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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Is there room for honest politics?

The citizens are related to their governments in three basic ways. It is they who choose-and boot out - the governments and are thus theoretically the masters. But should the government prove to be irresponsible, inefficient or influenced by criminal elements, they become the victims. If the quality of the various public services and development activities is poor because of the inclusion of corrupt elements they are made suckers of. Whether the citizens shall remain masters, victims, or suckers depends on the correctness of their choice.

Politicians were subjected to a campaign of slander and calumny, in the wake of 26/11, like they had been never before in the history of independent India. The media amplified these voices several times over to make every household reverberate with the message “enough is enough”. It seemed that people would now take charge of their destiny and undertake a radical reform of the political system. But we are almost half way through the elections but if the low percentage of voting suggests anything we are more indifferent than ever. Many of the soldiers of the civil society of the ‘Mumbai march’ variety appear to have departed. Departed and have left behind no addresses. It is pretty much business as usual, and from the looks of it, this election is going to be no different from the many earlier ones. Criminal are as much in vogue as is the power of money and muscles. The manifest centrality of the primordial loyalties- of caste and religion- is very much in evidence. Those who have mastered the instrumentality of the electoral process, the social engineers who can graft, transplant, and repair fissures in the social groups for purposes of electoral mobilization continue to be leaders as they always were. As for their manifestos one can not tell one form the other.

Quite a few serving officers have sought voluntary retirement to join the fray. It would have been a bilateral issue between the political party and the civil servant, were it not for the fact that it leads one to make, mentally, a backward integration of his stay in the civil service. What led the civil servant to believe that a particular political party would chose him as a candidate in preference to a hundred other more committed, long serving grass root party workers? Was he, while in service, acting like a mole for that political party, while enjoying all the securities, immunities and privileges available to a civil servant. And how can a civil servant who earns just enough to keep the body and soul together hope to compete in an arena where the average electoral expenses would be more than the entire salary that he would earn during his career? Democracy is, above all, about equality. If money or caste or a privileged perch in the positions of influence becomes the deciding factor, then, per se, the election ceases to be representative and the inequalities deepen. The entire polity is seized of the fact that political use of money is eroding the solid ground under the electoral democracy and, with every new election, the cost of campaigning rises dramatically. But several utopian drafts to curb and regulate it have failed to see the light of the day

Proximity, nearness, approachability and ready availability of the elected representatives are the hallmarks of electoral democracy. In India, where local government is but fledgling and in formative stages of its evolution, a parliamentary or legislative representation commands great premium and clout in the power system. In this media- soaked age every glamorous toy- boy , dumb doll or smart alec, every well heeled political mercenary or power hungry capitalist feels he is ripe for this last privilege. He may mesmerize the voters by his charm or money but if he wins the seat he is bound to go back to his hugely profitable vocations only to play a few cameo roles in the parliament but leaves his people voiceless and powerless.

Why should a country of young men- people belonging to the 15–35 consist the largest group - be ruled by a geriatric leadership. Age not only leads to the weakening of muscles and arteries, but also the hardening of attitudes, fixity of opinion. The old tend to fight tomorrow’s war with weapons forged yesterday.

Consequently they seem better prepared to handle crises long past than coming challenges. The people of my generation put up with all this since they must, but how do the young take it?

The reasons for disappointment with contemporary politics are so many that it becomes difficult to see the way ahead. More than 50% of the voters abstained from registering their choice is the extreme gesture of withdrawl. Occasionally one may express enlightened opinion, on others, plain disappointment or impatience or some defeated mutterings in the approved manner of the times but rarely does this awareness take the shape of serious and sustained engagement.

The notion that politics is not what it ought to be has led many to cultivate a gentlemanly distaste to engage in this messy activity. The message has been in the air for quite some time that now is the time for all sane, right people to retire to the wilderness of passive armchair contemplation. Someone else must do the clean-up before we can engage in this. Therefore, a large number of us have opted for the role of mute spectators, like ladies up in a pavilion, watching the gladiatorial contest.

One has to be naïve to the point of stupidity to demand absolute honesty from politics and politicians. Granted, there may be some, but you would have to dig for them like an archaeologist or look for them like deep sea divers. So, the search for an absolutely honest politician is in itself a variety of escapism, an excuse for passivity and social disengagement. Talleyrand, the well known French politician, was no paragon of virtue. He was a mountebank and a mercenary; he befriended people only to betray them. An apocryphal story has it that he did not sell his mother only because he could not get the appropriate price. But, he put his country France, beyond the pail of contentious and partisan politics. One may not exactly deduce a set of high principles from his politics but one can certainly arrive at boundary conditions.

A politician is expected to provide sinecures for his caste men and cronies, even bless complete strangers form his constituency, or settle scores on behalf of his supporters. So in a situation like this the question that needs to be asked is not whether politicians are honest; the relevant question would be whether they would be allowed to remain honest, once they are elected to office. One may be accused of moral relativism, even cynicism to suggest that politics is a most precarious vocation and we must not grudge the occasional rewards he picks up, provided his moral and political compass is fixed in the direction of the goals that the nation sets for it. While indulging in small compromises or making course correction, it must always have the ultimate goal in mind. Abraham Lincoln, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slaves , I would do it; and if I could save the Union by freeing all the slaves I would do it; if I could save the Union by freeing some and leaving some alone, I would do even that. What I do about slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe that it helps save the Union and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union …” We, as citizens , must set the ultimate goal and then judge the performance of our elected representatives with reference to these goals. But can we arrive at a consensus even on a basic minimum of issues? It would be interesting to have a peep in the minds of gen next on this issue.