years old.

Switzerland has a population of only 8 million while India has the second highest population of any country in the world at over 1.2 billion (give or take a few million). And expected, in the near future, to even outstrip China, and become the world’s most populous.

The trigger for this set of reflections was what I saw on the 7.30 pm evening news on Swiss TV a couple of weeks ago.

The Swiss President, Mr Ueli Maurer, was leaving on a five day state visit to China. The news showed him arriving at Zürich airport in an ordinary private vehicle. The President got out of the car by opening the car door himself. He walked to the nearby baggage trolley stand outside the airport entrance. He took a baggage trolley out, rolled it towards the car, lifted his suitcase and travel bag himself, put these on the trolley which he then rolled towards the entrance like any passenger lambda like you or me. He walked up to the check in counter with just two other persons walking behind him. He checked his luggage in for a commercial flight without any special treatment being meted out to him.

For any Indians (or others) who might find it difficult to believe what I have described above, you can CLICK on the link provided hereunder, at the end of this article, to view a TV news clip from the evening prime time news for July 16, 2013..

You’ll get visual proof of the Swiss President’s arrival at the airport, his check in for his state visit to China and a short interview with a TV journalist. This clip is really worth watching.

Conditioned by my personal experiences of dealing with politicians and government ministers in India while serving as an IAS (Indian Administrative Service) officer, I was so struck by the contrast between what I had experienced in India and what I was seeing on the TV screen that I told my wife that this represented one of the finest examples of democracy for me, certainly of the Swiss variety. It made me proud to be the citizen of a country where the serving President behaves like an ordinary citizen and does not feel the need to consider  special privileged treatment as his divine birthright.

I remembered the countless times when I had seen the fury of Indian politicians, much below the level of the President of a country, at what they considered as a slight because they had not been treated as demi-gods.

I am not a psychologist. I do not know whether centuries of slavery have generated this distorted VIP culture in India but I remember that we all did curse the politicians there for causing so much inconvenience to the general public by expecting, demanding and getting privileged treatment.

Who in India, except maybe some politicians or bureaucrats, has not been inconvenienced by VIP visits for which miles of roads and highways, even entire neighbourhoods, are blocked off to traffic, and flights are delayed, awaiting the arrival of some VIP or even his/her flunkies/family members?

Any such inconvenience would cause an uproar in Switzerland.

In India, it does not generate even a whimper.

In this context, an incident from the not very distant past strongly lingers in my memory. A few years ago, a former IAS batch-mate of mine (1976 batch) had visited Switzerland.

I have noticed that Switzerland becomes a prize destination of choice for a lot of Indian ministers and bureaucrats during their hot summer for attending all kinds of useless conferences which are essentially talking shops organised by the United Nations, an organisation which is a hotbed of nepotism and inefficiency.

This IAS officer wanted to see Switzerland, so I acted as his local tourist guide.

While we were going around the Swiss federal capital, Bern, it was lunch time so we decided to have lunch at a restaurant very close to the Swiss parliament building.

As we took our seats at a table, a Swiss gentleman sitting at the next table, reading his newspaper while sipping his coffee, greeted us in English. While we ordered our meal and waited, he finished reading his newspaper, drank his coffee and called for his bill which he paid before leaving. While going out, he again politely wished us goodbye, even saying, “I hope you enjoy your stay in Switzerland” in English.

After he had left, I asked my visitor if he knew who the man had been. Obviously, my visitor did not know the answer. I informed him that we had just been greeted by the then serving Swiss President, Mr René Felber.

My guest thought I was making fun of him. He would not believe me so I called the restaurant manager to confirm the veracity of what I had told him. The manager duly confirmed what I had said.

My Indian visitor was flabbergasted. He said, “How can this be possible? He actually paid his bill before leaving”.

So, what struck my visitor the most had been the fact that a VIP had actually paid his bill! I wonder what he would say if he saw our current President, Mr Ueli Maurer, personally loading his bags on to a baggage trolley and wheeling it to a check-in counter just like any ordinary citizen. His disbelief could only be countered by visual evidence on the TV!

My visitor’s reaction brought back memories of when, as a serving sub-divisional or district level official, I had been called upon to organise lunches and dinners for numerous collections of freeloaders travelling with ministers or bureaucrats in India.

I seldom remember any politician or bureaucrat actually paying or even offering to pay for the bonanza laid out for them. Those who did offer to pay, did so at the ridiculously low official daily fare of eleven rupees (today, a mere 20 cents US) per person or something like that.

