Religion, Culture and Governance
A Look at the Culture of Public Service
Inder Kumar Gujral
Member of Parliament (Lok Sabha) and Former Prime Minister of India

The latter half of the Twentieth Century will probably go down in history as one which has seen serious attempts to build a global society on the principles of democracy and human rights. The past decade alone has seen many countries embrace democracy, side by side with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain. For all this apparent progress though, the worldwide spread of democracy has been a slow and frustrating affair. A majority of the world's population still live under totalitarian regimes of various kinds. Even in those countries which had apparently made a successful transition to freedom, Pakistan being a recent example. We find that the democratic veneers are thin and tenuous, easily abused, broken and overturned by democrats and dictators alike.

Independent India is alone amongst the developing countries in maintaining an unbroken history of democratic rule. The Indian Constitution accords special rights and protection to the minorities and others amongst the most vulnerable sections of Indian society, and its human rights record provides yet further confirmation of India's democratic sensibilities. Indeed, India is further traveled down the human rights road than most others, as may be seen in the implementation of reservations for women in one third of all elective seats in Panchayats, (village and town assemblies), and the slated intention to replicate this in the Lok Sabha, the National Legislature, as well.

A democracy is rooted in various elements - the rule of law, regard for human rights, individual freedoms and liberties. Yet while the laws of a society and the rights and liberties of its citizens can easily be legislated, something more than mere laws is required to ensure that the law is respected. There is an attitude, a mind set, which derives from some form of religious-cultural training, which is necessary for the foundation of a strong civic society. That is why to my mind there is some considerable degree of correlation between the religious-cultural traditions of various parts of the world and their democratic experience.

Which is why India's success with democracy is something so special. For outside the frontiers of Western Democracy - which is to say those countries that trace their roots to the Christian traditions of Western Europe - India seems to be the only society with such deeply ingrained democratic sensibilities. Why has India been so uniquely blessed ? What is there in the Indian mind set that makes for such a fortunate experience ? Are there some general lessons to be drawn from India's particular experience ? This article tries to unravel some of the issues involved.

Within this overall context we take a particular look at the concept of public service or civic duty, and its role in a democracy. The basic conclusion of this article is that strong ethic of public service - what is conveyed in the phrase, "Service before Self" - is necessary for democratic society to survive. It is important not to forget this principle now, especially when every message in today's globalized society seems to be saying that unrestricted individualism is the solution to all the problems and infirmities of a society. No society can remain free and democratic if it is built only on human selfishness. "Service before Self" - a teaching that comes essentially from religion - is also essential for democracy to survive and to flourish.