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October 29, 1998


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The Rediff Interview/T N Seshan

'We have no leaders at all, we have no leaders in any field'

T N Seshan had not come back from the school where he was addressing a bunch of students when Shobha Warrier reached his place. She was told that the question and answer session after the speech goes on and on. Of late, he has been speaking a lot on various school platforms. He knows that is the right place to sow the seeds for change. He looked very tired, but the moment he dropped himself on to a chair, he was ready to answer questions. 'No, no rest for me. Shoot,' said the former Chief Election Commissioner, before whom the mighty of the land quaked. An excerpt.

You have just come back after giving a speech in a school. How do school children react to your speeches?

( I get) Extremely informed, extremely mature, adult kind of queries on various subjects.

For example?

They ask all kinds of interesting questions. For example, what is the best way to improve our democracy? Should we change to the presidential system? Should we have qualifications for MLAs and MPs? How can we improve democracy? How do we deal with corruption? Is nuclear testing good for India? How do we deal with the damages reservations are doing? All kinds of important questions come from them.

Were you first surprised when they came up with such serious questions?

'Surprised' is not the word. I was quite agreeably surprised. I would say, if a hundred questions are asked -- in most schools I have at least a hundred questioners -- you would find only two or three questions which are on the light side. The other 98 are serious, substantive, solid questions. It was quite a revelation.

When you were young, were you as aware as today's children are?

Not at all. Not at all. When I was at the end of school, or even when I was at intermediate, I did not have the chance to be so well informed. Today's children are much more exposed through radio, television, their parents, newspapers and all kinds of magazine. That is why they are much more informed.

Are they really happy and satisfied with your answers?

No, they make it clear many a times that they are not satisfied with my answers. But if you don't possess a better answer, what do you do?

Now you write a column in The Week. You conduct talk shows on television. Is there any particular reason why you started writing a column? Do you want to convey any message to your readers?

The message is very simple and succinct. India was a great country. Our philosophy of existence was tolerance. It was not fundamentalism. Our history shows we had great periods. For 200-300 years, we were a slave country. We came out of slavery and achieved a great deal. But we have certainly not achieved many things which we wanted to achieve. Our social system has taken a bad beating. It is not at all satisfactory.

India is now at a crossroad. If it takes the right direction, it can become one of the most outstanding countries in the world in the next 10-15 years, particularly so because there is a technological breakthrough which is round the corner.

But if it take a wrong turn, it will batter itself and break down to bits and pieces. So, today's people must take a decision on this. This is the story I mention everywhere without exception.

You said, we are at a crossroad. Will you please expand on that?

We have two options. One is the right path of growth, development with consolidations by not permitting social barriers to break us up into little, little bits of pieces, not fighting with each other on petty issues. The alternative route is to break down on the basis of caste, language, religion and such petty reasons. It is quite possible. India has every possible danger of breaking into bits and pieces.

You interact with a lot of school children and college students these days. Are they optimistic? Or, are they cynical about the whole scenario?

I think it is fair to say that they are knowledgeable and confused. They have no specific stand on whether they are optimistic or pessimistic. They are confused. They are hopeful. They are angry with some of the things. Many children are angry about reservation. Many children are angry or unhappy that they have to go abroad to find them flowering. They can't do it in India. Many are angry that wrong politicians and wrong governments are not punished, as they ought to have been punished. It is a mixture.

Most of your columns end with, 'Cry, my beloved country.' Do you really feel like crying for the country? Many of us, like the children you talked about, are angry and frustrated. We do not feel like crying for the country.

The dividing line between crying, and anger and frustration is very narrow. If you want to convert your anger and frustration into activity, it is worthwhile. If you can't find any other way of giving expression to anger and frustration, what else do you do except cry?

Do you feel that frustrated?

It is not personal frustration. Many people think I am privately, personally frustrated. I am frustrated on behalf of the country. I am frustrated because a country with such tremendous potential is so backward.

Are we backward because we do not have good leaders?

We have no leaders at all. We have no leaders in any field.

Any field!?

Tell me one leader in one field. Politics, administration, teaching, engineering, accountancy, medicine... In no area we have leaders.

Do Indians really love their country? Do they really have desabhakthi?You hear people talking about how bad our country is.