Nobody ever asked how it had been possible to lay out a lavish meal comprising several dishes, accompanied by expensive alcoholic beverages, for such a petty sum. I never found out myself who used to pay for all this extravaganza at the end of the line.

Like a good Indian bureaucrat, I just used to pass the buck down the line to my junior magistrates and revenue officials. To this day, I am unable to clarify which poor victim -- read, citizen! -- who got stuck with paying for all the freebies on offer.

While working as chief of staff to the President of the Swiss Commission for the Presence of Switzerland in Foreign Countries many years ago, I had the chance of accompanying him to Strasbourg for meetings of the Council of Europe. I also had the privilege of close interaction with several Swiss members of parliament over an extended period of 12 to 14 months.

The contrast to the behavioural pattern of what I had experienced in India with politicians was so stark that it has stayed seared in my mind even till today.

I am by no means suggesting that Swiss politicians are angels but the kind of behaviour that Indian politicians or bureaucrats get away with as a matter of routine in India would torpedo their careers in Switzerland in a jiffy.

Each such incident deepens my gratitude to Waheguru Almighty for having made me settle down in a country like Switzerland where the President carries his own bags to the check-in counter.

Where no roads are blocked for hours so that some VIP can, in the name of security, be whisked around in convoys of official vehicles.

Where politicians and bureaucrats pay their bills in restaurants.

Where grossly sycophantic behaviour is not the general and accepted norm.

Where no red-light beacons or screaming sirens signal the passage of VIP vehicles. Indeed, the red-light-beacon culture of officialdom in India merits a full story in itself.

I might accept India as a true democracy the day I see its President or Prime Minister behaving like the Swiss President before his departure on an official visit abroad.

I don’t think I will ever see such a sight in India during my lifetime.

You think, maybe, my grandchildren will?

 

To view the TV news-clip, please CLICK here.

 

 August 1, 2013

Conversation about this article

1: Sangat Singh  (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia ), August 01, 2013, 10:21 AM.

Jogishwar Singh ji, I am not sure if your grandchildren or their grandchildren will get to see such a phenomenon in India. There are nevertheless dormant seeds waiting to sprout some day. The story of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar comes to mind ... I heard it as a child. Ishwar Chandra was considered the pillar of Bengal's renaissance. With his learning as a teenager, he had gained the title of Vidyasagar ('ocean of knowledge')and yet remained extremely modest. He graduated with Sanskrit as his major and was appointed as a Sanskrit Professor. There lived another pundit who had also studied Sanskrit grammar but had some difficulty in deciphering certain sutras. He wrote to Ishwar Chandra and sought an appointment to see him. As agreed, Ishwar Chandra was to receive him at the railway station. Ishwar Chandra, dressed modestly, was waiting at the platform. The well-dressed pundit mistook Ishwar Chandra as a coolie and got him to carry his bag, which he carried without complaint. The pundit, while extolling his own learning, asked him if he knew where Ishwar Chandra lived. The latter nodded and quietly obeyed the pundit and carried the bag to his own house. On reaching the house the pundit realized that the 'coolie' was actually the great Pundit Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar himself. He felt very ashamed of himself when he saw how such a genius had conducted himself so modestly despite being treated as a coolie. After a couple of days of clarifying his grammar, the pundit returned home a much humbler man.

2: Kanwarjeet Singh (USA), August 01, 2013, 2:52 PM.

"I am not a psychologist. I do not know whether centuries of slavery have generated this distorted VIP culture in India" - yup, you nailed it. Slavery is in the DNA - but Indians dare not raise their voice, else they will be branded a terrorist.

3: Harinder Pal Singh (Patiala, Punjab), August 01, 2013, 6:21 PM.

Jogishwar ji's article, like his previous ones, is very interesting. As a 'screaming patriot,' I could join the issue, but that is not my purpose. Picking up from his dilemma as to who picked up the end-point bill of the bureaucratic vagaries, I am reminded of a scene in village Kauli where I was posted in 1980s. The village N(L)ambardar, Darbara Singh, was accompanying screaming poultry and passing by our Government Hospital. I couldn't resist asking Lambardar ji, "What is this?" A jovial fellow with earthy humor, he said, "Doctor sahib, there is to be a dinner at the District Commissioner (DC) sahib's house tonight, so he asked the SDM (Sub-Divisional Magistrate) to arrange for four chickens. The SDM passed on the request to the Tehsildar an order for eight chickens. The Tehsildar asked me for 12 and I asked the 'landars' - wastrels of the village - to collect 16 free range chickens from the area around, promising them four to have a good dinner!" So, it's not only the people but the flora and fauna who sustain the Sahib culture! That sums up the contradiction that this country is progressing not because of a system but despite the system ... and one is sure to conclude from it that Waheguru indeed must exist to make it all work, nevertheless.

