This was the stern warning given by the then President, K. R. Narayanan, to those occupying seats of power and authority as well as those elected to legislatures on the occasion of the golden jubilee of the Indian Republic in January 2000.

After quoting these lines from John Dryden, Mr Narayanan actually further rubbed it in by repeating: ‘Beware the fury of the patient and long-suffering people.'

This has been the indelible writing on the wall that rulers of every nation and every description — whether they are dictators or come to power through elections — have been failing to read all the time.

Throughout history, they have misinterpreted the patience of the people as a willing acceptance of their lot and, therefore, they are, as poet Subramanya Bharathi put it, like dumb, driven cattle on whom any kind of atrocity can be visited with impunity by the highest in the land. They fail to realise that the fact that the people are silent does not mean that they are not seething with anger.

It is hard to tell how long it will take for their patience to get exhausted, but when it does and their fury boils over, it is impossible to hold them back; they sweep everything before them like a veritable tsunami.

That was what happened at the time of the American, French and Russian revolutions, the Bangladesh liberation, the People's Power uprising in the Philippines and the upheaval in Indonesia that threw Suharto out.

Arrogance of power is not unique to dictatorships, though. The phrase itself, it must be remembered, was coined by Senator William Fulbright of a functioning democracy like the US, who also wrote a book of that title to describe how some US Presidents misused their power and misled the people.

Dangerous reasoning

Commentators have too smugly assumed that explosions of the kind witnessed in Tunisia and Egypt, and now expected to spread to other Arab countries, are possible only in the case of despotic regimes, not under democratic systems.

The latter are supposed to have built-in safety-valves for giving vent to the pent-up frustrations of the people. In view of this, observers have made a further assumption that the contagion, if any, will be confined to the countries of West Asia; Pakistan will escape because of its quasi-democratic trappings, and a parliamentary democracy like India being affected is simply unthinkable.

This reasoning is both fallacious and dangerous. Whether it is dictatorship or democracy, it is the degree of suffocation and suffering of the people, and not the political system, that will eventually determine when the people will decide that there is no way but to rise in revolt to get rid of the ruling dispensation.

If the so-called democracy results in the grabbing of unlimited power for itself by the rapacious top crust of the three branches of government to plunder the country and oppress the people, and if the face of every functionary of that so-called democracy the people have to deal with at their level seems to them to be not that of a sympathetic, honest, dutiful public servant but that of a ruthlessly corrupt and cruel monster, the same fate as that of any despotic regime is bound to overtake it sooner or later.

The staid and sedate H. M. Seervai, in his treatise on the Constitution, borrowed Lord Macaulay's words on the Britain of 18th-19th Century to portray politicians in India as a blend of “whatsoever things are false, whatsoever things are dishonest, whatsoever things are unjust, whatsoever things are impure, whatsoever things are hateful, whatsoever things are of evil report, if there be any vice and if there be any infamy”. If anything, things are now a lot worse.

Those in authority in India should heed K. R. Narayanan's warning, without being taken in by the people's outward calm. They are watching everything and keeping their own counsel. Beware!

(This article was published on February 2, 2011)
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