‘New politics has a long way to go in india’
Civil Society, New Delhi
Is politics in India getting cleaner and more accountable? Are more people in the middle class ready to stop shunning politicians and engage with them instead for better results? Is an Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) being in power in Delhi a sign of new politics taking root?
Civil Society spoke to Dr Jayaprakash Narayan, who founded Loksatta two decades ago and was an early voice for reforms in the electoral system, on what he thinks are the real improvements that have been made.
Narayan says it is significant that more professionals and honest people are entering politics. Grand corruption has been addressed. The right to information has brought greater transparency. Voter registration is much higher. Defection is not the curse it used to be.
But established parties have yet to commit themselves to systemic change and give the new talent they attract the authority to lead it. Similarly new parties like AAP have to go beyond being ethical and tactical to being rational and coming up with solutions.
Loksatta has been a frontrunner in promoting cleaner politics and in getting professionals to engage with the political system. What do you think has been achieved over the years?
In the last 20 years the discourse on democratic dissent and the reform agenda has significantly changed from an instinctive opposition to politics to an increasing engagement with the political process. In my judgment this is a vast improvement.
Secondly, I have always argued that the politician is the victim of a vicious cycle and therefore politics is truly a noble endeavour. We have to transform the nature of politics. I don’t think we have achieved great success in articulating this. But it is finding increasing resonance. We have to figure out where institutional changes are needed.
Thirdly, there are very specific and tangible gains in the last 15-20 years. Voter registration has improved dramatically. There is a world of difference from how things were in 1996-98. Disclosure of candidate details has now become the norm.
In political funding, we have an excellent law today, a genuine legal framework. People confuse buying of votes with political funding. The question is — how do you create a system where you don’t need money to buy votes.
Political parties legitimately do have honest avenues to raise resources, which I think is a great plus. In 2003 we got this law enacted. I take special pride in making that happen after the Tehelka scam.
Then, defection, while still a continuing menace, is very different from what it was 20 years ago. The anti-defection law has been tightened. It is no longer a dominant feature of our political system.
So you would say defection is more an aberration than the rule now?
Exactly. Limiting the size of the cabinet has happened through a constitutional amendment. The right to information law happened in 2005. The local courts law has not been implemented. The legislative process is over. We do have a law but it’s dysfunctional.
The 97th Amendment to the Constitution gives autonomy to cooperatives, very important for the country’s future. Civil society organisations and cooperatives can now function without intervention.
Loksatta also helped in getting through the 99th Amendment on the appointment of judges to the Supreme Court and High Court. Of course the Supreme Court struck down the NJAC (National Judicial Appointments Commission) as unconstitutional. But at least the fight is on. You can’t gloss over these issues anymore.
Then you have several policy initiatives in the country. One is the cancellation of the 2G licences. Competitive bidding for natural resources like spectrum and coal will make grand corruption a thing of the past.
We fought three years to get the ban on export of food grain lifted. Food was rotting in godowns and open silos. We are the biggest exporter of rice in the world today.
If you know what you want and you are precise about it, if you are willing to work with other parties in a non-judgmental way and build a consensus then big things can happen.
Would you say many more people who would not have joined politics earlier are part of the political establishment today?
I entirely agree. More people are interested in politics. Some have been accommodated by political parties. There is fine talent coming in. To some extent, this is making an impact but, and this is an important caveat, traditional parties see new talent as a managerial resource and not as change agents. They need competent people to manage their politics and campaigns, give them credibility or to be in government. But parties are not looking at this talent as a resource for change.
So what would change political parties?
There are three things in my judgment. One is the way parties are structured. We have two types of structures: dynastic like the Congress, and semi-democratic, semi-feudal like the BJP. They are not willing to undergo a fundamental change.
To make parties agents of change they need to attract talented people, allow them to rise and come up with an alternative agenda and make that agenda deliverable once the party gets public support.
Take the BJP in 2014. The public perception was a mandate for change. The party’s perception is a mandate for expansion and for displacing the dominant party. So if you look at what they want to do and what they are doing it’s exactly what the earlier parties have done or professed they would do. There is no change in the structure and institutions fundamentally in the country.
