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Can a Politician be a Gentleman?

V._S._Srinivasa_Sastri_1921

(Following is a compelling speech on politics and politicians by an eminent politician of pre-independence days delivered at the NagpurUniversity Union function in 1935. In the speech below Srinivasa Sastri, exhorts the youth to always see the opponent’s point of view.  The point he makes is an ‘ideal’ state to which present Politics and politicians would do well to aspire for and while Indian Politics has degraded into a state of personal gain versus service for the country, it is interesting to note that indeed the time he speaks of, things were different – and if they could be different then, there is no reason why, Politics cannot once again achieve a more enlightened outlook. It would be a great day when the Indian politician could once more be a gentleman at the same time.)

You have said that in my political career I have tried to see the other man’s point of view. It is sometimes accounted to me as a weakness, but I believe, on the whole that to understand the case of your adversary, to concede his points where they are proper, to give him credit even as you take it to yourself, to be moderate in presenting your own side and not over-enthusiastic like an advocate, trying to demolish your opponent, is but another name for weakness, for tepidity of conviction on your part, for failure to serve your party as a partisan should serve it. That may be the truth to some extent. But there is far more greater truth in the other proposition that, where sharp differences divide the parties, the impartial man will deliver his verdict only after hearing both sides. Yes, it is not given to many persons to see the truth wholly. Not everybody whose passions and feelings are engaged in hot and living issues of the moment that can view all sides of a question temperately, dispassionately and with a single desire to arrive at the truth. Nevertheless, there is the supreme virtue in controversy which it is the business of a university and its professors to cultivate and encourage in one, by example as well as by precept.

You have said that I have shown in my life that it is possible to be a politician and a gentleman at the same time. I must thank you for the compliment. I hope it is genuine. But believe me in saying that, you have implicitly condemned the rest of my tribe. In all fairness to them it behoves me, if I can, to apply the corrective measures. It is the cynical remark that is difficult for a politician to attain the impartiality, the courtesy and the honourable standards of a gentleman. Alas, there is a good deal of truth in it too. Truly speaking, before I pass on to consider this matter, may I clear up what might be a misconception on the part of many of you? Politics, whether in this country or another, is not a profession in the sense in which we ordinarily use the word ‘profession’. A profession is that calling or occupation which we pursue for the sake of profit or as a life interest. Amongst very few people indeed is politics pursued in that sense of the word. But let us dwell upon the state of things that prevail today. Politics is not a lucrative profession. I will not deny that there are some who handle public affairs with a view to the illegitimate gains thereof. There are others who look forward to the distinctions that await the successful one amongst the toilers in public life. But leave them aside for the moment. Generally speaking, politics is still the occupation of people who have no direct eye either to profit or to some equivalent attraction. Well, then, why is it not possible in many cases to be a gentleman and a politician at the same time? If politics can be an ideal, politics can also be degraded in practice. As an ideal, I see no harm in it. As an ideal, politics requires you to prepare yourself carefully by study and by observation. It requires you to always put yourself in the position of a servant of the community, one who seeks its welfare and has trained himself systematically to place that interest above his own or that of any section of the public. It requires that you should pay unremitting attention to public business as it comes along. It also requires that in your conduct towards others engaged in a similar occupation you must show chivalry and respect, the same as you would ask for yourself. But how far is it from that ideal in actual practice around you? Well, I would take you too far into the dust and dirt of politics were I to mention the various forms in which corruption sets in, in which men deteriorate, in which they forget the standards of public life, in which they put aside this great interest, namely, the welfare of the community; in which indeed all forms of casuistical argument come in and a man, not voting as the public welfare requires him, is still able to make his conscience go to sleep because, forsooth, although he has not voted upon the highest grounds, he has still voted up unselfish grounds, because he has voted as his leaders desire, or as his party prescribed, or as his neighbours would have him decide the issue. Yes, that is the way Satan comes in always for guiding and manipulating those of us who are willing to listen to him.

As I told you, the essence of politics is that we should take different sides in order that by effective advocacy of both sides, the mean may be arrived at, truth may be served and the ends of justice be preserved. It is your duty to be on one side, it is the duty of the other man to be on the other side. If he takes that view, he does that only for the good of the public. Why should you consider him to be such an enemy that he must be cut off from social relations? And yet what opposition in politics can be more definite, more sharp, and more obstinate than the opposition between the prime minister of a democratically governed state and the leader of the opposition? Nevertheless, do you know that when the opposition weakens, when the leader of the opposition is not careful, does not come well prepared and shows some feebleness in presenting the opposite case, the man who would regret the degeneracy most is the properly equipped prime minister, for he is a man who sees only one side of the case strongly. His mind and all his thoughts are concentrated only upon a certain side, and, if he were the right type, he would thank the man who showed him the other side, which is naturally and habitually closed to him.

– Srinivasa Sastri

Jagadisan, T.N. ed. The Other Harmony: A Selection from the Writings and Speeches of V.S. Srinivasa Sastri. Madras, S. Viswanathan, 1945. p. 72-87

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