This election has witnessed some new aspirants: the well-meaning,earnest corporate professional and civil society activist. Capt G.R. Gopinath,who founded Air Deccan,and Mira Sanyal,on electoral sabbatical from ABN Amro where she is the country head for India,are contesting as independents in Bangalore and Mumbai,respectively. Similarly,Jai Prakash Narayan,who runs a wonderful NGO called Loksatta (not connected with the Express Groups formidable Marathi paper of the same name) which has been very effectively active in areas of governance,and Mallika Sarabhai are in the contest as well. I know some of these brilliantly talented people well,and some casually or indirectly I have even had the good fortune of sometimes basking in the reflected glory of one,Capt Gopinath. In so many places,in airport terminals,hotel lobbies and simply on the street,particularly in the South,young people,mostly management students,have walked up to me to ask for autographs. And by now I know I need not flatter myself; they come to me because they mistake me for Capt Gopinath,their innovative maverick who invented low-cost aviation in India. These are all perfectly well-intentioned,smart,patriotic Indians whose motives you cannot but applaud,who want to raise the level of our mainstream politics. But,unfortunately,it wont work,at least not in this way,and here is why.
You may call it the cynicism of an old-fashioned political journalist,a Dilliwala on top of that,and I have already got more than my share of flak for suggesting that all the candidates of what I described,half-facetiously as usual,as the Cocktail Party of India will lose their deposits (The glorious certainties,IE,April 18). But do hear me out. The reason why such wise and sincere people will draw a blank in their maiden political adventure is not because our system is by now so corrupt and ridden by caste and communalism that it has no place for decent people. They will do badly because even in their enthusiasm to take the democratic route to change they betray an ignorance of our democracy,and lack of respect for the ordinary voter.
Here,in brief,is the argument of the new independent: if after electing 15 Parliaments a majority of our people are still so poor,suffer so much injustice and corruption,and if our vast security machinery cannot protect us from 26/11,something has to change. The tricky part,however,is: how do you bring about that change? By joining,and reforming the (democratic) system from within,or by challenging and wrecking it from outside,and then building a new one? Their current sentiment is to go with the latter. So party politics is vile. It promotes vote-bank politics,casteism and communalism,personality cult and sycophancy,and keeps the really talented individual out. So,the same smart individuals can now enter the contest as independents and rock the politicians boat,probably by riding the anti-politician mood so stunningly underlined on Barkha Dutts We the People every Sunday. This argument wont go much further than Malabar Hill living rooms,and not merely because most of these angry we the people were most likely not seen among the 40-odd per cent who turned out to vote in South Bombay,preferring to escape to Alibaug,Madh Island or Goa: who wastes a four-day weekend for a mere vote?
It will not work because,fundamentally,the notion that you can invent a new politics where independents displace parties is not only fanciful,it is also undemocratic. The essence of parliamentary democracy is the party system. All democracies are built around competing parties,ideologies,mass leaders,manifestos. Imagine a Parliament of 543 individuals,or where even 10 per cent of the members have no party affiliation. Imagine the incoherence,the sheer anarchy. Such a thing has only been tried in the past by military dictators! Thrice in Pakistan,once each by Ayub Khan (guided democracy in the 60s),Zia (in the party-less election that elected Junejo as prime minister in the 80s) and then Musharraf after he had sent the top leadership of all major parties into exile. We all know how successful these attempts have been. The other fallacious notion is that the world of politics is filled with stupid,uneducated,lazy and corrupt people,usually of a criminal bent. That comes from an unquestioning acceptance of the Bollywood caricature of the neta.
It is certainly a great idea for professionals,entrepreneurs and activists to enter mainstream politics. But for that they have to first understand and respect politics and also to accept the heat and dust,the hard work,the take-no-prisoners competitive spirit that go with it. As the track record of the two prime ministerial aspirants (Manmohan Singh and Advani) shows you,politics surely has place for honest people. But it needs charisma,ambition,diligence,wisdom and experience of a very high order before you can make your mark,even save your deposit. Because people who come out and vote,defying the heat and cynicism,poverty,frustration,hunger and even the lure of a four-day weekend,understand what is good for them better than many of us in our ivory towers. Partisan politics sounds awful on 24-hour TV,but it keeps us together as a nation,giving different sections of our society,the minorities,Dalits,tribals,even the corporates and journalists a voice. If more than 90 per cent of distant Nagalands people come out to vote when less than half as many do in South Bombay it shows how parts of the country where real democracy was denied for long are so much more enthusiastic about it.
Party politics is the most meritocratic profession of all in democracies. It is only politics that enables an Obama to defeat a Hillary Clinton for the leadership of the Democratic Party and its vote banks and then employ her as his secretary of state,or enables a Mayawati to build a party and rise from nowhere to give crores of Dalits a sense of participation and empowerment. Party politics does not prohibit the educated upper crust,but you cannot take it for granted and demand a lateral entry at the top by right,just because you are better educated or better bred. Most of our politicians have been at it for years,learning their ropes in college,panchayat or labour union politics. Most of them,as one look at the latest book published by this newspaper group (Indias Elected) would tell you,are also very well-educated,contrary to the Omkara stereotype. These new entrants will fail because they seem driven by a divine right to come and clean up our politics and governance,sullied for 60 years by illiterate,venal politicians and stupid voters. In a small way,they will remind you of the Swatantra Party of the erstwhile princes. They were swept away in no time by their own former subjects. And whether their governance of their feudal kingdoms was much better than our current candidates corporations is a question we shall overlook for the moment.