Morality and Ethics in Public Life: A Gandhian View

This is a vicious cycle … with money, politicians acquire power, and with power, politicians acquire money.

Morality and ethics are interrelated to each other in the sense that both are concerned with the behavior of man. Although many times both are interpreted as synonymous to the other, they are different in their meaning and scope, and thus need to be explained separately. They also need to be applied differently in the day-to-day practices of man. Furthermore, their application in individual and public life remains separate. Simultaneously, as per the demand, it is the subject of time and space; it is a subject of wide discussion and minute analysis.

When we talk of a lack of morality and ethics in public, this generally refers to the dishonesty in the economic affairs of those who are in various walks of public life. To put it simply, it is corruption, which is an international problem. It is of course, a serious problem. Along with Asia, it is also in Europe and America. It exists in Africa as well as the continent of Australia. This we can peruse and understand from the grafts that were sought in preceding years.

During the 1990s for example, the prime minister of Thailand, Silpa Archa, had to vacate his office due to corruption. During the same decade, we witnessed at least two dozen union minister, governors, and chief ministers from the provinces of India who had to resign due to corruption charges. Their names were discovered in the diary of a businessman who paid money to them as a bribe; the whole episode afterward became known as "Hawala."

Furthermore, England had a number of cases in the media that exposed corruption in the public life, particularly among members of Parliament. As a result, a book was published in Britain under the title, "M.P.'s for Hire." Consequently, a committee under the chairmanship of Lord Nolan was appointed and its report and recommendations raised many controversial issues about morality and ethics in public life.

In America, the Mafia and Tammany Hall-style organizations continue to influence politics. The Ethics Committee of the United States Congress has exposed many illegalities and corruption in the public life of America.

Countries like Indonesia, as well as many nations of the African continent, are known for corruption in the public sphere. In developing countries, kickbacks and sleaze are especially common. To achieve the maximum with minimum efforts is a sign of success, and in such an atmosphere, honesty is suffocated. These happenings pose serious challenges to the system, particularly to democracy and a decent public life.

Although this phenomenon is related to a constant lack of morality and ethics in public life, it is not new; on the contrary, it is quite old. Though the world has witnessed tremendous progress with science and technology transforming social life in terms of material gains in the last few years, the progress in material matters has been accompanied by a lowering of standards in public life. This is a vicious cycle in that with money, politicians acquire power, and with power, politicians acquire money. Money power and muscle power have totally destroyed political life. Mafias and gangsters seek to control public life in many countries.

It is indeed a matter of serious concern. It is more serious in a country like India. It is a challenge for the country. Moreover, it is highly regrettable that apart from bureaucrats and people in the educational field, front ranking leaders—even from the ruling parties, including the Congress, which had been nursed by Mahatma Gandhi for a long period of time—have been found among the accused. Great leaders like Sardar Patel and Rajenda Prasad too have led Congress and nobody dared to point an accusing finger toward their clean and transparent public life.

But what is this? In India corruption is an issue of serious concern today. It seems as if corruption is rampant in the whole system and now, without doubt, it is a matter of concern for all of us as it puts a question mark on the very existence of a respectable life and on our national character.

Now, what to do? And that too through the noble Gandhian Way! In my opinion, and in the opinion of many others, especially Gandhian scholars, the idea of Trusteeship can be helpful to deal with this situation. Trusteeship based on nonviolence is an essential part of the economic setup suggested by Mahatma Gandhi and is worth giving a thought in this regard. In Trusteeship, Mahatma Gandhi's economic management is fully associated with ethics and morality. In it those who own money are expected to behave like the Trustees holding their riches on behalf of the poor, and in which the labor-owner relationship is like two partners working for the public good.

This very idea could be the guideline for those who are in the public arena, who serve the people, society, and the nation, and who are in fact the custodians of national life. It is based on high morality and morality is a Dharma, a duty, beyond that law that has only legal sanction or legitimacy. But like Ahimsa it is also a plant of slow growth; it demands high courage and awakening from the inside. Therefore, it may seem impractical or the application of it may seem ineffective as far as the matter of improvement in public life is concerned. Even so, without any doubt from a Gandhian perspective it is important and adaptable.

Moreover, the role of all of us, the people, to establish morality and ethics in public life is most important, as we are the makers of our own kings of democracy. We elect our own representatives. We have all the power in our hands. Therefore, our awakening in the matter is of utmost importance. It is the time we must come forward. We must unite and sacrifice—as sacrifice is a must, especially along Gandhian lines—and with introspection individually and collectively make our [political] body, society, and the nation free of this evil or curse.

Dr. Ravindra Kumar is a universally renowned Gandhian scholar, Indologist, and writer. He is the former vice chancellor of the University of Meerut, India.

This article is based on extracts of Kumar's March 2008 address at Gayatri Vidya Parishad College of Engineering, Vishakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, India.