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Saturday, May 28, 2005

dir="ltr">After days of agonizing suspense, high drama and emotions, a new Union Council of Ministers took office under Dr Manmohan Singh’s stewardship.  The sage decision of Mrs Sonia Gandhi to stand aside has enhanced her personal prestige, helped the Congress party claim the high moral ground and prevented potentially disastrous national strife and polarization.

In an ideal world, we would not have witnessed these painful developments centered round the ethnicity and origins of the leader of the largest party. But as a nation which is still tormented by its colonial past, India has not yet acquired the self-confidence of a modern, diverse democracy. Nationalism, as defined during the freedom struggle, was somewhat narrow cultural atavism, racial bigotry and idolatrous patriotism. In a modern liberal democracy, nationalism has to be based on universal respect for human values, rule of law, justice, human dignity and opportunities for vertical mobility for all. Clearly, we need to do a lot in building a vision of India, which includes all citizens, and makes us all self-confident, proud and equal.

That apart, we have an unusual combination of a President and a Prime Minister   in Dr Abdul Kalam and Dr Manmohan Singh. Both are immensely popular and highly respected. Their competence, commitment and integrity make them universally acceptable. What is more, both are not seen as politicians by most citizens, and this enhances their appeal immensely! That not being a politician is a great qualification is an unmistakable sign of the crisis of legitimacy afflicting our democracy.

Much more worrisome is the fact that neither the President nor the Prime Minister is ‘electable’ in our political system! President Kalam never contested for legislative office, and Dr Manmohan Singh lost from one of India’s most sophisticated and wealthy constituencies the one time he contested. This is no reflection on them; it is a sad commentary on a perverted electoral system and political process in which the most widely respected, acceptable and decent citizens cannot survive. Clearly, something is seriously wrong.

Certainly, there are several competent and honest people elected to the Lok Sabha and state assemblies. But there are many more such immensely suitable persons who do not stand a chance in our electoral process which in general favours a Taslimuddin over a Manmohan Singh. Happily, there are a few young and competent persons elected to the Lok Sabha. But if truth be told, most of them are there because of their pedigree, not proven competence. True, pedigree is no disqualification in politics. Nor is wealth. But if pedigree and money power become the chief qualifications, then democracy is derailed. And if criminality and muscle power are regarded as positive attributes in politics, then alarm bells should ring. Let us face it - these distortions make us all feel uncomfortable, no matter which party or combine is in power.

At the state level, politics is even murkier. Large amounts of money are believed to  change hands for striking a political deal - to form a government or unseat one. If the recent election taught us one lesson, it is that most people are vexed with what is happening, or not happening in the states.

If we conclude from this that politicians at state level are somehow more venal and corrupt, that will be a complete distortion of reality. The things that matter to people directly health care, education, justice delivery, rule of law, basic amenities, natural resources development are all dealt with at the state level. The gulf between promise and performance is therefore much greater in states. As real power is exercised in states, there is greater contention for power, and much greater propensity to abuse it. Transfers and postings, contracts and tenders, and crime investigation are the playthings of power brokers in states.

But if recent events demonstrate anything, it is that political parties have become private estates and pocket-boroughs of individuals and families. This is true at both the national and state levels. The party bosses hold the monopoly of power and distribute political patronage including party nominations for legislative office at will.

Since victory means winning most seats in constituencies, micro management of elections becomes critical. And since victory in a constituency is defined as winning the marginal vote which puts the candidate ahead of rivals, those who can somehow get that marginal vote become candidates. If there is a feeling of ‘sweep’ in favour of a party, it is loyalists of a leader who get the nod. Usually the election is perceived to be ‘tight’ before the polls, and therefore along with loyalty, money-power (to buy vote, or at least neutralise the opponent), muscle-power (to browbeat opponents and get false votes cast), caste (depending on local demography) or pedigree become all-important. Once candidates are nominated and elected in that manner, the future is sealed. That is why Abdul Kalam and Manmohan Singh are generally ‘unelectable’ and even if a decent person heads the government, his room for manoeuvre is very limited. After all, the legislators invested a lot in most cases, and they demand their pound of flesh!

There are two paradoxes we face. First, every election is a promise for change, and yet the very process of election in our system ensures that no real change can come about. Only the beneficiaries of plunder and power games change. Second, real change of governance is necessary at the state level, but the states are not in control of levers of change. This is because the electoral system can only be changed by Parliament.

The Union government today came to office on a platform of change. That change must result in better service delivery for the poor. But that is possible only with decentralisation (which state legislators oppose because they lose patronage), and improved electoral system which makes the likes of Kalam and Manmohan electable. Happily, the Left parties are committed to proportional representation which gives space for decent and honest elements to be elected without deploying abnormal money-power and muscle. The Constitution allows multi-number constituencies and elections based on proportional system. All it needs is a change of law by a simple majority in Parliament. This, combined with selection of party nominees for legislative office by members or their elected delegates through secret ballot will break the vicious cycle we find ourselves in. The political process will break out of the inertia and actually usher in real changes. Will Dr Manmohan Singh and the Left parties act quickly?