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Democracy needs citizens to step up

‘Patriotism is the last refuge for a scoundrel,’ Dr Samuel Johnson said. In George Bernard Shaw’s words, ‘Politics is the last resort for the scoundrel.’

Debasish Bhattacharyya |

Sometimes a sharp remark is all it takes to capture serious issues, or so it seems. Take this one. In columnist Mini Tejaswi’s article ‘Indian millennials have no trust in politics, politicians’, a Bangalore-based techie Bubby Andrews wisecracked to reflect the current political situation of India.

“ ‘Patriotism is the last refuge for a scoundrel,’ Dr Samuel Johnson said. In George Bernard Shaw’s words, ‘Politics is the last resort for the scoundrel.’ “Were these two great critics alive today, sure they would have corrected their quotes by replacing ‘last’ with ‘first’,” Andrews quipped.

People may agree or disagree with Andrews’ striking comment but it’s too politically delicious to ignore. More so given the fact that 1,765 (36 per cent) MPs and MLAs as against a total of 4,896 lawmakers in Parliament and assemblies are facing criminal trial in 3,045 cases. Also, among the remaining parliamentarians and state assembly members, many are perceived to be self-serving and unscrupulous lawmakers.

According to a noted political commentator, candidates facing criminal charges are three times more likely to win a seat than those with a clean record. And, as ‘win-ability’ of a candidate rules the roost in electoral politics, political parties merrily go for such candidates as a strategic choice. So, in socially fragmented societies, political parties flourish and survive through their constituencies influencing political arithmetic.

This brings up the question whether it really makes a good idea to queue up at polling stations every five years with voter’s identity card and go into a booth to press the button on the EVMs.

While India’s seven-decade-old post-independence history is marked by several achievements and rapid strides in several domains, it’s also marked by declining public trust in Indian electoral governance and institutions. And this decline is symptomatic of falling standards of political discourse and electoral decorum.

As quality political discourse has almost ceased to be an essential part of democracy, elections have been significantly reduced to exercising power of rhetoric by political parties and their leaders. Thus, the art of political persuasion becomes the hallmark of electoral politics in India. Put differently, politicians care what it is they can convince people they desire, so they can better appeal to it.

As election fever starts gripping the country in the run-up to 2019, another general election of brazen appeals confronts us. This will be another election time when politicians will have licence to lie through their teeth, and another election funded by black money (according to one academic estimate, the 2014 election cost Rs 500 crores of black money).

It will be another election at risk of being exposed to fake/paid news as also half-truths. In such a situation, is it any wonder people seem to be having a hard time in distinguishing facts from real facts, reality from propaganda? More so in societies trapped in illiteracy, poverty and ignorance.

Having read thus far, one may infer that this is just yet another attempt to stir up the country’s political froth to hold politicians responsible for making democracy self-deceiving and absolve common citizens of their responsibilities. It’s not. In the words of David Runciman, professor of politics at Cambridge University – “Democracy asks only that the voters should be around long enough to suffer for their own mistakes.” After all political leaders reflect the culture of their times.

It’s an unavoidable truth that the common people too have contributed to a decline in democracy and governance. Three anecdotes should suffice.

As early as in October 1964, when Lal Bahadur Shastri was the Prime Minister, like always, he went to Delhi’s St Columba’s School to collect his son’s marksheet and stood outside the classroom. Seeing the PM waiting outside, the teacher said that the school would have sent the marksheet to the PM’s residence. To this, Shastri told the teacher, “It seems after I have become the PM you have changed. I have not (changed).”

A recent study by Emmerich Davies specializing in education policy and politics of Harvard Graduate School of Education shows teacher absenteeism in government schools in India drops in the year immediately preceding an election year and in the same year as the election. As elected officials show increased concern for public services before the polls, teachers often pay heed to the concerns of elected officials, because these officials can affect hiring, firing and transfer of public-sector employees, including teachers.

LK Advani’s much-talked-about observation – when asked to bend, they were willing to crawl – is no longer limited to the Press alone – it’s applicable across a broad range of societal settings.

Thus, when the country’s educated citizenry care little for basic principles, public virtue and greater civic education; how can the uneducated and unthinking be held responsible for voting blindly causing disservice to the country? To fix our democracy we need to be better citizens before we can expect better politicians. If we haven’t bothered as yet to be responsible citizens, it’s unfair to hold elected officials up to scorn. Saner politics require better politicians as much as better citizens.

What could be more alien to a healthy and functional democracy than political activists, commentators and analysts geared up to outdo each other on various platforms replacing commitment to fundamental democratic principles with loyalty to a party or ideology. And, it is this political quagmire of politics that influences people to get swayed by political charm without substance and rhetoric without righteousness.

Participation in elections is certainly a civic duty, but more importantly an opportunity for citizens to choose leaders who will work to ensure effective democratic governance that can deliver sustainable solutions to the challenges the country is faced with.

It’s way too soon to wonder who will win ‘battle 2019’ but, it’s not too soon to foresee that political parties will continue to field substandard/ undesirable candidates. This will result in deepening the gulf between politician and common people promoting intermingling of politics, wealth and crime.

One wonders if the deeper messages, those that have been obvious for Indian elections but are growing louder and more persistent, will be ignored again, as though a sullen, distrustful electorate is something only to be managed and manipulated.

However, rather than thinking of Indian democracy as one of the worst forms of politics, we could think of it as the best when at its worst. Let’s take the opportunity that this moment offers.

The good thing is that people may have been let down by the politician, but they have not lost faith in politics still. Therefore, as citizens are hungry for leaders to step in and step up political processes and governance to build a corruption-free and responsive political system, they need to exercise their democratic rights conscientiously.

NOTA’s applicability needs a robust approach to the extent that electoral reform measures should include a bar on losing candidates from contesting the re-election if NOTA get the highest number of votes. It would go a long way in enhancing the quality of candidates capable of delivering and supporting progressive measures for the greater good.

India is a young country and its democracy continues to mature. If democracy’s appeal is widespread, so are its limitations. At stake today is not only the functioning of the largest democracy but its moral agenda which is more substantive than partisan politics. Hence, where we go from here would depend on how citizens use the democratic levers that they have available to them.

The writer is former Dy. General Manager, India International Centre, New Delhi and General Manager, International Centre, Goa.