Monday, July 28, 2008

Go beyond Left and Right, July 27, 2008

On July 22, the Congress led UPA won a vote of confidence in Parliament over the nuclear deal. Despite the murky moments I truly enjoyed the debate. I got a sense of how our MPs think, feel and view the world. There were great moments in the speeches of Lalu Prasad, Rahul Gandhi, Omar Abdullah and others. Suddenly, it was all eclipsed by the stomach turning sight of bundles of currency flying about.

The debate showed how much our political landscape has changed after 1991. Both the right and the left are exhausted. The left, which earlier stood for idealism and change, has lost all common sense. It defends the status quo in voices from Jurrasic Park, forgetting that it too is a victim of vested interests. The right, which in India means the Hindu nationalistic right, finds less and less takers for its Hindutva ideology. The Congress is in deep trouble, unable to shed its traditional attachment to statism. It fails to grasp that the Indian mind is now unbound, and the young want to take charge of their lives.

Ideology is also exhausted in the rest of the world, where left and right matters less and less. In the West the left tries to conserve the welfare state. The liberal, economic right wants to dismantle it. Beyond that, the distinctions are blurred. The right has accepted transfers to the poor but it wants them to be efficient. The left no longer wants government to run businesses. Few oppose the market--the debate is on how to regulate it wisely.

If people don’t care about ideology, how will politicians win elections? Human beings want the same things everywhere--a safe, place to live; good schools and hospitals; clean air and water; be able to ply one’s trade without having to bribe; a judge to resolve disputes speedily. The amazing thing is that our politicians will do everything but deliver these. When we throw them out after five years, they blame ‘anti-incumbency’. Some of us have heard of an obscure railway official named Erapalli Sreedharan, who is quietly building a world class Metro for Delhi. If he were candidate for the Prime Minister, we would vote for him. His ability to execute projects has nothing to do with capitalism, socialism or Hindutva. The Chinese politburo has this advantage over our cabinet—its leaders have Sreedharan’s abilities.

Indians have been raised on a steady diet of Mahabharata, and so we are pragmatic. The Yudhishthira, who made the reluctant decision to go to war, was following a practical, achievable dharma. He was aware that while ahimsa, non-violence, is the ideal way to act, violence is sometimes inevitable. In politics, protecting the state’s interest is the path to justice rather than seeking human perfection. When ideology becomes the driving force of politics, room for compromise disappears. The Congress Party has just learned this lesson in the most painful way from its Marxist allies. As a general rule, the ethic of perfection appeals more to those who are far removed from public office.

The history of the twentieth century is littered with the graves of ideologies, all of which had some great and benign aim. This was the faith of Lenin, of Mao, even of Hitler, and who knows, maybe even Pol Pot. In India, we escaped these tragedies, but our modest experiments with Fabian socialism led to statism, and we are still trying to shake off that yoke. Our politicians should learn from history—shed ideology, acquire implementation skills, and focus on the real needs of people. This is the way to beat ‘anti-incumbency’ and win the next election.


Anonymous said...

This is one of the most sensible articles I've read about Indian politics and governance in years. Indeed, why are we hung up on religion, quotas and other nonsense when the common man just wants drinking water, a decent place to live and some fresh air to breathe? Beats me.

But I must say, the article has a trace of an unhealthy admiration of the western democracies. Having stayed in the West for nearly a decade now, the decay of democracy, the bias of the media and the apathy of the public is just appalling. Having seen the ugly side of pure corporate interests driving everything and the good of the public being reduced to a transparent veneer, I am still glad the Indian media at least is still doing its job.

Benedict said...

I get a strange feeling that we (indians) have some inexplicable quality of randomness that can entrain suddenly and throw up the unexpected result.

The Chinese way is very disciplined, right from their love of martial arts to their recent commitment to build their land, clearly reveals their longing to decipher or disaggregate and solve issues. But we revel in chaos,get joy in prolixity, a actually do not focus on the result. We need roads with potholes to trigger us to let out a steam.

Either we, the electorate, have made up our mind to reside in the chaotic realm or as spiritually inclined people looking at something beyond material prosperity.

Our political leadership has understood this so distinctly that they provide us what we deserve.

Trailblazer said...

Brilliant article, sir.