The other way change will happen is through local governments. That is the easiest and the best way in a large country like ours. Citizens can then play a role and make an impact. We pretend we have local governance in India but it's all a myth.
The third is change in the political electoral process. As long as you have the first past the post system, the Westminster model, and vote bank politics in a poor country like ours, no matter which political party comes into power, the fundamentals of politics won’t change.
These are the three trajectories. They are complementary not exclusive. If all three happen, India is very safe. If one happens, there is hope. If two happen, its good but we are still not there.
How close are we to a tipping point in politics?
There is great opportunity. But it is dwindling. In the 21st century world we don’t have the luxury of deciding our own pace of change. We have to respond to global economic forces.
We have to understand global trends: increasing parochialism in many countries, ultra nationalism, trade barriers and new technologies that make decentralised production in rich countries possible in the next decade. Therefore no country can now aspire to be another great manufacturing giant and solve its problems through exports (the way China did).
In terms of macro economic management and, to some extent infrastructure, I think there is greater cohesiveness and clarity in the country than there was 20 years ago.
But I don’t think there is any significant change in the real issues. Local governance, education, healthcare delivery, service delivery, police reforms, judiciary and justice, corruption at the grassroots… I don’t think we have moved much on these. Technology has made some things happen but we are not at a tipping point.
In fact there is blindness right now. There isn’t even any serious discussion or debate on these issues. We are lulled into a sense of security that all is right in the world.
Has the Aam Aadmi Party raised the bar in politics?
We think we understand the politics of this country but I suspect most of us don’t. First, we are not one country. We are politically speaking some 30 or 40 countries. These countries are not at the same stage of economic development and per capita income. They don’t have the (same level of) social consciousness and capacity to take risks, volunteer or fight the traditional forces of society.
Delhi gave that opportunity. Unsurprisingly, because Delhi has the highest per capita income in the country and, therefore, has more people capable of understanding, aspiring, volunteering and confronting traditional entrenched forces.
Then the Congress party went and committed suicide. The Congress disappeared and gave space to AAP and Arvind’s tactical brilliance made it happen. Third, of course, is media. The media is oxygen for political growth. Political activity is about media time and, because we are a Delhi centric country, enormous attention was given which was good.
AAP did set an example that ethical politics is something to aspire for and others must respond to this challenge. While they were rhetorical, they are not rational. The way political parties behave in a democracy is also a function of society’s evolution. You would expect a change agent to be also rational besides being ethical. Even with this deficiency I think it’s important to hear such voices.
You have the 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Constitution which were supposed to improve governance. Yet there is corruption at the grassroots and municipalities have little power. Why has this happened?
I was born and brought up in a village. But the future is in urban India. In the past 40 years the culture of self-reliance and pride has been destroyed in villages. People have been made mendicants.
In urban India, for the first time, there is awareness about being taxpayers. We hear people say, we pay taxes but nothing happens. This is an excellent beginning to transform our local
The two amendments are utterly flawed. I wish they had never happened. As a result we have created over structured and underpowered local governments. We must look at urban governance as a fundamental issue and really give power, resources and flexibility to local governance so that this constitutional rigidity disappears.
The second is about corruption. The best way to tackle it is for people to see the link between taxes, resources and the outcome. If people know these are the resources we have, and this should be coming to us — roads, street lighting, drains, schools … they can track it.
Once you understand that local governance makes the most difference to your life then you start valuing your vote a little more.
At the same time I am a great champion of the independent ombudsman. Why not create a strong one in each district to oversee elected representatives and officials?
Also, a lot of talent that can’t get into the higher level of politics can easily work at local level. There are many people doing great work in health or education in isolation. If given a chance they can make a phenomenal difference. The political process can be dramatically transformed.
Narendra Modi made an important comment in his speech on Independence Day. He said, “if we have lakhs of problems, then we also have one hundred and twenty five crore brains which are all capable of solving these problems.” It’s a very powerful comment but he never declared any understanding of that comment in the last two years. Really there are problem solvers all over India.