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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 10, March 1, 2014

Addressing National Imperatives

Monday 3 March 2014, by Uttam Sen

As of now, there appears to be between 200 and 250 Lok Sabha seats outside the influence of the two principal coalition configurations of the NDA and the UPA. Most of the south and east, with the exception of Karnataka, appear to be beating the spell of the principal national alignments. The condition can translate into two associated possibilities.

One is a coalition of the remainder, call it a federal front, third front or by whatever name. For the record, 11-odd parties have steered clear of controversy and plan to get together in a post-election coalition. (At the time of writing there was no significant objection of any party or formation to another.) But it would be reasonable to assume that in the eventuality of government formation after the elections, the leader of a party with a decisive 40-50 seat mandate will head it. The incumbent could be from a regional party from Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, West Bengal, Bihar, ideological alignments or even a new-fangled outfit that both understands and gets better understood with growing momentum. Political personalities who have matured over time could even get past the limitation of numbers in forging their (leadership) claims. Unlike the past when politicians failed against dissonance at the national level, with its fine-drawn subtleties, most leaders today have memories of what transpired then.

Within themselves, political leaders branded and pigeonholed in the national mind as one or another aberration can seek to do justice to their talents in a democratic yet grounded ambience, compliant with homespun paths to acceptability and recognition. One ineffable by-product of the sting-and-scam standard has been the realisation that the gap between Queensbury rules and alley practices is being sought to be narrowed. There has been no formal response worth the name to explain the other space between legitimacy and the help-yourself aura of liberalisation, not just in India, but universally. Yeltsin’s Russia was perhaps the extreme case of loot by an oligarchy. It bears recalling that while it was on, received wisdom was applauding economically liberating animal spirits. Separating the wheat from the chaff was difficult at the time.

But if the local politician’s integrity of thought is anything to go by, it is often manifested in redoubtable vernacular oratory and its vindication among empathetic equals. It could produce the desired results in drawing conclusions in the people’s interests. One has heard backbencher school teachers speak with conviction. On the flip side, the English language would not be genuinely imperiled by those who recognise both its symbolic status (they usually send their children to English-medium schools) and utility.

One potential aspirant is a declared fan of the person who headed the National Front in 1989. Significantly, the latter’s over-the-top espousal of affirmative action consolidated the Franken-stein of new dominant castes. His variety of reformism obviously worked while initially entitling and empowering them. In West Bengal too the Left Front’s promising beginning in recording the names of sharecroppers with a view to giving them a share of the produce petered out, till today the countryside is virtually run by people’s settlement machineries beyond the ambit of formal law. Any realistic humanitarian will have to probe deeper into why any restructuring venture turns totally counterproductive by the time the cycle is completed.

V.P. Singh and his contemporaries’ were swamped by coalition politics, caught between two major political blocs. The objective of governmental or organisational even-handedness would also have been a novelty, the model of 1977 not having been a big help. Their imprudence on power-sharing dogged them to the end. The arresting detail is that an easily perceived political factor is poised to play a ginger group, whether in government or Opposition, or, if necessary, independently. The AAP has already demonstrated promising technical ability to pursue issues, particularly pertaining to graft, to as close to logical conclusions as is possible. There are, however, other facets of rectitude, sometimes difficult to set down in black and white, but they would approximate an immanent sovereignty people perceive within.

If the battle for inclusive justice succeeds in capturing the imagination of the vast majority of low-profile, well-meaning people, support will grow. There could be resonance across-the- board when reticent individuals find good reason to speak up. The endeavour is really about the multiplier effect of restricting the arbitrary exercise of power by well-defined and established laws. The outcome could sometimes turn out to be a little different from what the AAP set out to do, but the party would have done its bit as the trigger that sparked the ability to develop anew. But like any human initiative the party itself needs reciprocal nurturing by components.

Change of heart is also about making governance more real than notional. Decentralisation can bring governance closer to the people but even for a party that has tried to practice what it preaches, the variety of impediments it has encountered provides a measure of the road ahead. A transiting trial and error method could well accrue. The AAP as a political suggestion has already adjusted to the idea of (bona fide) corporate funding. Resource mobilisation through mobile technology is paying dividends. The old world is watching, with a little trepidation, the institution of mechanical methodology that is not difficult to acquire but a collateral of the ideology that questions its way of life.

Power, authority, property etc. sanctified strictly by the text of the law as it obtains today has more stumbling blocks than meets the eye. Some fitful violence has already erupted in response to this defiance of the seemingly natural order of things, and more might in future. Yet the AAP has had to detect keen sponsors, conceivably neophytes in change through political and social media agency but worldly veterans knowledgeable about inter-dependence in a fluid state world. To date the AAP stands committed to its self-imposed standards, politically shunning “tainted” parties and persona-lities. But it might have to redefine some of them with reference to the subtext.

In the other aspect, theory limps behind the empirical. Both the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu and the BJD in Odisha have mixed pro-market liberalisation with welfare schemes (one way of punctuating growth with equity!). They could set the benchmark for other States. Political parties and formations are becoming increasingly indistinguishable in their agendas but are throwing up their hands in the face of entwined conundrums, not really meant for one-dimensional resolution. The political class has its own role to play in tandem with others. Indigenous taste and knowledge counteract the exotic, particularly the new skills and sets of circumstance that announce the contemporary. Plumping wholly for one at the expense of the other (tradition/politics, modernity/technocracy) is creating chaos and instability in other parts of the world, sometimes in ours as well. But even when people prefer full-blown governance to infighting, would the political class not be driven to assume its national leadership role? The hitherto exclusive brand of the “politics-only” politician is on notice that handy professionals can take over his job. But versatility is not always a substitute for authenticity. Political capital is also about sensitivity and intuition, acquired by concentrated involvement, not strictly the domain of technocracy. We catch glimpses of the reality in the world at large.

If politics is also about managing people, cannot professional politicians revive the climate in which they can negotiate differences to resume governance rather than rule each other out and create a dead end? In not-too-distant lands they have been rendered superfluous or mouthpieces of forces that are anything but their people. The latter condition has been demonstrated in several countries that witnessed the Arab Spring, inversely deteriorating with the ascendancy of violence as the ranks of the genuinely aggrieved are consumed by mercenaries (as in Libya or Syria). Technocrats have also taken over, for example, Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan, and have had to struggle with professionally alien environments. Such extreme finales will hopefully not come to bear on India but if the political class does not rise to the occasion it could be passed over to all-round detriment. If it does, political permutations will become secondary to the collective stake in governance.

The author is a Bengaluru-based journalist.

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