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Mainstream, VOL LII No 1, December 28, 2013 - ANNUAL 2013

Towards Self-governance

Sunday 29 December 2013, by Uttam Sen

Politics and administration in India have their singularities. If there was a time when people’s representatives took their feedback from their constituency to the party and the administration and worked accordingly, the practice has now become a rarity. The omissions cut both ways. The representative and his constituents have withdrawn mutually. But when you learn that Babu Rajendra Prasad (Mayor of Patna, 1936), Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel (President, Ahmedabad Municipal Board, around 1917) and Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose (Mayor, Calcutta Corporation, 1931) were heads of local self-government, you flinch both in awe and regret. Among other things, the names bespeak rectitude, authority and dominance. Sometimes below par colonialists were themselves enthralled. There could also have been genuine Liberals impressed by their professional and human qualities. We were heading in the right direction. Two of the three rose to be President and Deputy Prime Minister, respectively, of independent India. Bose, of course, qualified for the highest echelons of government service, but famously chose to serve on the other side of the barricades. Contemporary models, for example, in the US, demonstrate how seriously local self-government is taken as the opening of the administrative journey. A promising Mayor is considered potential presidential material.

One of our great paradoxes is that social development standards in smaller, neater, generally pre-independence delimits were higher; constituencies tended to be more cohesive, committed to uniform values, synthesising principles of liberty and democracy like those of the freedom struggle. Social righteousness was taken for granted.

Yet society and therefore politics was more hierarchically structured. Leaders/aldermen/patriarchs carried their constituents by word and deed, inter alia, because they had the paraphernalia of probity that often assumed inherited wealth and flourishing sources of income. Public wrongdoing, particularly in money matters, was supposedly past them. Again, today’s unsparingly irreverent, sometimes motivated, one-upmanship in investigation and exposure did not exist, though the colonial authorities kept an eye on the goings-on. It would in truth have been counterproductive for Councilors to be overly corrupt because money was not the currency of persuasion and purchasing power was more in the realm of conferring recognition as a quid pro quo for loyalty.

The few who were caught in the act paid unconscionable prices, particularly social ostracism. These are still the codes of rough-hewn societies and political ideologues. Traditional inequities came to the surface later and it took a while to secure qualified acceptance. The late 19th, early 20th century witnessed reform under European influence, partially reciprocated through transcendental values to a spiritually-starved West. It is often disregarded that the Theosophical foundations of the Indian National Congress, though presided over by an Englishman, himself disillusioned with the Raj, was by nature an Indo-Western composite. The point is that there is ideological progression implicit in the benchmark of political representation in the late 19th century. It sought a balance between society, the state and the individual and East and West that is arguably still on.

It has been argued that like organised religion and the secular state, institutions of governance outside the community and society evolved from the latter half of the 19th century. The broadening of the mass base in the public sphere has introduced multitudes that have either not wholly accepted or assimilated the novel ethic. The political mobilisation of parallel strands, namely, traditional society and capital accumulation and growth, partially in accordance with global norms and requirements, presents an interesting model.

Post-independence, universal adult suffrage brought many more people into the reckoning, and with them the diversity of a secular, pluralist world considerably more arduous to cherish in practice than in precept. Initially the hallowed task of nation-building inspired commitment. But along the line money and its accompanying set of ideas became the temporal world’s tender for sustenance. Social networks became less venerated points of reference, more often than not the source of rationalised value systems for getting on (witness soap opera across the country). A population boom also moved the goalposts for governance.

The interplay with ethics became far more resilient, sometimes awaiting formal upgradation. The idea of politics, once a mission, now more the activities associated with governance, is conceptually interchanged with agitation and the spoils system, seemingly by the best of do-gooders. Yet the obvious, namely, that official policy had to diverge from human development and state provisioning of essentials before we were ready for the next step (the market) is sometimes treated as a red herring.

In the absence of absolute standards and their universal application, what is needed is the ordinary citizen’s capability to fend for himself with the benefit of administrative know-how. Alternative moral universes do exist but they are again exceptions. The special cases could, however, become general some day if the rationale of holistic wellbeing, based on the conservation of nature and livelihood systems, catch on as economic panacea and earn the esteem of city-dwellers. There too the genuine are set off against the counterfeit, who dress up conventional wisdom as far-out creativity.

Indeed, trying to pick gold nuggets from the dross could be futile. Like people and things generally, policy prescriptions also come in mixed bags. The common man, or uncommon ones for that matter, has to take the bad with the good while he is still able to do so. Imaginative political leadership appears to be grappling with institutional conservatism universally, from the preservation of traditional financial outlooks (for example, maximisation of profit) to codes of conduct (for example, the Supreme Court judgment on homosexuality). It can worsen when people from their fold or kindred ones, for example, the intelligentsia, academics and so on, join the rat race. But as in “mixed blessings” there are advantages to be had from a varied assortment, for example, when “communal” becomes “the commons”, the aam aadmi, and a leader sworn to a particular community declares war not on the “other” but on the common enemy, namely, poverty. The path taken to win it could present the poser.

