Monday, July 02, 2007

Something rotten about Indian politics?

I read Bimal Jalan's recent book, Indian Politics: a view from the backbench recently. It is one long dirge on the Indian political system- how things have gone from bad to worse. I remain unconvinced that things are as bad as Jalan makes them out to be. I said so in my recent column.

Jalan's complaints and solutions are the familiar ones:

  • Criminalisation of Indian politics: bar people with a criminal record from contesting elections
  • Political corruption: introduce state funding of elections
  • An unresponsive bureaucracy: free bureaucrats from excessive political control, remove constitutional protection from prosecution provided to bureaucrats
  • Oversized government: prune the role of government, confine it to its core functions
  • Parliamentary disruptions: penalise disruptions heavily
He also has a solution for a more recent problem, the dominant role of small parties in a coalition. He wants their veto powers over decision making removed by introducing a new law that will cover withdrawal of parties from coalitions, once formed. The law will disqualify members of the party concerned.

What do we make of Jalan's diagnosis and his solutions? First, many of the solutions bristle with practical problems. Sundry committees have proposed these solutions but there are serious problems of implementation. As for instability created by small parties, please note that the NDA coalition duly created its term and the UPA promises to do so.

Yes, there is the prospect of instability arising from the growing power of regional parties. But this is an aspect of Indian democracy and its federal structure. The growing clout of regional parties merely signifies their ability to better articulate the aspirations of particular groups. This may make for parliamentary instability but it makes for political stability in the larger sense because various groups have the sense that they able to make themselves heard. They don't feel disenfranchised. India survives as a result.

Instability may viewed as evil by large national parties but that is not what the BSP thinks. Its founder Kanshi Ram openly said that he favoured instability because that worked to the advantage of the BSP and the Dalits it represented. The greater the instability, the greater was the clout of the BSP, he argued.

On a broader note, I find it difficult to go along with the view, popular in the media, that Indian politicians are an especially venal or criminal lot. Politics is tinged with criminality in almost every major democracy- the US, the UK, France, Germany, Japan, Israel. (Israel's president has just pleaded guilty to charges of rape- I thought such crimes happened only in Bollywood films).

In many countries, politicians who make it to the top have a dubious record. (Small countries such as those in Scandinavia may be exceptions). Once they win the race, however, all is forgiven. Thereafter, politicians are judged only by their accomplishments. If they perform, the very people who denounced them earlier (academic s included) will happily line up to applaud them. The means they used to obtain power are forgotten. See how the press lauded Mayawati's triumph in the UP elections- when the celebrations were on, there was little mention of the Taj corridor case or the case of disproportionate assets pending against her.

To modify Shakespeare, the good that politicians do lives after them, the evil is oft interred with their bones. Politicians know this and will stick at nothing in the ruthless pursuit of power- this is the immutable law of politics everywhere. India is no special case. If anything, in the fair conduct of its elections as well as the willingness of large numbers of people to exercise their vote, Indian democracy retains a certain vibrancy.

No comments: