Tuesday, April 04, 2006

The Blame the Politician Game

Elections are here in many states in India and the political machinery is getting into full swing. Election manifestos are released and promises made to the people - promises that are forgotten as soon as the polling is over. This is nothing unusual in India, or, for that matter, in any country. People have no option other than voting for a candidate, or a party, knowing fully well that it often hardly makes any difference who they vote for. The so-called 'verdict' of the people is often a response to the misrule of the party that has been in power, and hence the important place given to the incumbency factor.

On the other hand, we often hear people and the media blame the politicians for being dishonest and insincere. There appears to be very few gentlemen and ladies in the political arena who have been spared such branding. I think we need to look into this problem closely, if only because it is something that can affect our lives and that of our children significantly. Other than lamentations in the media, there doesn't seem to have been many serious efforts to understand the problem and find solutions. In this situation, it may not be totally out of place for me to give some ideas, though I am very much ignorant of history and politics.

I would like to look at the issue from a different point of view. Admittedly, a good number of politicians today are insincere and dishonest. I take this as a given (basic premise, or whatever) without bothering about its truth. Though this may not, strictly speaking, be a correct approach, I am sure many of you would agree with me on that. I then ask the question: Why? Why are today's politicians 'bad'? Is it because the parties have promoted all rotten people, and ignored the genuine ones? If so, again, Why? Is it because, as they say, Power Corrupts? Then what about the young leaders who have not tasted power? How come so many of them are also branded as insincere and dishonest?

I would like to go back by a few decades and take a look at the leaders who led the political parties of the time - be it the Indian National Congress or the Communist Party of India or any other. We see a number of outstanding individuals who could have landed good positions in the British Indian government before India got independence sacrificing all that for a life of uncertainty and, sometimes, great personal difficulty. You and I may or may not agree with their policies or actions, but it is rarely that we brand them as dishonest or insincere. Where have such people gone? Is it that today's people are all selfish and dishonest? I find it difficult to believe that, somehow, the character of the entire population has undergone a drastic change. On the contrary, could it be that honest and sincere people no longer come to politics? If that is the case, then, I guess, it is high time that our society did something about it, rather than simply blame those who are currently in politics.

"Oft-repeated Johnson's definition that politics is the last resort of the scoundrel holds good even to-day." says The Modern Rationalist. It goes on to say, "Why Thanthai Periyar shunned politics is also due to the same reason." This is not an isolated case. Pakistan's Daily Times ran an article by J. Sri Raman in its issue dated July 29, 2004, in which he wrote, "“Politics is the last resort of the scoundrel.” I suppose a computer-aided quantitative analysis can give a more precise finding; but, offhand, I will say that not a week passes without someone or the other citing this maxim in the Indian media." "It seems to be the nature of politics that ignorant racist boors often end up as "leaders", whether in the USA or Iran or anywhere else. It's not for nothing that the phrase "politics is the last resort of the scoundrel" was coined. We are best off ignoring these people and their ugly beliefs." goes a comment on, of all things, a review of a new GNU/Linux distribution at distrowatch! But can we simply ignore them? In an article by Ashu Pasricha in The Tribune dated January 30, 1999, she says, "Today the decent people in politics are a fast vanishing species in our land. This leads to the question why more decent people are not entering the fray? This is proving the dictum that “politics is the last resort of the scoundrel”. Today politics has undergone a sea change. Now it stinks. Politics has degenerated to the level of corruption, dishonesty, rank opportunism, expediency, manoeuvrings and manipulation of all kinds and above all, greed — devoid of moral fabric." Although she raises the question of why decent people are not coming to politics today, she does not try to answer it. Of course, the article was meant to be on Gandhiji, so she may be excused for not delving more deeply into the question above.

I too do not have a ready solution. In fact, I do not think that there could be any easy and quick solution anyway. But I think this is something our society needs to ponder over with more sincerity and seriousness if we expect to have good governance in the not too distant future. And, having raised this question, I feel it is also my responsibility to place a few suggestions here. So here they are, for whatever they are worth:

1. As a society, we need to repeatedly tell ourselves that running a government is one of the most difficult of tasks. Instead of repeating the Johnsonian quote given above, we need to spread the word that we need the best of individuals to run the government. Politics as a profession needs to be given a pride of place so that we attract the best of talent.

2. Politics should be taught right from school and there should be serious political debates from high school or higher secondary school onwards. These debates should be moderated by the teacher (who also may have his/her opinion). Children should be encouraged to delve deeper into current political issues so that they learn to discriminate between the superficial statements of politicians and the equally superficial analysis often dished out by the media.

3. We seem to expect the politician to give up everything and serve the people. I think this is absurd and counter-productive. Politicians also are human beings (in case you did not notice) and they too need families whom they have to support. In other words, society needs to find ways in which politicans can feed, clothe, educate, their families without having to collect money on the sly from whoever is willing to offer. I am strongly in support of allowing all employees to involve in political activity (which is banned now, though it is a public secret that almost every government employee has affiliations with a party). The employment gives them an income, and this brings into the political arena a large group of people, many of whom could be capable, honest and sincere.

Ladies and gentlemen, the topic is open for debate. Advance thanks for your contributions.

April 7, 2006. Let me add something that I missed last time.

People are often told that it is their duty as citizens of a democratic country to cast their votes. Voting is considered to be the most important responsibility of a citizen -- almost the be all and end all of democracy. I think this is a very wrong idea that should never be spread. Admittedly, every citizen should cast his vote for a democracy to function properly, although even that could be circumvented. For instance, at least in principle, if a survey is planned and executed very correctly, it should tell which is the party or the candidate that is most popular. The increasing accuracy of pre-election opinion polls is one sign of how the techniques are improving.

The problem is that we tend to see political parties as separate entities, one of whom we select to rule us for the next five years, almost like we select a contractor to build a bridge. In this process, we tend to forget that these parties are composed of people from among us, and that each one of us does have a role, however small, in deciding what these parties are and how they function. In fact, I think it is more important for every one of us to be involved with a political party and influence its functioning than to vote. Let me hasten to add that this is not at all to take away the importance of voting in the elections.

Let me narrate an incident which may give a clue to what I am trying to say. We have a Residents' Association in our colony, the responsibility of running which is put on someone's head at every General Body. Sometimes people protest, but usually someone takes on the responsibility. It so happened that the office bearers once elected did hardly anything for two years. There was none of the usual activities like cleaning the premises or arranging a family get-together once a year. They did not even bother to collect subscription from members. Eventually, some people got together and called for a General Body meeting to elect new office bearers and to revive the activities. Someone suggested that the dues from members should be collected first and a family get-together arranged. Then one elderly gentleman said that there was no rationale for collecting the subscription for the previous years because, as he said, "We did not get any service"! This was such a ridiculous statement because the Association is not a private agency whom we, the residents, are paying to get some service!

In a similar manner, we should not consider political parties as organisations external to society whom we select for a five year term based on the kind of service the previous party provided and the "quotation" (Election Manifesto) given by the different parties. These are structures built by us, for us and among us to carry out certain jobs. If these structures are not functioning properly, there is no point in blaming them. This is not like a class where you can blame the teacher if (s)he does not teach properly, or like your autombile workshop which you can change if you find that one fellow does not do his job properly. Political parties are organisations created by society, composed of individuals who are willing to work for them, and are required for a democracy to function properly. If they are not functioning as they should, let us get involved and do something about it, rather than just complaining. But, unfortunately, that has become our national habit -- complaining about anything, but doing nothing to bring about a change.

Any comments?