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Saturday, July 6, 2002

Haven’t we been complaining for long about the sorry state of affairs in India? Whenever two thinking citizens meet, isn’t the conversation inevitably about the extraordinary crisis facing the country – corruption, delay, inefficiency, extortion, criminalization? Why then aren’t we focusing on what can be done, instead of what is wrong? Is it just apathy, or skepticism, or cynicism, or is it something more?

Nicolas Machiavelli in The Prince says, “There is nothing more difficult to arrange, more doubtful of success more dangerous to carry through than initiating changes… The innovator makes enemies of all those who prosper under the old order, and only lukewarm support is forthcoming from those who would prosper under the new”.

With every change there are winners and losers. And the prospective losers are vociferous in their efforts to maintain status quo. This problem in itself wouldn’t be so difficult and could be easily overcome if only all the people who stand to gain join hands in bringing about this change. There are always well-meaning people in government and politics. But what they need is our support. As Abraham Lincoln said, “public opinion is everything – without it nothing can succeed; with it nothing will fail.” When something worthwhile is attempted, we should be generous and vocal in support. Equally, we need to promote much higher quality in public discourse. Take the period of civil war in the US. Nearly 150 years ago, there were fierce and honest debates on slavery. There were sharp differences, but the motives of opponents were never doubted. We can differ without being disagreeable. The early years of our own freedom struggle saw rich debates on British rule, and they provided solid foundations for nation-building.

The recent Election Commission’s Order, making it mandatory for candidates to provide details about their financial status, criminal record and educational qualifications is a necessary step in the right direction and the biggest boost that civil society initiatives of recent times have received. But this by itself will not be able to bring out the radical changes required. And already politicians are trying their best to scuttle this effort putting forward astonishingly hypocritical arguments. Politicians who are always at each other’s throats on every policy issue are now joining hands to scuttle disclosure norms.  They say the Courts are stepping too far into the executive’s terrain and that the election commission is asking too much of the candidates. What the executive and legislature need to be reminded of is that it is their failure to act in time that is forcing the judiciary and EC to intrude on to legislative terrain.  Organs of government are not at war against each other.

We need to respect parliamentary supremacy as well as judicial sagacity. But most of all we have to respect people’s sovereignty, and the voters’ right to be informed. Court decisions and EC’s orders can only accomplish limited results. Enlightened citizens, active groups and media must combine forces, and persuade our political class to reform the system. There are specific and practical reforms that will enhance the legitimacy and dignity of our political process. These are our battles. We cannot stand by idly and leave the field open for vested interests. Politics is too serious a business to be left to politicians alone.

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