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Global economy, national problems, petty politicians

"Power will go to the hands of rascals, rogues and freebooters. All Indian leaders will be of low calibre and men of straw." -- Winston Churchill on the eve of Indian Independence

The recent happenings, in the run up to the confidence vote and in Parliament, exposed the soft underbelly of Indian democracy. Perhaps no other democracy anywhere else in the world at any point in history is witness to such bizarre events. Surely, Winston Churchill's ghost continues to haunt us. Often one wonders whether he was a mystic, for who else could be so prophetic?

First, let us seek to understand the overall picture of the nation. Indian economy is fast emerging as the new shining star, as it increasingly gets integrated with the global economy. Never in the recorded history of mankind has a democracy of India's size and complexity consistently grown in excess of over 6 per cent per annum for so long.

This is indeed possible thanks to the sustained hard work of Indian entrepreneurs, the genius of Indian businessmen and the overarching discipline of Indian families. It is our democracy and the complete reliance on domestic capital that makes India's growth story that much more spectacular when compared to that of China or any other country.

But what stands out till date despite the brouhaha over the liberalisation policies of the government is that this growth has been sustained by the economy in spite of our governments, not because of them. In effect governments, both at the state and the Centre, continue to interfere in business when they shouldn't; charge exorbitant taxes and collect them in a Draconian manner only to render abysmal standards of governance.

Paradoxical as it may seem, despite its modest success story, India continues to be plagued by age-old problems. These are pan-Indian issues that remain fossilised in time. It would seem that nothing has changed in India with regard to some of the fundamental indices of the human development index -- especially with regard to issues concerning literacy, health, infrastructure, water and malnutrition.

While smaller and less-endowed countries, especially in Asia, have dramatically improved the living standards of their citizens and are now seen as developed countries, India continues to sport the 'developing' tag. And it is here that the role of a strong polity with good governance comes into play, especially in the global context.

What accentuates these national problems is that for the past two decades or so Indian polity has seen a spectacular rise of the regional and sub-regional parties. Thanks to a lax Constitutional mechanism, these regional and sub-regional parties have been allowed not only to dominate electoral politics at the regional level, they have come to occupy national centrestage too.

While on first brush it did empower the hitherto unrepresented castes and communities, it exposed the serious flaws in our Constitution, so much so that one suspects the Constitution is under siege by its own liberal approach. What ideally begins as a call for getting increasing representation by such leaders claiming to represent a caste or community invariably seems to end up sustaining one man and one family.

Naturally, the idea is to become the leader of a caste or a community having presence perhaps in three or four districts of a state. That enables you to have three or four MPs (or 10-20 MLAs) -- euphemistically called auto-rickshaw parties. In a scenario where no party is able to get more than one-fourth of the total seats in Parliament, it provides an ideal situation to these parties to hijack democracy lock, stock and barrel.

So the picture is complete: a resurgent India continues to be bedevilled by age-old problems and by a polity that, instead of providing solutions, is primarily engrossed in the loot of public resources.

It churns my innards that we have inadvertently proved Churchill fully correct, all in a matter of sixty years. That explains the sense of despair despite impressive economic gains in the country.

'We vote our castes, not cast our votes'
The former Election Commissioner T N Seshan is credited for coining this colourful statement. In the process he has captured the entire paradigm succinctly. Most of our regional parties have perfected the art of playing on the emotions of our people by sharpening the fault lines on the basis of language, caste, community, race, religion or anything that could be use to divide people.

Elections after elections have proved that only those who are shriller, more vociferous and abusive continue to have electoral successes. And a cursory glance at those regional parties that have survived ten years in electoral politics has clearly demonstrated that such parties invariably get dominated by one individual, one family.

And why not? Readers may well know that only 50-60 per cent of the voters turn up to exercise their franchise. Most candidates get elected by getting a mere 30-35 per cent of the popular vote. In effect, a person getting a positive acceptance of a mere 18-20 per cent of the voters can entertain chances of winning.

No wonder, the inclination to appeal to the lower denomination rather than the higher. What better way of doing that than by appealing to one's own caste or community? Remember, one has to target a mere 20 per cent of the voters in a constituency to get elected. Once elected, the perks of office, the momentum sustained through pelf and nepotism, carry one through his term in office.

In the interregnum, should there be any danger to the leader of the party, the standard operating procedure is to raise the same issues once more, with one small exception -- make it even more shrill, titillating and provocative. In the process, these leaders have perfected the art of converting every crisis into an electoral advantage.

But what is the solution?
DMK, PMK, Akali Dal, BJD, RJD, JD(S), Samajwadi Party, Lok Dal, Telugu Desam, JMM, NC, PDP, etc are examples that easily come to mind where it is a case of one individual, one family. In the case of the AIADMK, TC and BSP, it is the case of one individual alone. Yet it is such parties that are controlling the levers of power.

Written in the aftermath of the Independence movement, the framers of our Constitution surely would not have envisaged this ugly situation wherein Indian democracy is hostage to a few families and individuals. The obvious answer is to re-look at the Constitution to ensure precise balance between rights of smaller groups as well supreme national interests.

What is the relevance, say, of the nuclear deal or capital account convertibility to the MDMK or the PDP or the AGP, except to leverage their power to the maximum? God forbid, what would be the attitude of these parties if India becomes a permanent member of the United Nations and confronts some tough international choices?

It is in this connection that scholars, sociologists and Constitutional experts have suggested that a presidential form of government, with appropriate checks and balances, is far better suited to the Indian conditions. According to these experts, a presidential form of government would encourage candidates to appeal to a wider canvas of voters than from the narrow confines of caste of community.

But the presidential form of government is merely illustrative. Another idea that has gained currency is that only political parties with an aggregate vote share beyond a prescribed limit in the state elections must be allowed to contest for the Lok Sabha.

Much as these parties swear by democracy, any talk of revisiting some of the provisions of the Constitution is frowned upon by these vested interests.

The middle class comprising ordinary Indians, who are the source of India's strength, has been a victim of all this. For too long it has concentrated on economics hoping that things will take care of themselves on the political front. In fact, it hopes that it is the polity that would be the harbinger of such change.

Thanks to the vested interest embedded in the system, it would be juvenile to believe that our political parties would themselves initiate the change.

But we have reached a point that any further economic progress will invariably depend on reforms -- not in our economic policies but in our political process. Else we run the risk of doing away with all the gains of six decades after Independence.

And it is the Indian middle class that needs to become the instrument of change. Remember it is we, the ordinary people, who have the responsibility of proving Churchill wrong. The political parties have already proved him right.

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Last modified on Sunday, 07 July 2013 07:36

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