It varies. There are all kinds of people who make up the totality. There are people who are uneducated, illiterate, non-demonstrative, non-loquacious. They may not speak to you formally that they are nationalist in their sentiments. There are people who are nationalists and expressive. I think the people who belong to the rural areas, who also speak, are very small in numbers. So, there is a rural-urban divide, the knowledgeable and the non-knowledgeable divide, the speaking group and the non-speaking group divide, and you put all that together and then the total number of people who speak up for the country is very small, very small.

Is it because Indians do not feel passionately for the country that they do not express their feelings?

It is the truth for some. To some others, that is not the truth. They are not just bothered.

Even an ordinary American talks very passionately about his country, more like a jingoist but here neither the educated nor the uneducated talk like that.

Yes, yes. It is because Indian nationalism is a product of less than fifty years. What was India in 1700 AD? A political entity called India emerged only in the early 1900s. Then, the nationalist sentiment was misunderstood as anti-British. After the British left, we are trying to develop nationalism and apparently fifty years is not good enough. Many civilisations and societies developed nationalism by bloodshed through which path they went to procure their independence. We didn't have to go through bloodshed to procure independence -- largely. We didn't go through a kind of exorcising blood path.

Are Indians an indisciplined lot?

Basically we are not a disciplined lot at all. Liberty is licence. We don't understand that an average citizen of a developed country surrenders a tremendous number of his liberties so that the civilised society can function well.

Is it because Mahatma Gandhi during the freedom struggle asked people to disobey rules and laws that we have become an indisciplined lot? We think we have to still continue the same civil disobedience.

It is not good argument at all because even before Gandhiji showed up on the screen, Indians were an indisciplined, disobedient lot. The opposite is true. The Indians were so indisciplined that it did not take them too much effort to join Gandhiji's passive resistance movement. But I don't think it is correct to attribute the entire disobedience or even a portion of it to Gandhiji.

Did you feel proud when India went nuclear?

Certainly proud, yes, but not proud to the point that it became privately euphoric. If you feel a sense of euphoria over this, it is foolish. Sense of pride is justified. I felt a sense of pride without euphoria.

The BJP wants the world to look at us as a superpower but it seems no country has liked the idea.

I don't think the BJP says we are one of the superpowers. If they say so, it is absolutely wrong. Merely because you have exploded a weapon, you don't become a superpower. I wrote so. This is not a digestible nourishment. Digestible nourishment is development. Nuclear explosion is a matter of philosophical strengthening and not substantive physical strengthening.

Your appear to have mellowed down now, even in your writing, Have you really?

No, I have not mellowed down at all. I must have something to hit against. Otherwise you don't show your willingness to hit.

Your sense of humour also is not seen these days. Don't you feel like laughing, at least sometimes? Like when Jayalalitha roars and the BJP rushes an ambassador to pacify her?

This is not a laughing matter. Running the country is not a light matter. It is a serious matter. Democracy has been reduced to a joke now a days.

Recently a drunken Tamil Nadu politician ran into the airport, broke the glass panes and threw his lungi away. He did all that in protest against the treatment meted out to his leader. Do we deserve only these kinds of politicians? Is there no other choice?

We have a choice. But not in the ballot papers. There are people out there who can be good choices but they refuse to come into the political arena. The standard Indian reaction is only complaining, he won't lift a little finger to rectify something. The possibility of our taking the right path is not as easy as taking the wrong path because the wrong path is downhill and hence much easier.

Recently, during the floods, a BBC team visited China and there we saw people including small children involved in keeping the floodwaters away. The image from India showed people huddled in one place, complaining about the government not doing anything to help them. Why do the Indians expect the government to do everything while the Chinese help themselves?

When you have somebody to support you, you feel like leaning. We have never been taught the value, the wisdom, and the necessity of self-reliance.

Where did we go wrong? Who is responsible?

I don't think you can point a single person or factor and say, this is responsible. It's a combination.

How can be bring about a change in attitudes?

One is a social revolution. A gigantic technological revolution also can pull us through. It might give us a pull which will make us escape the pit in which we are in. It may, I don't say it will. It has the potential to pull us through. Otherwise we will break up by internal conflicts.

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