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Wednesday, October 23, 2019


High ground? bah!


In India, questions are not asked and answers unknown. You canít imagine that in the West
Issue Dated: October 8, 2006
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High ground? bah! Karan Thapar


Infotainment Television High ground? bah! I suppose itís because we make a living out of questioning othersí views, that so many people believe television anchors have opinions worthy of interest. Usually, thatís not so. Yet, when you are repeatedly asked what you think of the state of the nation, the temptation to answer can be irresistible. Try hard as one might to desist, the odd lapse will occur. Thatís both the reason and excuse for this indulgence.

Today, it is fashionable to hold politicians responsible for our failings. I donít necessarily dissent from that view, although the extent of their personal accountability is debatable; and itís also true that since we elect them, we deserve those we vote for. The real problem, however, is the type of politics we have come to accept as normal. Itís here that things have gone horribly wrong.

Ours is the politics of survival, not conviction. Whether at the individual or the party level, the object is only to be elected to power. At the hustings ideology has no role to play. Instead, the plea to be given a chance either because you have not had one or because itís your turn is deemed sufficient. I donít wish to parody, but only India could vote for a government on the strength of the slogan Ďabki baari Atal Beharií. Even the Congress slogan, Ďaam admi ke saathí only states the obvious. Which credible political party could claim otherwise? The prior question: ĎFor what purpose?í is neither meaningfully asked, nor answered. The perfunctory and cliched manner in which it is tackled is an insult to both the voters and intelligent politicians themselves.

To illustrate my point, let me raise three simple questions : What do our parties stand for? What economic or foreign policies will they follow if elected? And, perhaps most critically, will our politicians stand up for their convictions against entrenched opposition both inside and outside their parties? In India these questions are not asked and the answers are unknown. Worse, they are, I suspect, unknowable.

For example, what does Mrs. Gandhi Ė or Mr. Advani Ė stand for? What principles and policies are they identified with? Have they the strength Ė by which I mean the determination and courage Ė to fight for their convictions? Are they seeking power to fulfil their convictions or is office a goal in itself? High ground? bah! You would never ask such questions of western politicians. Tony Blair and before him Margaret Thatcher came to office with clear-cut convictions. They were well known, they had been widely debated and the extent to which they are fulfilled is the criterion for judging their performance. Both Blair and Thatcher sought and obtained votes on the credibility and popularity of their convictions. They were not afraid they might put people off because they had the confidence to win them over. Now look at what happens in India. Indira Gandhi and later Rajiv appealed to the electorate promising Ďa government that worksí and Ďa government that works fasterí. The BJP and its allies did so offering Ďgood governanceí.

Yet, those are things one takes for granted. It is neither remarkable nor an achievement if the government works or is clean and efficient. Itís supposed to be. What should matter is what the government stands for, what policies it acts upon, what convictions it has. But, in India that is, and remains unknown.

Yet, the irony is that good governance, in the sense of a government that will change and reform India, is impossible without conviction and ideology. In their absence itís purely a babu exercise in efficient administration. For India thatís not enough. We need reform and change but without a direction borne of firm conviction that is hardly possible. And such convictions come from ideological beliefs.

The problem, I fear, is that we are scared of ideology but also unaware of the need for it. And thatís not as contradictory as it sounds. After the Communist experience and our own middle class urban reaction to the BJPís three rakshas commitments, the fear is perhaps understandable. But rather than use it to be cautious in making commitments we have altogether abandoned our beliefs. In doing so we have also forgotten the need to believe. Yet that is what politics is about: a commitment to a set of beliefs which determine your policies and thence your action. It is the contention of such beliefs that lies at the heart of politics. That is what debate and discourse should be about. Without this politics is merely tu tu mein mein and a political battle no more than personal rivalry.

As we are entering the 21st century, I donít know what our political parties or their leaders believe in. Oh, of course, they stand for equality of rights, an end to discrimination, the eradication of poverty, the upliftment of women, etc. etc. But so do we all. After all, who isnít on the side of the angels? But how are these to be achieved? The answer is not merely a matter of execution and implementation. It begins with the need to define a vision of the future based on policies of how you will get there. In other words, a set of convictions. Even if you donít want to call it ideology you still need the beliefs which constitute one. High ground? bah! This is why political discourse in India is so different to what you hear in western democracies. They debate issues, policies, first principle commitments. Ministers, when they are interviewed, are examined about their targets and strategies for achieving them. Loyalty, if itís questioned or called for, is not a matter of uncritical alignment with an individual but commitment to a shared belief. However in India things are different. Our politics is determined by whether Mr. Laloo Yadav is in or out, whether Mr. Advani and Mr. Vajpayee agree or disagree, whether Mrs. Gandhi can or cannot be challenged. The UPAís Common Minimum Programme is a ploy and the National Democratic Allianceís Agenda was only an agreement of political convenience.

Mrs. Thatcher changed the face of British politics, Tony Blair altered the image of the Labour Party and even Bill Clinton faced up to his personal lapses because the American people kept faith with his political beliefs. All three of them stood for something bigger than themselves and their own survival. When they took risks Ė and they were huge ones Ė their courage came not from bravado, but conviction and thatís why their voters responded to them.

Can you imagine something similar in India? The question answers itself. Itís not that we donít have people of the same calibre, but that a Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair cannot be produced by our system. The politics of survival begets survivors. Conviction alone produces great leaders. We have too many of the former, but nowhere near enough of the latter.

So, let me say to our politicians, if you have convictions donít be scared of them. They may be wrong but if you believe you are right in holding them, at least you will stand for something. Let such beliefs infuse our politics. Let such ideas become the issue over which governments rise and fall. Let us not always seek the lowest common denominator of consensual agreement. Let us instead stake out the high ground and lead by courage and conviction towards it. If itís a good idea the voters will accept it. If not they will turn to something better. But at least you will be giving them a meaningful and real choice. Thatís what democracy is about and thatís the only way India can change, develop and grow for the better.
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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017