The elite’s naïveté

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It is not enough to berate politicians and blame them for all our problems. The solution lies in engaging senior leaders in serious debates and force them to take a public stand on a slew of reforms. Then hold them to their commitment and make them accountable

A spate of editorials and articles has been warning us against spearheading hate campaigns against politicians. Mr S Gurumurthy writing for the New Indian Express admonished channels for championing ‘Page 3’ protesters as representatives of public reaction. He cautioned against targeting politicians as a class thereby shifting accountability from those directly answerable for the 26/11 intelligence and security failures. Second, by demanding Army rule the very foundation on which democracy rests is being questioned — a dangerous trend indeed.

In a similar vein Mr Shekhar Gupta ran a leader in which he cautioned the upper crust (of which he admits being a part) that only because it has successfully managed its own private health care, schooling, electricity, water and what not, to think carefully before attempting to manage law and order which is an altogether different story. He harks back to South Africa where the Whites despite being armed with automatic weapons and the authority to shoot (Blacks) at sight, only ended up becoming detainees in their own homes.

Mr Vir Sanghvi was more direct when he said that he was appalled by the emerging rubbish from the ‘Frangipani-Vetro set’ — “don’t pay taxes; give up democracy; hand the country over to the Army; refuse to vote”.

There is near universal unhappiness with the ‘Page 3’ chatteratti having been given an outsized platform to expose their naïveté and elitist solidarity. Until the shootout of 26/11 this mollycoddled set had enjoyed charmed lives which they constantly remind the world they had earned or inherited and are now free to enjoy. They had pretty much escaped contact with human bodies in smelly polyester glued together in suburban trains — the obvious targets for terror attacks. It was inconceivable that pristine Taj and Oberoi snuggling next to the Arabian Sea would ever become targets, leave alone harbour terrorist desperados. Butchery inside those aristocratic interiors that had hosted the most memorable weddings, celebrations and rendezvous was unthinkable. Therefore, when the attacks did occur in those seemingly impregnable social fortresses, the rich and famous sprang back like injured leopards using the idiot box to bare their teeth.

In the ensuing public purging of emotion, the extent of ignorance about basic tenets of the Constitution of India became shockingly clear. Complex issues involved in fighting terrorism in a federal system of Government were ignored as the English-speaking glitterati ranted on. Without an iota of understanding about the nature of the Indian polity, the seeds of unrest were scattered over impressionable viewers. The result? Digression from the core concerns of fixing responsibility and extracting a commitment on drastic reforms that have long been overdue.

So what can now be done? To begin with hasten investigation, identify and punish those that despite having access to information (which could have made the difference between life and death) fiddled away. Today after more than a fortnight there is no news on that front. Apologising is just not enough. It is expected that security concerns must be placed above buddy rights and visible punishment meted out not just to vindicate those who need not have died but because this alone would ensure that things are better if this happens again.

At the same time democracy must be strengthened rather than scrapped. Unless we improve the quality of our leadership, lapses in governance such as those that marked the debacle in Mumbai will not end. At the same time, all politicians must not be clubbed with a handful of jerks whose conduct has been crass. By overplaying the misdeeds and individual shenanigans of a few, the electoral system should not be castigated unfairly. That is India’s biggest USP and no one — least of all ignoramuses — should be allowed to belittle it. Maximum concentration should be placed on removing the root cause of bad governance not on dumping the political process itself.

With Lok Sabha elections upon us, this is also an opportunity for the voters to demand change. Should MPs that represent only 20 to 30 per cent of voter share and often half that be considered as having the mandate to represent over a million people in a constituency? Should coalition politics be allowed to hold governance to ransom? The existing provisions of the Constitution and election laws have catapulted most parliamentarians where they are today. As direct beneficiaries of such a system they will hardly be persuaded to bring change. Incumbent Governments can do it if political parties reach an understanding, but who is to motivate them?

Since all political parties are bothered about how they look on television and get reported in print, instead of giving space to the enervated voices and predictable arguments of party spokesmen, why not engage senior party leaders in serious debates and force them to take a public stand on a slew of reforms? Let the public see what each party stands for on vital issues that impact negatively on elections, governance and security. Ask the leader of every important party to explain his party’s stand on specific reforms. We need leaders of political parties, including regional ones to be publicly confronted with the urgency with which change is needed. On handling internal security, on financing elections, on letting party MPs vote on critical national issues by conscience, on prescribing minimum standards of education for candidates and a minimum threshold of voter representation to get elected.

The tipping point has come. Monday’s assembly results have demolished all forecasts. There is evidence now that people want good governance. Sheila Dikshit has won not simply because of her personal warmth, but because the effect of what she was doing was visible with each passing day. Voters did not want progress to be disrupted. Uma Bharati, despite her formidable record as a vote-getter, lost because her ideas and passion for cows do not denote progress.

Both women’s agendas were well-known. One won, another lost. In both cases the voter knew in advance what the aspirants intended to do on things that affected them. Today only TV channels have the power to extract commitments from political leaders on major issues displayed on millions of screens. The time to confront the leaders is now.