4: Autar Singh (Subang Jaya, Malaysia), August 02, 2013, 2:50 AM.

Due to various reasons, there are many citizens in India who go out of their way to open the door for the VIP (whatever level), carry his bags, buy the flight ticket for him, line the roads for miles on his arrival for a function ... in fact, do anything to get noticed by the VIP. VIPs may not want this special treatment, but soon get used to it. Some end up demanding it as their importance dwindles.

5: Sangat Singh  (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia ), August 02, 2013, 4:01 AM.

# 3 Dr. Harinder Pal Singh: John K. Galbraith, a former US ambassador, once described India as a "functioning anarchy."

6: Raj (Canada), August 02, 2013, 1:57 PM.

In the early seventies, when I immigrated to Canada, I met the Premier of Alberta, Canada, at a function. He had driven to the venue himself without any security personnel or body-guards. He was standing in the hallway without any fanfare. The attendees to that function would walk by him without even acknowledging him; it's called giving them their space. This phenomena is unheard of in India. I was so impressed and understood the true meaning of democracy. Now, with the influx of desis from India, I see the same thing happening in Canada as in India. I had the unfortunate opportunity of dealing with these new "apne" representatives, they show more attitude than the Prime Minister of Canada. One of them was involved in transporting homeless people to voting stations by bribing them with some "perks". One is involved in tax evasion and had to resign. Another dangerous trend is that Indian political parties are extending their tentacles into Canada. I'm afraid we're on our way to messing the Canadian system. We should vote for deserving candidates, not just because of his back-home affiliation.

7: Kirpal Singh (Wellington, New Zealand), August 02, 2013, 2:42 PM.

Yogishwar Singh's story is a factual description, which I witnessed during our stay in Switzerland in 1972-74. We lived in Wabern (just outside Bern). The Chairman of the Swiss Federal Presidency then used to board a street tram from Wabern to go to Parliament House. I used to take the same tram on my way to the University of Bern. Many times I sat next to him in the tram and exchanged greetings. It was always a delightful experience to be seated next to the President of the country in such an informal way.

8: Ari Singh (Sofia, Bulgaria), August 03, 2013, 1:12 PM.

"India is a wounded civilization" -- V S Naipaul. One does not need to elaborate further. Excellent article, Jogishwar ji. This type of real democracy is even more visible in Iceland where ministers shower totally naked -- as is the local custom -- with ordinary citizens, before entering a public swimming pool.

9: Sarvjit Singh (Massachusetts, USA), August 06, 2013, 10:55 AM.

I was born and raised in India for my first 21 years, since then I am living in USA which is my adopted new home. For the last 3-4 years, I am a frequent traveler to India, spending 3-4 months in a year in either Delhi or Chandigarh. During my stay in India I interact with senior government officials (including IAS), and businessmen of all kinds. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to see where lies the vortex or root cause of all the ills in India. It can be categorized as lack of self esteem, self respect, egoistic thought process, hierarchy driven society that is selfish from all accounts. In the words of my American wife - male centric, chauvinistic, and insensitive-to-all-others attitude which is chaotic. Masses have accepted corruption, brutalities and everything else that goes on as a way of life and adopted to function within it. In other words, they have lost their drive for self improvement (true for majority of Indians). Some even justify it as self preservation. Going back in time, the tenth Guru wrote in his "Tav Parsad Savvayyi-e" - 'saarey hi des ko dekh ryo mat koi na dekhyo pran pati ke ...' 'koor kriya urjiyo sab jagg ...' Guru ji appropriately describes what is even true today from the religious and social perspective. Guru Gobind Singh calls India (Punjab and Magadh) as his 'mader desh (mother land). He was a Guru for all and by creating the Khalsa gave self respect, independence and everything else that defines sovereignty of Man which is also the basic pursuit of most westerners. I seriously think we Sikhs have to carry the torch and lead by example whether in India or elsewhere. The world is waiting for the Khalsa to shine the torch! Waheguru!

10: Chandra (Olive Mount, United Kingdom), August 10, 2013, 1:50 AM.

I don't think democracies are necessarily at their ideal when their Presidents travel like common citizens. It is our ability to question authority, question the multitudes of rules, question our bureaucracy, the police, the military ... and to hold them all accountable ... that is what makes a good democracy.

