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

The Meaning of Politics

Sunday 29 December 2013, by D.K. Giri


Of different influences on our daily life, politics is predominant. Most often, it overrides other sectors of life—social, cultural, business, technology, agriculture. Bernard Crick, in his In Defence of Politics says: Politics affects everyday life. “The decisions made by politicians affect us all, from cradle to grave.” But do the people in India or other parts of the world understand politics correctly or embrace politicians? Not really. A credible Institute in Stockholm, the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), supported by many democratic countries, made a multi-country survey to measure people’s interest in and understanding of politics. The finding across the countries is that people did not like politics nor did they trust the politicians.

Yet, the contradiction is that people are mad about politics, especially in the developing countries, as obviously they have a stake in it. They talk animatedly about politics. Jonathan Swift, in Thoughts on Various Subjects, had said: “Democracy (party) is madness of many for the benefit of the few.” To sample a few more interpretations of politics. Otto von Bismarck said: “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable—the art of the next best.”It isLord Acton, the British historian, who said: “All power tends to corrupt; and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” George Bernard Shaw commented: “Politics is the last resort of scoundrels.” With such serious commentaries on politics, it is natural for people to be cynical and cynicism is detrimental to democracy, if not to all forms of politics. It will be better for the people and politics, if people had a correct understanding of politics and had informed engagement with it.

Words have meaning. Concepts impact and inform our actions. And ideas move the world. Many historians argue that the politically path-breaking famous French Revolution would not have occurred without the powerful ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity propounded by the French Enlightenment philosophers—Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire, and Montesquieu. So, correct understanding and interpretation of ideas are important.

Let us look at the meaning and operational definition of politics, as it is commonly under-stood. Some common definitions of politics are: politics is the exercise of power; politics is the public allocation of values; politics is the resolution of conflict; politics is the competition among individuals, groups, or states pursuing their interests. There are many other, but all of them include power, and authority. In India, politics is commonly understood as ‘Rajniti’ meaning policies of the king. Such understanding of politics has made politics the game of royals, feudals, elites and so on, whereas the meaning of a Minister is people’s servant. Ministering means serving. We change the meaning of words in India and indianise their practice, be it Ministry, secularism, socialism or even democracy. This is perhaps not absolutely incorrect as the words have three kinds of meaning—literal, contextual and deeper (in Indian sabdarthha,bhabarthha and gudharthha).

In that spirit, let me proffer two new meanings to politics—Rajniti can be understood as ‘king of politics’ instead of king’s policy; second, sevaniti instead of rajniti. Operational implications of these meanings will make a profound impact on politics and will make it popular. People will treat politics with respect and caution and engage with it without its overriding influence over anything else as “king of politics”. Second, sevaniti will make politicians service-oriented, not power-mongering, influence-peddling, profit- seeking etc. If every other job like the top ones, Indian Administrative Service, Indian Police Service, and Indian Economic Service, are called service, why should we not call Parliament and Legislative career as service? An incorrect under-standing or inappropriate application creates unfavourable and unhealthy attitudes to politics, which are not so good for a democracy. What do the three major stakeholders- state (read politicians), business, and civil society, in a country think of politics? Our reference-point of course is India.

What do the politicians think of politics? Politics for many is a profession and a career. They are into it full time and do nothing else. So whether they are in power or out of it, they live off politics. Many get into it as their families have made it and they must inherit that legacy. Others enter politics as they cannot do anything else, and they could make a good living by squatting in the corridors of power. Some others join politics to represent the people and alleviate their conditions, but this lot, sooner than later, get caught in the vicious circle of “power-influence-survival-revival-power”. Whatever be their motivation in joining, politicians fall in their struggle for survival. They make compromises in the name of compulsions and lose their original mission.

People in business see politics as a tool for growing their business. Ideology is immaterial for them. They would support any party which helps them build their business. It is true that business do a lot of philanthropic activities, but motivation is to do so is not political or social, it could be religious or spiritual, or a guide quid pro quo made with their benefactors. This in a sense is called Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). Business ought to look for profit, but using politics to gain illegitimate profit is unhealthy for society.

What is society’s understanding of politics? Societal actors are many having differentiated perceptions of politics. Civil society organisations like community based ones use politics to campaign for their interests, others issue-based ones protest or advocate for the causes they believe in, and there are protest movements, pressures and lobbies like trade unions and so on. But all civil society organisations like to stay away from politics, as politics is corrupt, manipulative, and therefore, it is not meant for ‘good people’. But Abraham Lincoln once had reprimanded his fellow-citizens uninterested in politics, bad politicians are elected by good citizens who do not vote.

Media is deeply connected with politics. It collects news from politicians and gives it to the people. Media personnel frequent the political corridors sniffing for news, especially breaking news, snatching sound bites and flashing them in TVs, you tubes, websites and papers. But media does not subscribe to any particular politics, nor has any core political beliefs barring some who may have ideological or political affiliation.

To sum up, politics is understood and used according to the people’s own interest. That is a normal trend. Such interest can be selfish or selfless, intellectual, or spiritual, ideological or tribal, communal etc. What one is arguing here is, politics is a collective act. Aristotle said, Man by nature is a social animal, in a democracy, wo(man) is a political being as people are sovereign in a democracy and are supposed to be makers of their political destinies People have to take a collective view of politics and have collective responsibilities and accountabilities. That is, politics is also a service, helping each other, looking after the common men and women not making space for ex-royals, feudals, rich and the elite. To actualise such under-standing of politics it has to be made simpler, easier for common people to play it. The role of power, money and mafia have to diminish, instead, ideas, commitment and sacrifice have to come into play. Politics then will be king of policies, and real lokniti, not rajniti.

Dr D.K. Giri is an author and political commentator.

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