October 8, 2012 1:08:49 am
New political parties in India face structural and ethical hurdles
The efforts of a group of India Against Corruption workers to float a new political party have generated a lively debate. Opinions vary from unrestrained romanticism to unyielding cynicism. But it will be productive to go beyond personalities and power games.
Why is there political unrest and disquiet in the country? There is a sense of foreboding among all thinking citizens. Politics is too polarised. There is a great churn,evidenced by the rejection of both the Congress and the BJP in recent state polls. Parties are forced to rely on criminals,dynasties or money bags for funding. Corruption is rampant. Reckless populism is hurting the exchequer. Infrastructure is in a shambles,stunting economic growth. The fiscal deficit is out of control. Governments and parties seem to be powerless to arrest the drift and there are grounds for serious concern.
What do we,as a nation,need to do to address this crisis? We need to mobilise the middle classes and the youth,who are shunning politics,into meaningful political activity. True politics is vital to reconcile conflicting interests in society,make rational choices,allocate resources wisely and enlist public support in nation-building. At the very least,we need to make ethical politics sustainable. Education,skills and employment must be at the core of our governance if we are to end discrimination by birth and poverty. We need to empower local governments and give people at the community level the opportunity to make a difference.
We need to address the challenge of short-term populism versus long-term public good. In a democratic society,there is a political price to pay for pursuing rational and sound public policies. If our quest for votes at any cost leads to short-term maximisation and instant gratification,we will be enjoying tomorrows fruits today,endangering the future. All parties must agree on the role of state in a modern society. No matter which party is in power,we need a clear sense of purpose and direction as a society. Parties should provide the platform and politics is the process to achieve this. It is because politics,which ought to be the solution to the nations crises,has become the problem itself that we are in a quandary.
Do we need new parties now? We already have over 1,000 registered parties. In a mature democracy,concerned citizens with passion and leadership qualities enter a party of their choice and ascend to power through the democratic process. But our party system is fossilised and sclerotic. Most young members of Parliament are in office because of heredity. A person of competence and commitment entering a party and rising to leadership by virtue of public support through a transparent,democratic process is unthinkable in India today. Traditional parties have lost the capacity to attract,nurture and promote leadership of quality. If committed citizens wish to make a difference through politics,the only option is to form a new party. But party-building and electoral success are excruciatingly difficult.
What are the hurdles a fledgling political party will face? The very classes that should be at the forefront of political transformation are now reviling politics and abdicating from it. It is a challenge to bring them into the political process in a creative and constructive engagement. Once this is accomplished,attracting citizens of leadership potential is a difficult task. Citizens are marginalised and citizenship is devalued. There is abject dependence on those with power and influence even for simple services a ration card,birth certificate,school admission,FIR registration,land records,etc. Therefore,voters want strong leaders with significant economic clout and organisational strength,preferably backed by years of visible public service. Potential leaders with such qualities are generally unwilling to be associated with politics,for fear of retribution from the established parties. Even those prominent citizens who do not seek state patronage prefer to play safe,as they do not want to burn bridges with the establishment. Thus,even those who are convinced they should pursue political office to promote public good tend to opt for traditional,established parties.
Then there is the problem of ethically competing against freebies and short-term sops offered to woo the electorate and the divisive politics practised to polarise a diverse society. Our first-past-the-post electoral system demands a high threshold of voting for electoral success. As people perceive that a candidate or a party,however good and desirable,will not succeed,they tend to indulge in tactical voting to vote for the second-worst candidate to prevent the worst from getting elected. Often,our election is a choice between two top parties,not between all candidates or parties based on their qualities.
So how do we help transform politics? First,new,ethical parties should work together to maximise their influence. At the very least,they must not hurt each other. Second,genuine,pragmatic reforms should be pursued simultaneously. While no one reform is sufficient,cumulatively they can change society and alter incentives,making political transformation that much easier. Third,there must be a push within the large,established parties for internal democracy and modernisation. Finally,both the Congress and the BJP,and other significant parties like the Left,BSP,SP,should realise that the electoral system needs to be changed. In four of Indias six largest states UP,Bihar,Tamil Nadu and West Bengal both the Congress and the BJP are electorally insignificant. This is because once a national party falls below a threshold vote,its support quickly evaporates. A shift to proportionate representation will strengthen national outlook,minimise vote-buying,and encourage the best and brightest to enter politics and place their talents at the service of the country.
The writer is the founder and president of Lok Satta Party
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