True Democracy in Action


As a Swiss citizen born in India, I am many times brought to think about my experiences of the democratic systems prevalent in the two countries.

Before Indian ‘patriots’ start screaming murder at what I am going to say, I should point out that I am fully aware that I am talking about two different historical realities.

Switzerland has been independent for over 800 years while India is a newly created entity, now a mere 66 years old.

Switzerland has a population of only 8 million while India has the second highest population of any country in the world at over 1.2 billion (give or take a few million). And expected, in the near future, to even outstrip China, and become the world’s most populous.

The trigger for this set of reflections was what I saw on the 7.30 pm eve. news on Swiss TV a couple of weeks ago.

The Swiss President, Mr Ueli Maurer, was leaving on a five day state visit to China. The news showed him arriving at Zürich airport in an ordinary private vehicle. The President got out of the car by opening the car door himself. He walked to the nearby baggage trolley stand outside the airport entrance. He took a baggage trolley out, rolled it towards the car, lifted his suitcase and travel bag himself, put these on the trolley which he then rolled towards the entrance like any passenger lambda like you or me. He walked up to the check in counter with just two other persons walking behind him. He checked his luggage in for a commercial flight without any special treatment being meted out to him.

For any Indians (or others) who might find it difficult to believe what I have described above, you can CLICK on the link provided hereunder, at the end of this article, to view a TV news clip from the evening prime time news for July 16, 2013..

You’ll get visual proof of the Swiss President’s arrival at the airport, his check in for his state visit to China and a short interview with a TV journalist. This clip is really worth watching.

Conditioned by my personal experiences of dealing with politicians and government ministers in India while serving as an IAS (Indian Administrative Service) officer, I was so struck by the contrast between what I had experienced in India and what I was seeing on the TV screen that I told my wife that this represented one of the finest examples of democracy for me, certainly of the Swiss variety. It made me proud to be the citizen of a country where the serving President behaves like an ordinary citizen and does not feel the need to consider special privileged treatment as his divine birthright.

I remembered the countless times when I had seen the fury of Indian politicians, much below the level of the President of a country, at what they considered as a slight because they had not been treated as demi-gods.

I am not a psychologist. I do not know whether centuries of slavery have generated this distorted VIP culture in India but I remember that we all did curse the politicians there for causing so much inconvenience to the general public by expecting, demanding and getting privileged treatment.

Who in India, except maybe some politicians or bureaucrats, has not been inconvenienced by VIP visits for which miles of roads and highways, even entire neighbourhoods, are blocked off to traffic, and flights are delayed, awaiting the arrival of some VIP or even his/her flunkies/family members?

Any such inconvenience would cause an uproar in Switzerland.

In India, it does not generate even a whimper.

In this context, an incident from the not very distant past strongly lingers in my memory. A few years ago, a former IAS batch-mate of mine (1976 batch) had visited Switzerland.

I have noticed that Switzerland becomes a prize destination of choice for a lot of Indian ministers and bureaucrats during their hot summer for attending all kinds of useless conferences which are essentially talking shops organised by the United Nations, an organisation which is a hotbed of nepotism and inefficiency.

This IAS officer wanted to see Switzerland, so I acted as his local tourist guide.

While we were going around the Swiss federal capital, Bern, it was lunch time so we decided to have lunch at a restaurant very close to the Swiss parliament building.

As we took our seats at a table, a Swiss gentleman sitting at the next table, reading his newspaper while sipping his coffee, greeted us in English. While we ordered our meal and waited, he finished reading his newspaper, drank his coffee and called for his bill which he paid before leaving. While going out, he again politely wished us goodbye, even saying, “I hope you enjoy your stay in Switzerland” in English.

After he had left, I asked my visitor if he knew who the man had been. Obviously, my visitor did not know the answer. I informed him that we had just been greeted by the then serving Swiss President, Mr René Felber.

My guest thought I was making fun of him. He would not believe me so I called the restaurant manager to confirm the veracity of what I had told him. The manager duly confirmed what I had said.

My Indian visitor was flabbergasted. He said, “How can this be possible? He actually paid his bill before leaving”.

So, what struck my visitor the most had been the fact that a VIP had actually paid his bill! I wonder what he would say if he saw our current President, Mr Ueli Maurer, personally loading his bags on to a baggage trolley and wheeling it to a check-in counter just like any ordinary citizen. His disbelief could only be countered by visual evidence on the TV!

My visitor’s reaction brought back memories of when, as a serving sub-divisional or district level official, I had been called upon to organise lunches and dinners for numerous collections of freeloaders travelling with ministers or bureaucrats in India.

I seldom remember any politician or bureaucrat actually paying or even offering to pay for the bonanza laid out for them. Those who did offer to pay, did so at the ridiculously low official daily fare of eleven rupees (today, a mere 20 cents US) per person or something like that.

Nobody ever asked how it had been possible to lay out a lavish meal comprising several dishes, accompanied by expensive alcoholic beverages, for such a petty sum. I never found out myself who used to pay for all this extravaganza at the end of the line.

Like a good Indian bureaucrat, I just used to pass the buck down the line to my junior magistrates and revenue officials. To this day, I am unable to clarify which poor victim — read, citizen! — who got stuck with paying for all the freebies on offer.

While working as chief of staff to the President of the Swiss Commission for the Presence of Switzerland in Foreign Countries many years ago, I had the chance of accompanying him to Strasbourg for meetings of the Council of Europe. I also had the privilege of close interaction with several Swiss members of parliament over an extended period of 12 to 14 months.

The contrast to the behavioural pattern of what I had experienced in India with politicians was so stark that it has stayed seared in my mind even till today.

I am by no means suggesting that Swiss politicians are angels but the kind of behaviour that Indian politicians or bureaucrats get away with as a matter of routine in India would torpedo their careers in Switzerland in a jiffy. Each such incident deepens my gratitude to Waheguru Almighty for having made me settle down in a country like Switzerland where the President carries his own bags to the check-in counter. 

Where no roads are blocked for hours so that some VIP can, in the name of security, be whisked around in convoys of official vehicles. Where politicians and bureaucrats pay their bills in restaurants. Where grossly sycophantic behaviour is not the general and accepted norm. 

Where no red-light beacons or screaming sirens signal the passage of VIP vehicles. Indeed, the red-light-beacon culture of officialdom in India merits a full story in itself.

I might accept India as a true democracy the day I see its President or Prime Minister behaving like the Swiss President before his departure on an official visit abroad. 

I don’t think I will ever see such a sight in India during my lifetime.
You think, maybe, my grandchildren will?
To view the TV news-clip, please CLICK here.

Shared by Sh. Vijay Saluja