11: Ajmer Grewal (Chandigarh, Punjab), August 11, 2013, 4:38 AM.

We in India are heading towards a bloody revolution like what we see in the Middle East nations though most Indians are not made of such a stuff of having any self respect and may carry on limping along. In the meantime, let us prepare by following Guru Gobind Singh's "aappey gur chela" principle amongst the sangat.

12: Himanshu Gandhi (Boston, Massachusetts, USA), August 15, 2013, 6:48 PM.

The greatest challenge to India's future is not dwindling natural resources, or corruption, or divisively fractured political establishment, but deeply pervasive abject indifference of a wide swath of masses. Those at one end of the pole with capacity and resources to make a change continue to maroon the trust and fabric of the nation for their own unashamed lustful greed, scheming with corrupt bureaucratic setup for means unto themselves with abject disregard for morality, ethics and making of a capable nation. At the other end of the same pole, the daily struggle to cope with hyper inflation can barely make them ponder about the road ahead. And, the growing glorified middle remains gruesomely detached from inner circles of power, almost scared to pit their head in the smoldering pit of the ever-growing underground economy with well entrenched politico-goons and their connections running rampant at local government establishments. In India, like any developing/developed places, intellect has mostly gone awry to service fear or greed, or has succumbed to avarice. Culture of sympathy, tolerance, forgiveness and the notion of for-the-greater-good need be taught, learned and practiced afresh. There is no other alternative.

13: Vijay (India), August 16, 2013, 4:02 AM.

One point to further discuss is whether the British can be completely blamed for this. The sycophancy was built into our culture with the religious system in India and the untouchability that existed.

14: Sanjeev Sabhlok (Melbourne, Australia), August 20, 2013, 2:24 PM.

Having been in the IAS (before leaving in disgust with the system) I fully understand this issue, particularly now I am in Melbourne where the Premier walks around like a normal person on the streets and buys his own coffee. In my view, the underlying cause of this attitude towards status (not merit), this egotism, comes from the civilisational culture of Brahminical (caste) Hinduism. It underpins disrespect for the "lower" class/ caste/ gender (untouchability, disrespect for women). Equally, it leads to excessive deference towards those in authority. The Hindu is told to accept what the teacher/guru says without questioning. This transfers to other roles, such as political. The solution will need to come from abolition of caste and respecting women as equals. The first sign of this change will be the use of first names among people, and the discarding of "Sir". Indian languages also have various levels of respect (aap/tu). I suspect given this huge civilisational difference, India will never become a true democracy of equal citizens. We are running a campaign "Everybody deserves respect" as part of the Sone Ki Chidiya Federation.

15: T V Rao (Bangalore, India), August 20, 2013, 11:24 PM.

Unimaginable to know such culture exists in a political and bureaucratic setting. Let all of us Indians start emulating this kind of people and their humility. So that one day we too can graduate ourselves to such levels of humility in life. Congratulate, Sardar Jogishwar Singh ji, for circulating such motivating articles which will certainly provoke human beings to think.

16: Joginder (Shimla, India), August 29, 2013, 9:38 PM.

A sad state of affairs. There is a ray of hope, though. The Goa Chief Minister keeps a low profile and is known to travel by taxi in Mumbai. In fact he once went to some function in a five-star hotel in a cab which he paid for, whereas most other guests had arrived in swanky cars. Of course, he was mistaken for a nobody until someone recognized him. But this one is an exception. I remember when a Parliamentary Committee on Implementation of National Language in Central Govt offices toured Himachal some years ago. There were about two dozen MPs or so, plus their families. Days before the tour was to arrive in one of the districts, the local central govt offices/officers (ITO, Nationalized Banks, Nationalized Insurance companies) were in a tizzy. What to gift? What about their transport? (Spanking new taxis, all identical, were to be arranged). Their stay? The local Income-tax Officer told me that he had been ordered to arrange for cash to foot the bills, the IT Dept being seen as a cash cow. When the MPs did arrive they were more interested in seeing the local sights (Himachal being well endowed in this respect) and cared little for usage of Hindi in the offices. A waiter in the local three-star (there being no five-stars) who is known to me said that the evenings were really messy. What with drunken ranting, fussing over the (gratis) food, one MP even puking on the carpet. One MP, said my friend, saw a plate full of cashews and casually cleaned the whole lot into his pocket, presumably to enjoy as a bedtime snack later on.

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