Lost in Abstraction, Sunk in Intrigue


The stench of political decay is palpable. Ever since the Election Commission of India announced the dates of the polls throughout India, the country has been treated to the revolting spectacle of lotas or, as we call them, Aya Rams and Gaya Rams, announcing their change of political loyalties.

The common cause is refusal of the party ticket. For example, one former civil servant had hitched his wagon to the star of his state’s chief minister. He sought a safe ticket for election to the Rajya Sabha; but was asked, instead, to contest a seat for the lower house. He instantly discovered that the BJP’s prime ministerial nominee, Narendra Modi, is the answer to the nation’s clamour for ‘development’.

From the affidavits filed by the contesting candidates, it emerged that in both the Congress and the BJP a quarter of them had a criminal background. The law commission produced a report in which it suggested that a candidate must be disqualified from contesting an election once charges are framed against him by a court of law. But the malaise is too deep to be wiped out by laws alone.

As the wise Walter Lippman noted: “There is no mechanical gadget by which the moral level of public life can be maintained. There is no spasm of popular righteousness which will raise it much for very long… In the realm of morals, the example set by the prominent is decisive. It is far more important than the exposure of the wicked.”

A constitution sets up the bare skeleton of the polity. Politics provide the flesh and blood. The prime architect of India’s constitution, Dr B.R. Ambedkar, was acutely aware of the grim realities of the Indian situation. “Democracy in India is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil which is essentially undemocratic,” he warned.

The malaise exists in other and politically more advanced countries. Witness the periodic financial scandals that erupt in France, for instance. They affect the highest in the land.

Forty years ago, one of its most astute intellectuals Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber wrote in Le Monde that France “can only be made modern, livable and to the people’s own measure by transforming the political parties, not by rewriting the laws. … Have the parties, as they stand, the capacity to carry this out…? Their leaders are lost in a fog of abstraction and academic debate. … Behind the scenes they are sunk in intrigue, far from the public eye, clinching deals or venting quarrels, jockeying rivalries, swapping votes, begging for funds.”

Reaction to this state of affairs is varied. One is to dub politics itself as “dirty.” Another is to denounce the party system and resort to the politics of popular upheaval with no concern for governance. “I am an anarchist,” said Arvind Kejriwal, the leader of the Aam Aadmi Party.

Neither makes sense. It is foolish to decry the political process or underestimate the role of its indispensable participant, the politician. As Prof Bernard Crick writes in his classic In Defence of Politics, “Politics deserves much praise. Politics is a preoccupation of free men, and its existence is a test of freedom… Politics is a way of ruling in divided societies without undue violence.”

The responsible politician plays a role on which depends the very success of democratic government. But the species is now all but extinct.

The prime concern of politics in a free society is the resolution of conflict between its diverse interests. The prime concern of a politician is the articulation of an interest and its satisfaction by democratic methods. The man who undertakes this task properly performs an important role in public life and fulfils honourable ambition as well as public duty.

The calibre of a politician is judged by his awareness of the larger interest and his ability to harmonise his own particular interest with the national good. The politician does promote himself; but honourably by securing credit for promoting the public good. What India now has is politics shorn of ideals, ideas and scruples.

It is vain to expect a disinterested citizen to join the political fray; for, every party, at least in India, is controlled by a dynasty, an autocratic popular idol or an oligarchy.

The same energy and commitment can be harnessed to build up grass-roots bodies, unaffiliated to any political party but deeply committed to espousing reform based on values – eradication of corruption, electoral reform, judicial accountability, reform in the police services, in the civil services and the like. They will not fail to evoke public support. Their impact on politics will be incalculable.

-the writer is an author and lawyer based in Mumbai

-by arrangement with dawn.com