Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Can we walk the talk?

The recent terror attacks have shaken middle class and young India as never before. Millions have responded with grief for the senseless slaughter of innocent people, and anger at the corruption, incompetence and abject failure of politicians. The revulsion of dysfunctional politics is palpable.

Happily, this time there is a realisation that we cannot shun politics. More and more from middle classes are now registering as voters and exercising franchise. In the states that went to polls last week, people voted thoughtfully, not emotionally. There is recognition that politics shapes our future. But there is also a sense of resignation that nothing much can be expected from current politics. The only celebration on election results is seen among party workers and elected candidates.

For a nation which celebrates its elections, this quiet resignation is a reflection of minimal expectations. The moribund parties are bereft of ideas and hope. They all have been tried and tested, and all are found wanting. We can no longer pretend that one more change of government will change our lives.

This combination of rising political interest and growing despair poses a challenge and provides an opportunity. Despite a few politicians of sterling virtues, as a rule our parties are uninspiring. Mired in vote buying, competitive populism, criminalisation, sloth, divisive and vote bank politics, monumental corruption and gross incompetence, traditional parties have failed spectacularly.

We need several Gorbachevs in each major party to rejuvenate our political system from within. But hoping for such reform in parties is putting too much faith in serendipity. We cannot take such a big chance with our future as a country and as individuals. Like it or not, politics shapes the world we live in, and the future of our children. We need to be engaged.

Naoroji, Tilak, Gokhale, Gandhi, Ambedkar, Azad, Chittaranjan Das, Bose, Rajaji, Prakasam, Sarojini Naidu — all these represented the best and brightest in our society. They all entered politics, enriched our lives, and shaped our destiny. Today such people are deterred from public life. Pedigree, ill-gotten wealth, caste and criminality are the passports for political recruitment. How many Indians of ability, integrity and passion can we think of, who rose in public life without pedigree in the past two decades? If a Barack Obama seeks to contest for the state assembly in Karnataka or Andhra Pradesh, he would be summarily rejected by the traditional parties because he does not have crores of unaccounted and ill-gotten money to buy votes! Is it a surprise that our government is in shambles? If it requires great ability and dedication to run an office or company, can the nation be run by morons, crooks and political heirs?

What do we do now? The best and brightest must once again take to politics as a calling. If traditional parties are too moribund, we need to create new parties as genuine vehicles for political action. There is no escape from parties in a democracy. But we need a party platform with powerful ideas, and practising internal democracy and transparency in funds. People want change. Collectively we have a sense of what needs to be done — national security, public order, justice, rule of law, education, healthcare, skills and employment, effective markets and value addition in agriculture, rural-urban linkages, in situ urbanisation, infrastructure, a measure of social security for the poor, local governments, citizen empowerment, and zero tolerance of corruption. Past experience and global best practices offer us great lessons in accomplishing these goals. We have the resources and technology needed, if only we harness than wisely.

But we need to learn to work in teams. Petty jealousies, turf wars, and divisions must be submerged in the quest for larger goals. A genuinely democratic party must accommodate all views, and ensure discipline, synergy, competition and promotion of the truly gifted leaders. Above all a party must reconcile conflicting interests in society. If we care deeply enough, we can find realistic answers to all our vexing problems — reservations, SEZs, big projects etc. That is what true politics is about.

One special challenge today is, the idea of India is in retreat. Political India is fragmented, and there are no national verdicts. The composition of Parliament is now merely the aggregate of verdicts in states. This should change. Meanwhile, big change will have to come in metropolitan cities and one or two big states where widely respected, popular movements can influence the thinking of most people. Once we demonstrate the possibility of change in action, much of India will follow suit. We must simultaneously engage with the established parties to force the pace of change. Massive political transformation in a complex and vast nation is not easy. But it is within reach.

The time is ripe. Real and lasting change needs vision, audacity, courage, talent, patience, hard work, tact, humility, and sacrifice. Coming general elections offer us an opportunity to begin this process of change. Are we, the privileged Indians, up to the task? Can we walk the talk?

(The author is the president of Loksatta Party)

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