A contest of ideas,not agendas

We need a politics that puts national imperatives ahead of partisanship,if we are to rise to tomorrow’s challenges

Updated: January 16, 2015 1:09 pm

By: Ashwani Kumar

Any serious reflection on the state of our polity would confirm that the tension between constitutional institutions is endangering the order. Conflict rather than contestation of ideas is now the defining feature of our politics. The idiom of political discourse is no longer in the nature of a conversation and leaves little scope for building a consensus to address national challenges. The debates regarding identity and diversity,pluralism and communalism has assumed divisive overtones. In discussions of our federal structure,regional sensitivities and aspirations are increasingly prevailing over national imperatives. The idea of India is under siege.

In this conflict-driven politics,winning elections becomes both a compulsion and an obsession whereby the future is often sacrificed to the present. Politics becomes an exercise in evasion as elections become contests in fiscal perjuries at the altar of populist pressures.

We must ask ourselves whether our democracy respects the rule of reason in which the pursuit of power is justified only by the ends to which it is applied. What can we do to establish the meritocracy of ideas? Is our “vibrant democracy” conducive to government by discussion? Has our journalism become dysfunctional using news as a means of coercion and search for ratings? How do we alter the rules of the game so as to discover the moral centre of the nation on fundamental issues through the “fullest and freest comparison of opposite opinions”? We are faced with a situation in which we do not have solutions to every difficulty and instead have a difficulty in every solution.

It is clear that global challenges of this century,which we face in common with the world,cannot be addressed by a divided nation,a fractured polity and the practice of politics that does not produce transformational leadership. The tyranny of coercive propaganda exemplified by the many recent media trials in derogation of the first principles of fair trial and rule of law must compel us to rethink the boundaries of fair comment.

Nor can we rid our polity of the debilitating influence of ill-gotten wealth and muscle power without a resolve to eliminate from the electoral process people of a certain variety notwithstanding their capacity to win elections. We must ask ourselves whether parliamentary and legislative majorities are always reflective of “the will of the majority” on critical national issues and what kind of electoral reforms are required to ensure that governments reflect the moral and political conscience of the country. Social media networks with their unprecedented reach made possible by the internet,mobile telephony,digital media and television have redefined the practice of democratic politics. We need to ask ourselves whether as a nation,we are ready for new forms of political power going beyond traditional structures with an increasingly knowledgeable world and the majority of humanity,a major part being from India,connected to the Internet in the years ahead.

A deafening silence on issues of fundamental importance to citizens have come to define our ‘noisy’ democracy. We must debate for instance,whether the state must arm itself with sweeping powers at the cost of the citizen’s fundamental freedoms in the name of security which,as history reminds us is the usual justification for encroaching upon the fundamental rights of citizens. Can we not achieve security without losing our fundamental freedoms? If not,what are we securing ourselves against? How do we reconcile claims of privacy of individuals and the right to be left alone with the people’s right to know and national security concerns? What is the right balance between often competing but fundamental values of the republic? Should not constitutional guarantees be respected against the impulses of transient majorities periodically thrown up in elections? How do we secure the future of constitutionalism and has the Indian state delivered on the social contract amongst free citizens that its institutions will seek to convince and not coerce its constituents?

The fragmenting and diffusion of power away from traditional political hierarchies and the dispersal of power of capital and ideas is a reality of an interconnected world. The Arab Spring,Occupy Wall Street and other movements have been triumphantly proclaimed as the power of the street to put on notice democracies and dictatorships alike. With civil society and the new media redrawing the terms of political engagement we need to have a blueprint for action to balance citizens’ rights with responsibilities. We need to imbue our politics with idealism and commitment to the core values of the nation,risking,if necessary,even an adverse electoral outcome. Who wins,if India loses,is the question. The measure of progressive change after all is not only in the standards of living. It is as much about standards of life.

The global challenge of climate change raises the question of intergenerational equities. We must ask ourselves whether our policies have done enough on the imperatives of sustainable consumption. We have to factor in our politics the full impact of transformational changes in science and technology that will alter the way we have evolved as a society and civilisation. Imagine the impact of the communication and scientific revolution when IBM’s proposed computer capable of 20,000 trillion calculations per second will be launched.

We must ask ourselves whether a nation whose internal politics is dependent on considerations of caste,community,religion and is perennially conflict-ridden can evolve effective responses to the challenges of climate change,a difficult external environment,energy dependency,a rising China,an unstable West Asia and the growing threat of international terrorism. The current debate about the ethical dimensions of power and governance must necessarily extend to the patent inequities in wealth distribution. A recent OECD report has concluded that the gap between the rich and the poor has reached the highest levels in the last 30 years. Has 20th century capitalism failed 21st century society?

The challenges that confront us demand leadership. Our politics must represent the contest of ideas and the pursuit of reason. Indeed,the future of India rests not on prolonging the past and the present in the face of an undeniable need to do different things and to do them differently. While we cannot build up the future in advance nor do we have instant solutions to the questions raised,we must not shirk from criticism of the present state — criticism that will not shirk either from its own conclusions or from conflict with the powers that be. We need to broaden the national consultative and deliberative processes and resurrect a political dialogue with the Indian people. Quite clearly,an acrimonious political discourse and national reconciliation on fundamental issues are mutually incompatible. All political parties must resolve to redefine the rules of political engagement which would revive hope in the future of our democracy.

The writer is minister of state for planning,science & technology & earth sciences. Views expressed are his own

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