Kharni or Bharni

People complain that politicians seldom do what they say, just as they seldom say what they do. This may be their inherent character or it may be something people force on them. In public, politicians tend to have aggressive exchanges but on a personal level they remain cordial and friendly. For long there have been imaginary lines that we do not cross to hurt each other. Not making personal attacks or indeed desisting from hitting below the belt may be just good behaviour. But helping out progeny or relatives of political adversaries seems to be a practice of enlightened self-interest. And it is an unwritten rule that there is an absolute prohibition on œkiss and tell. Of course others, particularly political detractors from one's own party, seldom fail to notice and highlight these, in a negative way.

This political norm is exceptionally violated once in a while, when bitterness is caused by unusual events. The emergency of 1977 and the Janata Party rule that followed is an example in recent years. Now this has been happening more often. We have seen it in Bihar, Tamil Nadu, Haryana and will probably see a lot of more in Punjab and Chattisgarh. Charges, chargesheets, searches, arrests, bails and custody will dominate the news. Details of properties, bank accounts and hard cash will be flashed across the TV screens. I find it perplexing that generation after generation; some political leaders continue to display great faith in being able to destroy their defeated adversaries through the sanction of criminal law. Yet we see a Jayalalitha do to Karunanidi, what he in turn did to her. Neither wants to learn from the other.

The other end of uncompromising determination to hurt, is the all too easy a willingness to make private arrangements with leaders of other parties. As Indian politics gets increasingly polarized and fragmented on grounds of castes and communities, the need to make private arrangements has become imperative for the ambitions. It can begin with mutual accommodation on candidates and can go to the extent of even going soft on political opponents in public. That may be counter productive for the party in varying degree and the cause of frustration for the loyal workers. But when there personal interests begin to dictate policy options about alliances etc it can amount to a betrayal of the party itself.

The question therefore is of morality versus pragmatism. If more and more people make private arrangements, the party system can get distorted and ideology perverted. The premium on œquick fixes and willing acceptance of anyone passing off as a œMr. Fix it  has created role models that are sapping the strength and credibility of the party system. We do not want to publically admit that money matters but when it comes to electoral politics we talk only of money. The workers want money, the campaigners want money, candidates want money, leaders want money. Nobody pauses to ask where all the money comes from. We need to underscore that question to move away from an obsession with money. In other words although money is obviously important, by and large it is merely necessary' but not sufficient' for successful politics. Furthermore we should also understand that winning of course is very important but it should not be the only thing in politics. If political parties want to improve the quality of politics they need also to revive the balance between applauding the merit of the victorious with the continuing relevance of the defeated candidates, particularly the ones who preferred to lose rather than compromise their principles.

The Rajya Sabha has a special constitutional significance in our Federal set up. It also provides an ideal convenient route for Parliamentary participation of political leaders who are valuable but unsuited to the process of Lok Sabha elections. It should not be an automatic alternative parking place for every loser. But individuals who lose for the sake of principles should certainly be given priority as well. An ideal democracy should ensure true representation but also preserve quality. Unfortunately we cannot claim to have an ideal democracy. On the contrary recent developments indicate a gradual shift away from quality. Therefore the challenge of quality has to be addressed squarely by political parties.

In recent weeks all party consensus on electoral reform, curbing communalism, and now putting a lid on unreasonable ambition, and defections for gain, gives hope that all is not lost. But it still remains for us to collectively pursue the elimination of caste as the dominant factor in electoral choice in several states. So long as it can be seen as expression of group interest, it is of course legitimate. But irrational adherence to caste defeats democracy in a sense. Merely tinkering with the present system will not do. A radical transformation of the system only can successfully address this unpleasant dimension of contemporary politics.

Salman Khurshid

27/12/2003



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