Various externalities can dictate a drastic cut in spending that eats into welfare expenditure. Growth of one kind or another has to be kept in abeyance, sometimes sacrificed altogether. Cash transfers for the needy that are known to eliminate sedulously built state cushioning in the long run can acquire sanction, because financial leakages make them undesirable. Even so people on the ground will remain the same (without food, shelter, literacy, material and psychological security and an accepted social ethic over and above the law). In the absence of their betterment are we looking at their elimination in general or replacement by finished products? Apropos the obverse, a crusading former Supreme Court judge has counselled that at times it is best to take things as they come, for example, the Lok Pal Bill as it stands rather than no Bill at all. Thus in discourse as in governance the biological counterpoints of a Right hand and a Left hand help to simultaneously absorb the contradictions we are faced with.

There are other approaches. When a well-heeled citizens’ conclave takes the initiative to bring you (the ordinary citizen) up to scratch you have to ask yourself whether you have the required pliability. The detail speaks the idiom of proverbial corporate proficiency and could compose one of those quizzical moments when contrasting modus operandi are pitted against one another. Do we have the perspective to recognise our state of play in an interrelated world, or are we scrabbling with received wisdom that is not our thing? Some theoretical upholstery can come in handy: in economic pluralism disparate categories co-exist, with rights and obligations that are not in conflict, or at least amenable to adjustment. Yet the endeavour to revamp is praiseworthy in today’s conditions and should fetch returns. A non-State initiative could set a much wider pattern, unless already a part of one.

To be specific, the Bangalore Political Action Committee (BPAC) has set up a Civic Leadership Incubator Programme (BCLIP) to train selected candidates in civic governance. The significant nomenclature suggests a convergence of business-persons/entrepreneurs, professionals, bureau-crats, politicians and celebrities’ representative of the city and the State’s wealthy. If there were notable absentees (there were not many), it arguably suggested parallel preoccupations. One could just say that fears were sought to be allayed by the organisation’s website FAQs that the well-off would take care of the less fortunate.

 A range of citizenry have got a look-in. Professionals from Information Technology to Human Resources, budding politicians, social entrepreneurs, homemakers, mostly in the age group 30 to 55, have been set up two days a week (Fridays and Saturdays) for nine months during which time they are given reading material on the basics of city administration. They then have to identify ward boundaries and an action plan to solve problems. The chosen candidates hope to identify with city governance and issues of democracy. On the ground it has meant, for example, facilitating ballot-casting (one has already helped people secure their ID cards). Others have filed RTIs on sewage discharge which has become Bengaluru’s bane. A garbage disposal crisis has intensified pollution in water bodies. A particular candidate has gone on to specialise in solid waste manage-ment. A dentist wants to build infrastructure in government hospitals for the poor who cannot afford private hospitals. Another has conducted crash courses for students from deprived communities on the eve of their examinations. They all wish to become corporators to realise their dreams of public service. Their instructors do not, however, provide any guarantee of their election.

The emphasis has noticeably shifted from protest to the acquisition of practical knowledge and skills for the delivery of goods and services. Representatives of the Aam Aadmi Party, the major national and regional parties were also present. With the leaders of business and industry widely conversant with the facts of life, the greenhorn component was the odd one out. They will probably slip into the larger whole with the knowledge that the cut and thrust of business and politics entail techniques that come close to organised conflict. Out in the open the stirring up of public interest on a controversy, political or social issue, is in fact agitation. Such a configuration of stakeholders of the public good, with the memory of their mutual dynamics in the public sphere still very fresh, would have to figure in the uncomfortable reality of agitation and negotiation in the business of governance.

BPAC takes credit for the higher voter turn-out at the last Karnataka Assembly elections. Its objective is greater citizen participation in governance. The alternative was conveyed by a seasoned politician who made known sotto voce that political parties needed funding and he who paid the piper called the tune. A speaker suggested that if the ordinary citizen took part in governance, one step towards which was knowing the arrangement, life could be different. The ordinary citizen would be much rather ruled by established regulation than muscle and unlawful money power. Bengaluru is close to the location of the mining scam that rocked the State’s previous government. The judge who nailed the culprits was present. Not just the rich (who have alternatives) but Bengaluru’s aam admi was also put on guard by a retired bureaucrat declaring that 90 per cent of the city’s constructions were illegal in one way or another. The unscrupulous builder/developer, in concert with a familiar nexus, can con helpless buyers into complicity, but can be made liable by due process. Issues of corruption were not on the agenda but self-governance today presents the predicament of the physician having to heal himself at every turn.

To revisit a simplified argument, politics applies to people who can communicate symbolically and thus make statements, invoke principles, argue and disagree. Its current usurpation by money and muscle power does not mean that in its restored state arbitration must disappear, unless redefined as some other faculty. The past cannot be overlooked if the integrity of thought has to be maintained. Politics occurs precisely where people disagree about the distribution of reasons and have at least some procedures for the resolution of disagreements. As a general concept it is the art or science of directing and administering the State or other political units. Patrons and their protégés have their work cut out if they really want to make a difference in an avowed liberal democracy.

The author is a Bengaluru based journalist.

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