Editor's Note: This is the eighth in a 10-part series of interviews with well-known residents of Delhi on issues that they believe define the 2019 Lok Sabha election.
Navin Chawla’s devotion to Mother Teresa is written about more than his being a bureaucrat. Whenever the latter part would be mentioned, critics would make it a point to accuse him of having a political affiliation. That the Chawlas, both Navin and his wife Rupika are well-connected is well known, as is the fact that they are counted as among the personal friends of the Gandhis. There is a bonding that turned into friendship and many close to him say that his allegiance has been controversial and adversely affected his career prospects. He was targeted by non-Congress governments, though critics allege that he ruled the roost whenever the Congress was in power, more particularly the Gandhis.
Chawla, however, steered clear of the barbs and whenever the going got tough, immersed himself in his favourite pastime — writing.
His devotion to Mother Teresa has been his greatest source of strength and while he brushes aside all allegations of his political allegiance, he emphasises on his Mother Teresa connection. If he continued in service despite the controversies, it was because she had extracted a promise from him that he would not leave government service. Her last words to him were to go and touch the lives of the poor. He did so by setting up NGOs and working for hearing-impaired children and leprosy patients.
Chawla served as the 16th Chief Election Commissioner of India and his tenure was mired in controversy. Yet, he won praise for conducting several elections smoothly. His authorised biography of Mother Teresa won critical acclaim.
An early memory of Chawla was that of former prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru lifting him by his ears to congratulate him.
He recalls, “My formative years shaped me. My parents were forward-looking in their thinking and beliefs. They were not especially religious. My father belonged to the Arya Samaj, a movement that eschewed formal religious practice. My mother too, was raised in pre-Partition India and many of her friendships were cemented in culturally evolved Lahore.
“In my nine years in a public school, we never learned the meaning of class distinctions or of caste, religion or community. Only scholastic or sporting ability defined our achievements. Delhi University’s St Stephens College, that followed, was in many ways a continuation of the school years and here too, our existence continued to be marked without any kind of social or religious distinctions whatsoever. Those years helped shape the way I looked at the world around me, encompassed in Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore’s words that resounded in our daily school assembly ”of a country where knowledge is free, where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls.”
“I entered the civil service in 1969 and served for 37 years. In 1975, I first encountered Mother Teresa and soon came under her spell of service with compassion. Mother Teresa would handhold me as she slowly led me through her world of abject poverty, starvation, loneliness, disease and deprivation. Once I entered this world of poverty, my aspirations and vision gradually underwent a change”.
Chawla further recalls, “After I was appointed Election Commissioner, my vision of India changed dramatically. For the first time, I came into contact with our political establishment, albeit on the other side of the fence. I soon discovered that during the course of elections, there was only one ‘mantra’ for those in the fray, be it parties or candidates, that of ‘winnabilty’, virtually at any cost. Although there were some honourable exceptions, laws were all too often infringed, even at the cost of tearing asunder the fabric of tolerance, communal and social harmony, and goodwill.
“As I have argued in my recent book ‘Every Vote Counts,’ money and muscle power have now raised their ugly heads to an unprecedented degree. Echoing former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s words, while clean and transparent elections with integrity is the bedrock of democracy, clean democratic elections are not always assured. To worsen matters, the fourth pillar of democracy is now riven by paid news, while fake news in this world of post-truth has shaken our faith in what to believe or not.”
He rues, “Could we have imagined a time when criminals, convicted and jailed, would conduct their campaigns and even win from behind prison walls? Would electoral violence and the spending of money hundreds of times over statutory limits, result in placing those with criminal antecedents to represent us in our Parliament and State legislatures? This was indeed the very opposite of all the values that we were taught in our educational institutions. Surely this was not the India that Mahatma Gandhi and our freedom fighters had fought for so selflessly.”
He asserts, “So I must continue to speak out about what is going right and what is growing wrong in the body politic of our country and attempt to find remedies, so that our comparatively nascent democracy can once again focus on curbing the huge and growing divide between our rich and the millions who are without employment, social security of any kind, potable drinking water and adequate housing, through a more equitable form of representation that enables today’s voiceless to be heard”.
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Updated Date: May 11, 2019 18:17:53 IST