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Saturday, August 31, 2002

All democracies are prone to a healthy dose of skepticism about their politicians. Once the distinguished chaplain of the US Senate Reverend Everett Hale was asked, “Reverend, do you pray for the Senators every morning?”. He replied calmly, “ No; I look at the Senators, and pray for the country”.

This is a difficult time for a politician in India. Suddenly, a series of exposés, and scams put the politicians in the dock. The Gujarat carnage, the oil dealer scam, the vociferous opposition to disclosure of financial details of candidates -  all make people more skeptical and irreverent.

For decades, political patronage in license-permit raj has been an integral feature of our governance. So why this fuss about a few dealerships? Politicians actually came forward to disclose criminal records. And yet, why are they roundly criticized? The government actually introduced in March 2002 a potentially far-reaching legislation for political funding reform. But all that people care for is disclosure of financial details of candidates, their spouses and dependants! What makes people so belligerent, and politicians so defensive?

Two factors contributed to this sudden resurgence of people power. A decade of rapid economic growth  and exposure to satellite television and modern communications changed the world of educated, middle-class Indians beyond recognition. We now understand our potential as a nation, and are starting to ask uncomfortable questions. Not too long ago, a few sops from politicians, and a few crumbs from bureaucrats were sufficient to shut us up. Obsequious obeisance to authority has been our tradition. Today, modern notions of accountability and popular sovereignty have at last caught up with us. Politicians can no longer get away with a fraction of what their predecessors managed.

Major changes are in the offing in our polity and society. The nation is in a state of flux. In order to make this transition smoother, and the outcome positive, we need to answer two questions. First, what is the role of constitutional authorities? Second, are politicians the villains they are made out to be?

We are blessed with strong and independent constitutional authorities – the Election Commission, Supreme Court, Public Service Commission, CAG etc. A mature democracy does not allow excessive concentration of power in any agency. It is said that the United States has the largest number of final decision makers in a country. Power is dispersed horizontally and vertically, and there are checks and balances everywhere. 80% of the real power in India is concentrated in the hands of the DM of the district, CM of the state and the PM. However wise and worthy these functionaries may be, this power has to be dispersed, exercised transparently and made accountable. Empowered local governments and independent constitutional authorities are two means for such dispersal of power. This does not mean unelected constitutional authorities can exercise veto power over politicians. In a democracy, the ultimate authority and responsibility rests with elected politicians. But within reasonable limits, constitutional functionaries should play their rightful role without being maverick adventurists. Only with such institutional checks can liberty be safeguarded. It is the failure of these checks which led to the disastrous emergency.

Now, are all politicians bad and cannot be trusted? Far from that. Politicians have an extraordinarily difficult job to do in a complex society. They reconcile conflicting interests, and make difficult choices in the face of unlimited wants and limited resources. If healthy skepticism degenerates into revulsion of politics, democracy is endangered. What we need is more politics, not less; more democracy, not less.

We need to understand the primacy of politics in a democracy, and appreciate the compulsions under which politicians work today. Unthinking invective, and hasty judgment make us, a part of the problem. The cost of elections is skyrocketing. The recent Saidapet assembly byelection in Tamilnadu is reported to have cost over Rs. 10 crore! Byelections to Kanakapura, in Karnataka, Vuyyur, Medak and Siddhipet in AP entailed astronomical expenditures. In order to sustain themselves, governments and parties have to pander to the whims of legislators elected at exorbitant expense. Any major party which attempts to break the unwritten rules has to pay the penalty. The cadre and ideology-based left parties are the only significant exception. But they too are facing problems of poaching and defection in some states. Parties are torn between their desire to please the public, and their need to appease their legislators and cadres. No wonder, they attempt to run with the hares, and hunt with the hounds. It is easy to sit in judgment of politicians. Real reform is possible only when we understand the nature of our electoral system, and approach the political process with great respect and sympathy.

Then how will change come? Unsustainability of status quo is forcing change. The license raj and kleptocracy of the 70’s are much harder to sustain today. And yet, politics has become far more expensive, demanding evermore returns. Meanwhile media are more aggressive, and communications revolution brings the scandals and scams to our drawing rooms instantly. All this presages fundamental change. If we understand the nature of the problems, and focus on the solutions, this transition will be less painful and more orderly. We need to bring back glory to politics, not undermine the political process further. A Musharaff will not provide a solution; he will add to our problems. The greatest asset we have is democracy. In our exasperation, if we look for a knight on a white horse, we will have discarded our most precious possession, our liberty. Equally, the politicians must seize the opportunities for political reform, not resist even the slightest improvements for fear of exposure and loss of patronage.They should stop behaving like frightened animals in a cage.