The evolution of democracy in India was unlike the West, where education led to social emancipation and economic growth. This, in turn, fuelled demand for liberty, equality, and fraternity. Such bottom up growth of democracy overcame conflicts, to provide its common citizens, an equitable place in the sun. Because it emerged from the emancipation of citizenry, democracy rests on the fine balance between two rules: the rule of law and the rule of numbers. To protect this balance, institutions have been developed to protect human equity and dignity. Such democratic institutions, in turn, define that nation’s social, economic, and political state.
In India, on the other hand, the idea of democracy began as protests against us being treated as subjects, without ever being acknowledged as citizens. Such vocal and nonviolent uprising against discrimination by a colonial power was led by a political party. While India’s independence provided us with citizenship, it left the idea of the State as amorphous and evolving.
Adding justice to the Western ideals of democracy in our constitution, we believed, was adequate to ensure equity among Indians. Institutions were left to be evolved based on the strength of nationalism of Indian people. The first generation of a free nation understood this demand and their responsibility and, thus, bore a commitment to it, even at the cost of their self interest. This is the well-told story of such a man.
This book by Ashok Lavasa, appropriately titled An Ordinary Life: Portrait of an Indian Generation elaborates on those times and people through the life of its hero, Bauji, Ashok’s father, who consistently struggled to benefit from the rewards of hard work and honesty and found no reason whatsoever to follow another path. This is a moving story of a man, whose habit of speaking the plain truth, being a loving and yet not a doting father; caring but not an indulgent husband; a trustworthy friend who never promised more than he could deliver and, above all, an industrious and principled employee who was held in awe even by his bosses.
Had Bauji’s focus on pursuit of education in every household been followed, India would have seen more equitable societal growth. This, in turn, would have resulted in a more prosperous rather than merely aspiring India. Some real life incidents in this book leave a lasting impression.
When Bauji's college-going daughter received letters from a young man, the strict college hostel warden withheld them from her and complained to Bauji, expecting him to reprimand his daughter. Instead, Bauji felt he must trust his child so he wrote back to the warden, “My daughter is free to receive letters from anyone she wants, she is free to write to whoever she wants to write to and she is free to meet whomsoever she wants. The letters may be respectfully handed over to her.” Bauji, who himself lived in a conservative environment, was at the same time trusting, bold, and so unconventional.
During emergency days, companies were restricted from paying bonuses to their employees, in excess of 20%. Bauji’s employer found ways to get such money into the hands of all the staff. When it came to Bauji’s turn, he would not relent and accept even a penny above what the regulation was. All efforts to convince him failed as he would not sign a fictitious document and would rather forego the extra 28% money. It is evident that most people may have souls, yet only some have the strength of character required to keep it intact. Bauji was one such ordinary Indian who lived what we would term today as an ‘extraordinary life’.
The book is replete with such incidents that make a very enjoyable reading and forces the reader to think as to what went wrong. Why and where have such humans disappeared? If you enjoy inspirational movies, it’s a must read book!
Ashok Lavasa is a younger cadre colleague, who one has watched grow in his career. This book makes me realise that all the regard I have for this quiet, industrious, and a thinking bureaucrat, owes a lot to his genes. When he was appointed as Election Commissioner of India, I felt good, as I knew that the institution would be safe in the hands of men like him.
The intemperate behaviour created around him by some sections of the press and the subsequent firm stand he took on the issues did not surprise me one bit. That is what every Indian expects from any person who has been assigned any constitutional position. And Ashok, fortunately, did not disappoint. I am now inclined to think it was all because of Bauji.
Young and eager journalists, in search of sensational stories, fail to notice the growing race amongst people in coveted positions, to lower institutional expectations by compromising individual values for short term benefits. Such a growing contest weakens the very fibre that holds our democracy and individual freedom together, joined in one loop of trust.
After reading the book I felt sad on how, a couple of decades post-Independence, political leaders, led by a newer generations of Indians, began to misuse Mahatma Gandhi’s concept of nonviolent protests as their language to disrupt successful democratic processes. And, secondly, an over reliance on words and promises as the sole mantra of service to the common man. As a result, the ruling elite have begun flexing their 'elected by the people muscle’ to overwhelm those who are selected and committed to uphold the rule of law, thereby undermining the delicate balance between the two key rules of democracy. Is it not a paradox of our time that the rights of citizens are today better acknowledged in European and British monarchies than in democracies such as India?
Views are personal. The author is former Chief Election Commissioner of India.