To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child , a garden patch, or a redeemed condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The real role of politicians (the 'ritual of politics')

While commuting to office this morning, heard on news that a certain national office bearer of a political party (incidentally, the one everyone looks at as almost the messiah, mostly courtesy the lineage) had said while addressing his party workers in a state (again incidentally, one going for polls in the not too long future) that they should keep an eye on the implementation of Central development programs in their respective areas. Taking a cue, the head of the party in that state (perhaps again incidentally, daughter of a party stalwart, long gone) announced that she'd form district monitoring committees for the purpose.

Set me thinking. Why do these hallowed people have to emphasize this simple need to their workers? What is the basic purpose for which grassroots (again a much abused term, now even part of the name of another political party which grew out of this mother party) politics was 'invented'?

To a simple mind, the very basis of representational politics was the 'upward' communication of the aspirations and needs of people living in far flung places to powers that be, and the reverse 'downward' communication of the response (by way of development programs or whatever) to those same people through the channel of their representatives. And that would've been the basic driver for the whole movement across centuries to gain universal franchise (right to vote), something which people across nations fought for and won after a long & hard struggle.

But has this right really empowered the people, especially in an under-developed/developing country like India? It seems the only time that people get to exercise their right & leverage over the political system is during elections. And here too, the process gets vitiated to a large extent by factors like strong-arm tactics, identity politics, and sometimes downright fraud. Even where these factors are not at play, the constituents hardly get any real opportunity to get to know the candidates and understand their outlook and approach, within the short time that the candidates visit the constituencies before the elections. So people who vote (and many don't!) do so either on the basis of identify politics (including for 'dynasties', political or otherwise) or in support of a specific political party. And the manifestos of most election parties are such elaborate documents (making almost identical promises!) that a lay voter is hardly in a position to assess the party's ideology or program directions, and s/he has instead to go by heresay (including those propagated through press and electronic media - and not all independently, as the recent cases of 'sponsored' coverage revealed).

So what happens once elections are over? An eerie calm descends! Having extracted their moolah (that is, votes), the politicians go back to their high abodes, some to state/country capital as elected 'representatives', and most don't look back on the constituencies for another five years (or till when the next elections happen). The elected 'representatives' continue to draw their remunerations (mostly for disrupting the proceedings at the assembly/parliament), and also their (ironically named) 'constituency allowance', travel allowances (ostensibly for visiting the constituencies - which many don't spend as they travel gratis while the railway officials look the other way out of fear or favour) and sundry other moneys, but those who actually visit their constituencies and listen to the people can perhaps be counted on fingers.

Only once in a while, the voice of a politician is heard on matters concerning his/her constituency. This is usually when some calamity has struck or some gross injustice is revealed, for instance people dying of hunger in some districts of a state like Orissa (a regular happening). Then the elected 'representatives' are heard telling the media that this or that thing should have been done for the welfare of the people, but was never done. Begs the question: then what the hell were you doing all these years? Did you take up the issue with those who could do something about it, all through the chain, from the local administrators all the way up (that is, beyond slapping around a bureaucrat or currying personal favours)? And if you really raised the issue and it was still not addressed, did you consider this as an utter lack of your effectiveness (to 'serve people', something you promised during the elections) and consider resigning your post of elected 'representative' on moral grounds? But this is being naive - why should s/he let go of his/her fat salary, allowance and sundry perks (legal and illegal) just to benefit some wretched souls, who would have died anyway!

The problem (or the symptom thereof) is that the 'ritual of politicking' seems to have supplanted actual politics at all levels, which is why 'politics' ('invented' ostensibly for benefit of people) has gained such a bad name [this is akin to the rituals of religions, where something which was supposed to bring people closer to God or their spiritual core has degenerated to just an observance of certain rituals mostly]. So when some people join 'politics', perhaps as grassroots workers, all they think about is what they can do during elections to help their then leader win, and thus curry favours and move up the 'value chain' of political aspirations, all the way up. The basic purpose of politics, that is understanding and communicating local needs upwards and ensuring those needs get fulfilled by appropriately designed and implemented development programs, doesn't enter their equations at any stage. So till such time that a culture evolves where it is ingrained in a political worker (at whatever level) from day one what the basic purpose of 'politics' is, things would continue to run in the same way.

But I'm again being naive. Evolution of a culture, or for that matter anything to do with human endeavour, seems to depend much less on noble thoughts and much more on the alignment of incentives (taking cue from a different plane, the current economic crisis, where the subprime crisis in US is supposed to have been caused due to a misalignment of incentives all through the chain of housing mortgage management, from originators to aggregators to investment bankers and beyond). Till the time people know that they are accountable (that they would be held responsible) for acting in a certain undesirable manner, and conversely they would be rewarded for acting in a manner which is likely to lead to greater public good, they'll continue to act in a way they are accustomed to act since time immemorial. This needs a system of appropriate rewards (incentives) and punishment (disincentives).

But can we really even hope for such a system to evolve, in an environment where even the existing system is regularly bent and broken by people who have the power, either physical or money?

No comments: