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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 50, November 30, 2013

So Distant from India and So Close to Gandhi: A Note on a Gandhian President of a South American Republic

Sunday 1 December 2013, by Syed Shahabuddin


Uruguay is the second smallest state in South America with a GDP of $ 56.3 billion and a per capita GDP of $ 16,600. Jose Mujica, the head of state elected under the Constitution as the President of Uruguay, controls the Secretariat of the Presidency, the Council of Ministers and the office of Planning and Budget. He is also the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. The President and Vice-President are elected by direct elections for a period of five years, but without the right of immediate re-election. Only a candidate who obtains more than 50 per cent of the votes can get elected; otherwise there is a repoll. Jose Mujica was elected with 52.39 per cent of the total votes under the banner of a local alliance called ‘Broad Front’.

On election Jose Mujica, who is 77, chose not to occupy the grand Presidential Palace and lives in a farm house on the main road where he and his wife themselves work on the land. He receives a salary of $ 12,500 per month but keeps only 10 per cent for himself and donates the rest for the poor, students and small entrepreneurs. The President told the BBC that this is a matter of personal freedom because ‘if you control your needs you don’t need to work all your life and all the time like a slave, and thus have more time for yourself and the people’. Speaking to the UN at the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development, he explains this philosophy in the following terms:

“If all I’m doing is working to buy things to get more, if society of consumption is the energy of everything, where does this go? We need to start to fight for another kind of culture... Seneca said that ‘a poor person is not someone who doesn’t have very much, but the person who really is poor is the person that continues to need more and more and more and desires more and more’.”

One can easily see how in actual life President Mujica follows the Gandhian principles.

 Uruguay’s official language is Spanish and 88 per cent of its people are of European descent while eight per cent are mixed. Its area is just over 176,000 sq. kms and its population was estimated in 2011 at 3296 million. Its GDP is $ 56.338 billion and its per capita income is $ 16,607 but the President feels that many people of his country have lesser income and his objective is to keep himself engaged in helping the people by reducing the disparities in income. Its economy is basically agricultural. It’s a highly educated and cultured country.

Originally a colony of Portugal and Spain, it became a part of Brazil. After a four-way straggle against Spain, Portugal, Brazil and Argentina, it was independent in 1825 and adopted a Constitution in 1836. This was followed by battles with Brazil and Argentina.

Like all Latin American countries Uruguay also passed through political turmoil with the intervention of the Army. Democracy was finally restored in 1984 and under the new Constitution, national elections were held. Since then there have been national elections in 1999, 2004 and 2009 without any hassle. In 2010 Uruguayans were among the most supportive of democracy and showed satisfaction with the way the system was working. In the democratic index it secured 8.08 and ranked 23rd amongst the 30 countries considered to be full democracies in the world. In the Corruption Perception Index it ranks no. 24.

Uruguay is a representative democracy, a Republic with the presidential system. It is a unitary state which centrally administers Justice, Education, Health, Security, Foreign Policy and Defence. The executive power is exercised by the President and his Cabinet of 13 Ministers. As in most Latin American states, the posts of Ministers in serial order are laid down in the Constitution. Judicial power is exercised by the Supreme Court whose judges are elected by the General Assembly appointed with the consent of the Senate.

Argentina and Brazil are Uruguay’s immediate neighbours and most important trading partners. In fact, Uruguay lies between these two giants. It has enjoyed friendly relations with the USA but at the same time it has signed an agreement with Venezuela to receive 40,000 barrels of petroleum per day under a preferential tariff. In March 2011 it became the seventh South American state to recognise the Palestinian
state but did not specify the borders though it indicated its firm commitment to the peace process in the Middle East.

Uruguay ranks first in the world on per capita basis for its contribution to the UN Peacekeeping Force which has served in Congo; it also gave a Chief Military Observer to the UNMOG in India and Pakistan.

In many ways Uruguay, though a small country, is a model for a balanced development of agriculture and industry as well as for maintaining a balance between the urban and rural populations. But the most important aspect is the personal example set up by President Mujica in abstaining from the pomp associated generally with the office of the Presidency and living the life of a common citizen. One wishes the Indian President too followed this Gandhian example. 

The author, a former member of the Indian Foreign Service, is an ex-MP.

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