What should politicians do now?
Short answer: Get out of the way. Or rather, shut up and get out of the way. Long answer:
There are roughly four (often overlapping) things a politician is supposed to do in service of his nation:
1. Leadership – our present Prime Minister is Dr. Manmohan Singh, who is the gentlest, most soft-spoken, nicest Sikh in the world. Right now everyone is piling on him because in times of stress we would like to see a more warlike Singh in place. But even if we threw him out of office and brought in someone who could yell a little louder who would we get?
The one certainty is L.K. Advani an 81 year old man whose best years were spent playing second fiddle to the acknowledged star of his party. The last time he had an original thought was when he went to Pakistan and said something mildly appreciative of their founding father and Mumbaikar M.A. Jinnah. The outsize reaction to that minor slip ought to have taught him better than to think outside the party box.
Queuing up behind him are Rahul Gandhi (the girls at St. Stephen’s think he’s cute!), Narendra Modi (he makes money and he frightens little Muslim children!), Mayawati (she’s discrimination-free if it’ll win her the prize at the end of the rainbow!), Laloo Prasad Yadav (he’s so funny you forget he’s terrible at everything!), Mulayam Singh Yadav (Amar Singh, Amitabh Bachchan and Anil Ambani come free!). The sole South Indian in this mix is Prakash Karat (he has no money!) who might well be the Communists’ choice if pigs started taking flight and they won the general election.
It’s a long list of intellectual and moral pygmies. And given that the younger set in Parliament is made up of people who got the job thanks to blatant nepotism (Scindias, Deoras, Gandhis et al), this isn’t going to change any time soon.
2. Representation – domestically, this takes place when there’s something at stake for the politician involved. Like money or the chance to meet their favorite movie actress, etc. R.K. Laxman didn’t pull the stereotype of the absent politician who only shows up when votes are at stake out of thin air when he used it again and again in his cartoons.
Take Govinda for example. The man lives in Mumbai, the city gave him pretty much everything he has to his name – including a Parliamentary seat. And here’s how he rewards it. Despite living in the same city! There’s the odd politician who is involved in his or her constituency, of course, but by and large? Not so much.
And internationally, when was the last time you saw India do something other than play defense? In decades past, we had no pretensions to superpower (economic or otherwise) status, yet we were able to present India’s needs and concerns to the world at large. We were poor, we were struggling, we were trying to find our feet in a volatile nuclear arms race between two countries thousands of miles away – and we were able to communicate the impact of these issues on our country.
These days we hear a lot about this club and that at the UN, we talk about how important we are to the global market, and our hackles rise when someone calls us a third world country – and somewhere in the middle of all this, the challenges faced by half our population in terms of poverty, education, health, technology and infrastructure are glossed over. It doesn’t fit our image of us, you see.
And yet this is where we can truly make a difference in the world. I know I sound like a hippie, but common sense should tell you the needs of five hundred million people (more or less depending on the issue at hand) are not to be taken lightly. Especially when they echo in so many other countries, particularly in South America and Africa – two continents where India is trying to establish a stronger economic presence. (See? I’m talking about moolah, I flunked hippie school!)
3. Legislating – if only we had tougher laws, everything would magically become better. Except for that part where it doesn’t, that is.
If locking people up for indefinite periods of time, torturing them, and then executing them would make this world a better place then we should all immediately switch our political sympathies to “Communist” and beg the CPI and CPI(M) to work together to bring about a Soviet-style state.
Laws aren’t a magical silver bullet that takes care of all crime and terrorist threat. At the end of the day they’re just words in a big book that few people read and then mostly so they can figure out how to tweak it.
I’ve said this before, to the point I suspect of sounding like a broken record to those of you who are regular visitors, but the entire Constitution needs an overhaul. Any halfway decent lawyer should be able to tell you that it’s riddled with loopholes, confusing amendments and outdated laws. Slapping extra laws to the leaking whole isn’t actually doing anybody any favors.
I’m sure the government (whoever heads it next year) will come up with some draconian measure to prove to us that Steps Are Being Taken. And those steps will be used and abused the same as all the ones that preceded it because you need policemen who feel empowered to carry them out and prosecutors who know they won’t be asked to kowtow to political considerations when they go up against defense lawyers who probably figured out a loophole in the law before it even made its way on to the books.
4. Governance – much of the rage against politicians that we’ve seen in India over the past ten days or so stems from our acceptance of corruption as a necessary evil.
We know that we live in a country where corruption is a way of life – we don’t need fancy lists compiled by international organizations to tell us that. We live it every day. It doesn’t matter to us whether we’re 130 on the list or 97, whether we’re doing better than the Philippines or worse than the Maldives, the fact is it exists and we know it exists.
And the reason we put up with it is because we labor under the belief that this is how the system works. Grease a few palms, exchange a couple of favors, look the other way – and in return we (mostly) get what we want and the country chugs along peacefully. It’s why we don’t cavil at the security arrangements of not just our ministers but their kith and kin. We don’t inquire too closely how a government employee suddenly makes enough money to make most entrepreneurs turn green.
The assumption is that if you’re a politician, you must be defrauding the public in some way and be a born liar. Just throw us a sop now and then, the bureaucrats are running the country anyway and the people are making money, all you have to do is nod your head along to the most popular decision and we’ll manage the rest, thanks.
But this covenant has been broken. We knew it was falling apart long before this because we could see it in a million things the government (irresptive of political affiliation) has done or rather not done over the past few years, but the siege of Mumbai was the last straw. There we were, queuing up to pay up like the chumps we were, and the fat cats had double crossed us.
The rage was instant and bewildering to the politicians who’d gotten used to getting away with murder. When the BJP’s Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi was put on the spot about his “women in lipstick and powder” comment, the most significant part of the quote to me was the pasrt most people left out – when he asked “Can this be the opinion of the common man?”
He wasn’t just dismissing the protests on the street or being crudely sexist the way the media was portraying it; he simply couldn’t imagine that this was how the common man viewed his hallowed person. He was Somebody after all. Policemen saluted him when he walked past. How could this be?
This attitude, to me, is simply remarkable.
You’d think they’d have some inkling by now how much they’re despised by ordinary citizens. How few of us actually expect them to do their job. It’s a testament to their air-conditioned, commando-enforced cocoon that they literally have no idea about the depth of our angst and are under the impression that we would care about their itty bitty little feelings getting hurt when we express our low opinion of them.
But it does make me think: if I say I believe in democracy but I have absolutely no faith in those who represent me within that democracy, then what is the implication here?
I’m still trying to figure it out. In the meantime, the next post will be a listicle of Actually Possible Things To Do.