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Article in The Economic Times
Authored by Dr.Jayaprakash Narayan

National Coordinator of
VOTEINDIA movement

A Difficult Time for Politicians
31 August 2002

All democracies are prone to a healthy dose of skepticism about their politicians. Once the distinguished chaplain of the US Senate Reverend Everett Hale was asked by somebody, " Reverend, do you pray for the Senators every morning?". The ReverendHe replied calmly, " No; I look at the Senators, and pray for the country". It is this mocking tone of irreverence which reminds politicians that they are our creatures, and their purpose is to serve.

This is a difficult time for a politician in India. Most people harbour mistrust and suspicion of the political process. Suddenly, a series of events, exposées, and scams put the politicians in the dock. The Gujarat carnage, the oil dealer scam, the obvious vociferous opposition to disclosure of reluctance to disclose financial details of candidates - all make people even more skeptical and irreverent than normal. And politicians are behaving as if they are under seige.

For decades, political patronage in license-permit raj has been an integral feature of our governance. So why this fuss about a few dealerships? Politicians actually came forward to disclose criminal records. And yet, why are they roundly criticized? The government actually introduced in March 2002 a potentially far-reaching legislation for political funding reform. But all that people care for is disclosure of financial details of candidates, their spouses and dependants! What makes people so belligerent, and politicians so defensive?

Two factors contributed to this sudden resurgence of people power. A decade of rapid economic growth ( by Indian standards), and exposure to satellite television and modern communications changed the world of educated, middle-class Indians beyond recognition. While we continue to be a poor country, we We now understand our potential as a nation, and are starting to ask uncomfortable questions. Not too long ago, a few sops from politicians, and a few crumbs from bureaucrats were sufficient to shut us up. . But not today. Obsequious obeisance to authority has been our tradition. But Today, modern notions of accountability and popular sovereignty have at last caught up with us. Therefore those in powerPoliticians can no longer get away with a fraction of what their predecessors managed. Understandably, there is consternation among politicians today. Costs of elections and investments to survive in power are greater than ever before; but decent returns are more and more difficult, and the game is ever more risky. This makes politicians behave like a trade union, like a clan under seige.

The nation is in a state of flux. Major changes are in the offing in our polity and society. The nation is in a state of flux. In order to make this transition smoother, and the outcome positive, we need to answer two questions. First, what is the role of constitutional authorities? Second, are politicians the villains they are made out to be?

We are blessed with strong and independent constitutional authorities - the Election Commission, Supreme Court, Public Service Commission, CAG etc. A mature democracy does not allow excessive concentration of power in any agency. It is said that the United States has the largest number of final decision makers in a country. Power is dispersed horizontally and vertically, and there are checks and balances everywhere. No one can behave like a monarch. For a democracy , India probably has the fewest decision makers. The DM of the district, CM of the state and PM concentrate in their hands about 80 % of the real power in this country. 80% of the real power in India is concentrated in the hands of the DM of the district, CM of the state and the PM. However wise and worthy these functionaries may be, this power has to be dispersed, should be exercised transparently and made accountable. Empowered local governments and independent constitutional authorities are two means for such dispersal of power. This does not mean unelected constitutional authorities can exercise veto power over politicians. In a democracy, the ultimate authority and responsibility should restrests with elected politicians. But within reasonable limits, constitutional functionaries should play their rightful role without being maverick adventurists. Only with such institutional checks can liberty be safeguarded. It is the failure of these checks which led to the disastrous emergency.

Does it mean thatNow, are all politicians are bad, and cannot be trusted? Far from that. If healthy skepticism degenerates into revulsion of politics, democracy is endangered. Politicians sustain democracy and defend liberty with their sweat and grime. They Politicians have an extraordinarily difficult job to do in a complex society. They reconcile conflicting interests, and make difficult choices in the face of unlimited wants and limited resources. If healthy skepticism degenerates into revulsion of politics, democracy is endangered. What we need is more politics, not less; more democracy, not less.Only robust politics ensures a semblance of harmony and stability in our troubled society. What we need is more politics, not less; more democracy, not less.

It is easy to revile politics and shun political process. Only when weWe need to understand the primacy of politics in a democracy, and appreciate the compulsions under which politicians work today can we become a part of the solution. Unthinking invective, and hasty judgment make us, the midle classes, a part of the problem. The cost of elections is skyrocketing. The recent Saidapet assembly byelection in Tamilnadu recently is reported to have cost over Rs. 10 crore! Byelections to Kanakapura Loksabha seat, in Karnataka, Vuyyur, Medak and Siddhipet assembly seats in AP entailed astronomical expenditures. Once such vast sums are spent, it is futile to expect that power will not be abused for private gain. Governments and parties are caught in a vicious cycle. In order to sustain themselves, they governments and parties have to pander to the whims of legislators elected at exorbitant expense. Any major party which attempts to break the unwritten rules has to pay the penalty. The cadre and ideology-based left parties are the only significant exception. But they too are facing problems of poaching and defection in some states. Parties are torn between their desire to please the public, and their need to appease their legislators and cadres. No wonder, they attempt to run with the hares, and hunt with the hounds at the same time. It is easy for arm chair critics to sit in judgment of politicians. Real reform is possible only when we understand the nature of our electoral system, and approach the political process with great respect and sympathy.

Then how will change come? Unsustainability of status quo is forcing change. The recent convulsions are partly a result of this unsustainability. The license raj and kleptocracy of the 70's are much harder to sustain today. And yet, politics has become far more expensive, demanding evermore returns. Meanwhile media are more aggressive, and communications revolution brings the scandals and scams to our drawing rooms instantly. All this presages fundamental change. If we understand the nature of the problems, and focus on the solutions, this transition will be less painful and more orderly. We need to bring back glory to politics, not undermine the political process further. A Musharaff will not provide a solution; he will add to our problems. The greatest asset we have is democracy. In our exasperation, if we look for a knight on a white horse, we will have discarded our most precious possession, our liberty. Equally, the politicians must seize the opportunities for political reform, not resist even the slightest improvements for fear of exposure and loss of patronage., and behaveThey should stop behaving like frightened animals in a cage.




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