Augmenting political narrative
For a viable ‘New India’ by 2022, a transformed political landscape is essential, says Debasish Bhattacharyya.
There is something explosive about an era in which interest in politics grows while faith in politics declines. What does it mean for the stability of a country if more and more people warily keep track of the activities of an authority that they increasingly distrust?"—David Van Reybrouck, author of 'Against Elections. The Case for Democracy'
The successful institutions and institutional spheres, whose contributions have been crucial for the country and its people, are mostly run by those considered competent and credible. There could be a few aberrations in the recent years as the standing of some institutions with significant systemic influence has declined. People helming these places primarily are both accountable as also responsible. While accountability has become an administrative challenge everyone is faced with, to be responsible is to accept ownership of an action or end result. It is against this backdrop, one wonders, whether our elected representatives in India regardless of party affiliation will ever accept their action or inaction, responsible for considerable mess across levels of governance – economic, social and political. And, it's highly unlikely, given the country's structural political characteristics that often indulged in patronage politics leading to disillusionment.
History has stood witness to the brilliance of several politicians whose role in the development of the country can never be ignored. But, overall, many in politics have been the mediocrities and astoundingly unqualified. At a time when the ability to win an election matters more than the ability to contribute, it's bound to fuel opportunistic association over a hallowed association. Despite the progressive nature of the Indian Constitution, there is a sense of unease about the accomplishment of our representative democracy. The political strategy of any party is a dynamic process which can't be faulted. But, the political system that fails to adopt the best practices owing to political apathy leads to the erosion of trust and diminished belief in government fairness – from divisive politics to demonetisation to Ashok Khemka - transferred more than 46 times in 20-plus years of service.
Democracy is but a developmental phenomenon as the functioning of democratic institutions can be bettered, extended and intensified; political competition can be made fairer and more transparent. But, what the world's largest democracy lacks mostly is accountability, integrity, and competency that represent the vital embodiments of leadership.
One can argue that accountability, integrity and competency do matter in electoral democracy as the political party in power or the elected representatives at Parliamentary/Assembly/Municipal/Panchayat level tend to lose power for underperformance. It's true, but it happens usually after five years. Further, if a political party or a coalition, say 'X' loses power for the government's performance deficit or poor performance, is likely to come back in power after five years with almost the same set of nonperformers/people ruling the roost. Another significant aspect is the long shelf life of frontline politicians that allows them to fight elections repetitively or occupy important positions despite being inept or of low calibre. And this is despite a forceful civil society, active judiciary and critical media including the electrifying social network. Hence, an incompetent or unscrupulous winning election is not inappropriate to our democratic temper. According to David Van Reybrouck, "Since we have reduced democracy to selecting representatives, and reduced representative democracy to mean simply voting, a valuable system is now mired in deep difficulties. Winning the next election has become more important than fulfilling the promises made in the last. Making the best of the system we have is becoming increasingly difficult."
Moot question, therefore, is whether the young India that dreamt of shared prosperity for its people and the country which is fraught with multi-dimensional challenges like widespread poverty, illiteracy, and disparities can only rely on those lawmakers who helped the challenges assume bigger proportions. Many a time, political parties take up programmes and policies not because they are right but because they can be propagated well and sold to the people. For political leaders, commitment arises from the excellence in ideology. When commitment to the ideology gets swayed by allurements, it turns into political corruption—the face of present-day representative democracy in India. There is no more and no less reason to believe that true democracy has till date eluded the world's most populous democracy as the political parties' activities, finances, funding, and ethics remained unregulated to a great extent.
Under the circumstances, there is an urgent need to broaden the scope of democratic temper that until now gave rights only to political establishments to remedy the structural deficiencies of the political system. In order to remove such limitations, as also to revitalise peoples' confidence that elected officials are best suited to manage the nation's affairs more efficiently and face its difficulties more bravely than anybody else, the following measures seem significant.
Primarily two-pronged approach
First, devise a 'common minimum ethical agenda' to set right political parties' organisational structures and political agendas—listing out the dos and don'ts. The government in power is to take the initiative to involve all the political parties for the purpose. If coalition politics is the inescapable truth of the day and 'common minimum programme' is the binding agenda of a coalition government (given the varied ideologies among the parties) to be in power; 'common minimum ethical agenda' could well be the guiding spirit for all the political parties to serve the country and its people better. Also, snail-paced deliberations on electoral reforms should be fast-tracked.
Second, the people's concerns that transparency and accountability norms are being ignored by lawmakers themselves have led to champion the idea of the government appointing a committee headed by a retired Supreme Court judge to find ways and means to strengthen the democratic institutions and public services. The committee comprising six to eight eminent people with no party affiliations is to consult various stakeholders for inputs. The report thus made is to be tabled in the Parliament for discussion and the measures recommended duly acted upon; unlike the Vohra Committee report regarding crime-politics nexus, which was not acted upon.
The committee must include credible apolitical minds from various think tanks like the Association of Democratic Right, Centre for Policy Research, Common Cause etc. and at individual level people like JM Lyngdoh, Nandan Nilekani, Dipankar Gupta /Dr Shiv Viswanathan, Arghya Sengupta of Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy as its members.
The scepticism whether such people will possess the societal vision and wider related skills needed for political leadership is somewhat misplaced given their individual capacity and social standing. And, therefore, their collective wisdom in scaling up democratic quality can't be short of being profound and pragmatic. Political leaders must be willing to relinquish some control to those having wider acceptance.
Scope of the committee
Revisiting interface between politics and governance, restoring the integrity of the democratic processes, establishing accountability at every level of governance structure, defining key performance indicators, ensuring genuine citizen engagement and government responsiveness could be some of the key areas. Another important aspect is to explore the increased participation of bright young minds in politics. Because, many believe, youth participation in politics is still dependent on wealth, legacy and connections.
Moisés Naím, an internationally syndicated columnist in an article titled 'Why We Need Political Parties' published in The New York Times writes – 'To survive, political parties must regain the ability to inspire and mobilise people — especially the young ….. Parties must be willing to overhaul their structures, mindsets and methods to adapt to a new world…We need a disruptive innovation that pulls democratic parties into the 21st century.' Doubtless, many will find this two-pronged approach as naively utopian and find me divorced from reality. Interestingly, it's the same set of people who feel powerless to act against political domination. Complex problems do not necessarily always require complex solutions, often "outside the box" works but, the prerequisite is earnestness. Certainly, the upgrading and invigoration of democracy will not solve all social and economic problems that people face, but now it's high time to reorient democratic politics around the axis of the country's 'real need'.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke about building a 'New India' by 2022, the 75th year of independent India and emphasised his government's commitment to fighting against poverty, corruption, casteism, terrorism and communalism. Frankly, people can't agree more. But, can this really happen without strengthening the democratic institutions and establishments of the country. The answer: perhaps no.
To sum up: To achieve 'New India', the country's political narrative in the political landscape must change. The above two-pronged approach could give birth to a transformed political narrative which is fundamental to the 'New India' of 2022. People of this country barely need any advertisement, campaign, and publicity or medium to recognise the 'New India' that embraced a just political narrative –it can be seen and experienced at every level of citizen-state interactions, at all stages of the policy processes.
(The views expressed are strictly personal)
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