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Saturday, January 3, 2004

dir="ltr">James M Lyngdoh – a man well-known for unimpeachable integrity and impartiality, is also famous for his intrepid and sharp remarks. His recent utterances deriding politicians created quite a flutter.

People love to hate their politicians. The Chaplain of the US Senate was once asked, “Reverend, do you pray for the Senators every morning?”.  He replied, “No. I look at their faces, and pray for the country”. Politicians are often their own worst critics, and they employ invective as an effective weapon to undermine their opponents. This propensity makes them easy targets for public criticism. Disraeli and Gladstone were the great rival statesmen in 19th century Britain. Asked to differentiate between a misfortune and a calamity, Disraeli gleefully remarked, “If Gladstone falls into the Thames and drowns, it would be a misfortune. But if someone saves him, it is a calamity!”

In some ways, irreverence to power and healthy skepticism are signs of vitality in a democracy. But the Chief Election Commissioner’s harsh and sweeping remarks are both unwarranted and counterproductive.

Unwarranted, because such unrestrained attack reinforces popular prejudices against politics among the middle classes, and makes us a part of the problem, not the solution. The much-derided politician actually works incredibly hard to reach out to people. The relative unsophistication of the average grass-roots politician must not blind us to his vital contribution to sustain and strengthen liberty. Politicians are no more venal than the other players entrusted with the task of running the Indian state. In fact, compulsions of survival in a power-centered society mitigate the politicians’ culpability. The civil servants, whose life-long tenure is guaranteed, have no such compulsions. And yet, their failure is as pronounced as that of politicians. Even the judiciary, despite its independence and impregnable constitutional protection making it invulnerable to political vagaries and public moods, can be fairly criticised for law’s delays and growing propensity to yield to temptations.

Counterproductive, because in a free society there is no substitute to politics. True politics is a noble endeavour. Politicians perform the two most complex tasks of bridging the gulf between limited resources and unlimited wants, and harmoniously reconciling the conflicting interests of fiercely contending groups in a plural society. The only antidote to venality in politics is more and better politics. Improvement is possible only through serious political engagement and constructive dialogue. We are not looking for a bloody revolution or a Musharraff as an answer to our problems. Intemperate criticism and treating politicians as cancer are unintended invitations to despotism.

It is true that there is a wide-spread and growing frustration about our political process. Many honest and decent Indians led the freedom struggle and made politics their calling. In the early post-independence decades this leadership gave us stability and built democratic institutions. However, early policy failures, and systemic distortions unsuited to our society made politics increasingly hostile to genuinely public-spirited and principled citizens. Illegitimate money power, family connections, criminal links, caste clout and political fiefdoms have become the arbiters of power in most cases.

Given this climate, it is a miracle that many gifted politicians continue to retain their integrity and serve the nation with loyalty, ability and perseverance. The middle classes and talented people are increasingly obsessed with their careers and lucre, and are abdicating their role as active citizens in politics, leaving the field open to charlatans and scoundrels. The great challenge now is to bring the best elements into politics and restore the legitimacy of representation and ensure competent governance. We need to strengthen the sane elements in politics, not weaken them by painting all politicians with the same brush. It is absurd to believe that all those in politics are evil villains, and those outside are angels. This them vs us approach will only weaken our politics and undermine democracy.

The excesses of license-permit-quota raj raised entry barriers in economic arena, and created artificial scarcities.  This led to a culture of pervasive corruption and abuse of office. The economic reform process of the past 12 years has sought to remove these entry barriers and dismantle the inefficient monopolies and oligopolies. While this reform process is by no means complete, even partial reforms yielded good dividends to our society.

But a modern economy cannot co-exist with medieval polity. In politics, entry barriers remain. Political fiefdoms at constituency level, and entrenched, largely autocratic parties at regional and national level enjoy an oligopoly. Choice of candidates is left to party bosses, and people perceive that whoever wins the election, we, the people, always lose. We need to create incentives for reform in order to break this inertia. The election commission, the media, middle classes and politicians should aim at reform of political parties, particularly in respect of choice of candidates through secret ballot by members or elected delegates. And we need to introduce better systems of representation based on the proportion of vote obtained by parties in each state. With proper checks and reasonable threshold requirements, the number of political parties will decrease, even as greater political competition is fostered.

Another great distortion is the increasing incompatibility of honesty and survival in public office. Legislators determine the survival of government and have converted this power into opportunity for illegitimate gains, particularly at state level. Transfers and postings, contracts and tenders, and crime investigation – all have become playthings of partisan politics, as legislator has become disguised executive. A government that does not pander to these demands of legislators falls. The travails of governments in UP, Maharashtra and Kerala are evident. But most other states are no different. The governments survive only by systematic abuse of office, and a low level of equilibrium is established with competence and integrity not allowed beyond a point. The answer lies in separation of powers in states and local governments, by electing the head of government directly and making him free from legislating tyranny for survival.


Recent initiatives like political funding reform, strengthening anti-defection provisions and limiting the size of council of ministers are welcome signs of meaningful political response to the prevailing governance crisis. Constitutional authorities and citizens need to focus on the much-needed political reforms instead of becoming prophets of doom. Our society and polity have the strength and resilience to address our malaise.

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