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Saturday, March 27, 2004

Here is a quiz question: What is common between eating pani puri-chaat and choosing a politician?  The answer: We may get a lot of choice but we actually get very little variety.  We can choose to eat from any one of those dozens of pani puri-chaat centers across the city. But cutlet ragada tastes exactly the same everywhere.  Similarly, we can also choose from dozens of political parties, but all politicians have the same flavour.  Increasingly, political parties think, talk, walk, look and behave similarly.  This marks a paradigm shift in Indian politics:  the decline of parties and alliances and the concurrent rise of personalities.

Until recently, there was a sharp distinction in the ‘look and feel’ among even the major national and state parties.  That is why when power shifted from one party (or alliance) to another, it had a significant impact on the government’s policies.   For example, when the Janata Party took over from the Congress at the centre in 1977, it brought about significant changes in the government’s economic and social policies.   Power shifts brought deep policy shifts in their wake.   You could literally expect to live different life when a different party took office.

But take the leading national or state level political parties (or alliances) of today.   Excluding the very few, top-level leaders, almost all politicians across parties can be interchanged – they fit just as well in the opposing party.   Parties have become temporary alliances of individual convenience while alliances are now temporary get-togethers of parties. One important consequence of this development is that the nature of party or alliance coming to power does not significantly influence the government’s policies in key sectors.   Irrespective of whether the NDA or the Congress-Left comes to power in Delhi, the next government would almost certainly follow the same basic set of economic, social or defence policies.  Our lives would not change dramatically if one party loses and the other wins.  Just take a look at the manifestos of the major political parties: they look very similar!

At once, this is both an encouraging and discouraging sign.

Encouraging, because it reflects a certain maturity in our political process.  Since the past few years, major political parties and (especially) their alliances have moved towards the centre of the political spectrum.  Therefore, elections and power shifts in India do not bring radical changes in its society.  Compare this to the situation in many immature democracies of Africa and Asia, where a party winning or losing could literally make the difference between life or death for thousands of people.   The past and present politicians deserve credit for this achievement.

At the core level, if political parties do not matter, then who really does?  Now, it is the individual politicians themselves who have a greater capacity to make a difference.   Personality politics is now greater than party politics.  Unfortunately, only a few politicians have realized the value of this unprecedented opportunity to play a big role.

We can safely expect most of our legislators and ministers, without even looking at their latest party affiliations, to quickly discover the least controversial way of doing their jobs.  The path of least resistance (which is often the past of least efficacy) has become the path to their salvation.    That is why the blurring of differences between political parties is also a discouraging signPrecisely because it does not carry the prospect of any radical change in the way our country or state will be run. 

But, is that a problem?

Yes, a big one.   There are several burning issues where we desperately need our leaders to think creatively and act decisively.  Our country is currently facing several problems of enormous magnitude:  unemployment of millions, lack of water security for nearly two-thirds of Indian population, lack of social security and justice for large number of sections in our society, enormously high fiscal deficits especially of the state governments and increased meshing of criminalization-corruption-politics are just a few.

These are not problems that can be solved by the run-of-the-mill netas.  In fact, these current issues are far more difficult than the issues of imperial rule and foreign aggression addressed some decades ago.  Such serious problems of India can be addressed only by the collective and informed assertion of the citizens.  We also need genuine leaders.  Leaders who have the vision to identify the right issues, the ability to evolve and articulate the right solutions and then have the conviction and character to ensure the delivery of these solutions to the target groups of citizens.

And that is real, 100% shuddh politics.


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