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Article in The Financial Express
Authored by Dr.Jayaprakash Narayan

National Coordinator of
VOTEINDIA movement

People, politics and prosperity are linked
October 07, 2005

Prosperity and better public management hinge on a reformed political structure

A paradox of modern democracy is that people want freedom and yet cannot stand politicians. CSDS’ national election study, 2004, showed 88% of Indians favour democracy. Contrary to upper-class perceptions, most people value their liberty. The challenge is to make living conditions measurably better without curbing liberties. In the same study, about 80% felt voting has some effect on public policy and their lives: yet, only 47% of the sample agreed our elections are fair. Around 36% believed the fairness had decreased over time, while only 26% felt elections had improved.

The disturbing evidence is about politicians. A recent Gallup poll on trends in democracy shows only 9% of Indians have faith in politicians. All democracies view their politicians with some derision. But if over 90% of people have no real faith in politicians, it is a danger signal. This mistrust can be explained by three factors.

First, political recruitment is now dangerously skewed. Over three decades or so, mainstream parties are behaving like oligarchies. Family connections, abnormal money power, criminal activities and highly polarising articulation of sectional interests of caste and religious groups became the chief qualifications for candidate selection. A few senior politicians with impressive credentials have been inducted into the Rajya Sabha. Otherwise, parties could rarely recruit and promote men and women of real talent, commitment and integrity.

In any society, the middle classes are democracy’s bulwarks. Yet, surveys reveal hundreds of thousands of bright youngsters want to be technologists or civil servants, but almost none regard politics as a career option. Politics has ceased to be meritocratic. Parties are either cynical or helpless in meeting the challenges in a complex and volatile society. They despair of winning through decent, public-spirited candidates. The electoral system makes it almost impossible for the latter to get elected through fair means. So, politics has become the least preferred option for self-respecting, talented Indians without family connections.

Second, about 71% of Indians are below 34 years of age. Almost half the people of voting age are young. The communications revolution has made them impatient for change. When they see corruption, criminalisation, obscene money power and abuse of office daily in public life, their faith in politicians is severely eroded. They view politics as the problem, not the solution. In fact, the volatility of voting behaviour among our youth is a key cause for the strong anti-establishment verdicts in our elections over the past three decades.

But such persistent rejection of a party in power is making this situation worse. Most legislators believe their power is ephemeral. So they want to make the most of their opportunity, by plundering the public exchequer and distorting governance through manipulation of transfers, public procurement, and police cases. Parties are evermore populist and irrational in public policy, hoping to somehow win the electorate’s favour; they field candidates who deploy unsavoury tactics in the hope of winning.

In reality, the net outcome is not significantly altered. All major parties put up similar candidates. And leading candidates often employ the same tactics, of buying voters, brow-beating people and bribing officials. So, a system of compensatory errors is firmly in place, with the ugly tactics of each candidate being neutralised by his rival. The final verdict does broadly reflect public opinion, but political recruitment gets worse. Parties can ill-afford decent candidates who want to play fair, for fear of losing in an insane electoral battle. Abnormal expenditure in polls does not guarantee victory, but in most cases, fair practices and limited and legitimate expenditure almost certainly guarantees defeat!

Finally, the quality of public goods and services is predictably appalling. Misgovernance, due to bad recruitment and wrong incentives in politics, leading to endemic corruption, abuse of office and dysfunctional systems, guarantees bad delivery of services. Education, skill development, public health, rule of law, urban management, agricultural value addition, infrastructure—all are in serious disrepair. This bad management of government fuels even more anger and cynicism. And, it impedes growth and does not give the poor and disadvantaged sections the opportunities for vertical mobility.

The resulting disenchantment leads to potential social strife and violence. The increasing sway of armed naxal groups in an uncomfortably large number of districts is just one illustration of our failure to provide competent and just governance.

But the only antidote to flawed politics is better politics. We need to dramatically alter the political culture. The vicious cycle of money power, public office, corruption and poor public services has driven India inexorably to a low level of equilibrium. The dynamism of our society, ambition of our people and modern technologies have softened the impact of misgovernance and ensured modest growth rates. But there is no substitute to better public management if we are to improve our growth rates and make prosperity an inclusive process, with hope and opportunity for all, irrespective of birth.

Indians are hungry for change. Youngsters want liberation from the vicious cycle of bad politics, corruption, underdevelopment, unemployment and instability. India is ripe for a fundamental transformation through a new political culture. Can our parties respond? Will new forces emerge to galvanise people into action and tap our potential? Or will the window of opportunity close, forcing India to revert to unsatisfactory growth and unhappy conditions for most people? The next decade will tell.



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