April 04, 2020
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Devil Wears Khadi

We keep harping that we are the world's largest democracy. Then why are those who run it so corrupt, criminal, callous?

Devil Wears Khadi
Devil Wears Khadi
The Political Rot

Thanks to our netas, this is how the democratic system has taken a severe hit in recent times:
  • Low attendance and disruption of Parliament and legislatures. Lok Sabha works only 45 days out of the allotted 100 on average.
  • Parties have become family concerns. Dynasty rules in the Congress, the DMK, Samajwadi Party, RJD, JD(S) and the Akalis.
  • Ideological flip-flops all too common. Left has compromised on its economic policies. BJP has abandoned swadeshi. Congress conveniently resorts to soft Hindutva.
  • Shifting positions on key issues. V.P. Singh's U-turn on Bofors. Samajwadi Party gives up its kisan outlook and practises crony capitalism.
  • Old foes suddenly turn friends. DMK and Congress discover new bonhomie. JD(S) doesn't mind a tie-up with the BJP. Mayawati changes allies at will.
  • Criminals given tickets by all political parties. In the present Bihar assembly, there are 26 hardened criminals and 107 MLAs of questionable background.
  • Corrupt politicians rarely brought to book. From raising questions in Parliament for a consideration to fixing deals, politicians seem to have their hands in the till.
  • Politicians are now pawns in the hands of big business houses. This trend has reached alarming proportions in the last decade with businessmen virtually running political parties.


In Full View

1. Ex-Kerala chief minister K. Karunakaran did not deem it unparliamentary to fire an innuendo that K. Chandrasekharan, a former education minister and sitting member, was a homosexual and "loved boys". This provoked Chandrasekharan, a sworn bachelor, to describe the chief minister as "a loafer".

2. Rewind to 1989. Manipur's then deputy chief minister of the Congress, I. Tompok Singh, urinated on the speaker's chair to protest defection of MLAs from his party.

3. To protest 33 BSP MLAs ditching her and switching loyalties to the BJP, Mayawati directed her followers to teach the "traitors" a lesson. What followed was a free-for-all on the floor of the UP assembly. Besides flinging shoes, slippers and official stationery, mikes were used as missiles. The administration later decided to do away with anything that was detachable inside the house.

4. As far as crude protests go, TDP leader M.V. Mysoora Reddy takes the cake. Last year he protested the fencing of state land next to his bungalow by squatting on the footpath outside. Mysoora conducted his morning ablutions, bathed and ate meals in full public view till TDP chief Chandrababu Naidu ticked him off.

5. In March 1989, angry ruling DMK MLAs pulled at then leader of the Opposition Jayalalitha's sari. The incident was used by her party, the AIADMK, to accuse her political rivals of trying to "outrage her modesty".


The Indian capacity for sanctimonious self- righteousness is legendary. Our children learn in school that we are a great and ancient civilisation shaped in the vision of wise men like Gandhi and Nehru. We keep reminding the world that we are the world's largest democracy. Indeed, the only functioning democracy outside the western world. We make speeches about our resilient democratic traditions and demand that the world take us more seriously. Because we vote regularly in a world full of despots and dictatorships, we routinely expect to be elevated to superpower status.

And then the gate-keepers of the Indian system enact a shameful drama that makes a sham of all our tall claims and aspirations. It happened again last week when two constituents of the ruling UPA literally slugged it out in Parliament. Displaying energy often lacking in our sportsmen, MPs rushed to the well of the House, snatched papers from the hands of a minister, indulged in some old-fashioned shoving, pushing and verbal abuse. This time the fisticuffs took place between MPs of the Left parties and the DMK. They were not fighting for a lofty cause. The reason was pretty banal. Shipping minister T.R. Baalu had proposed setting up a maritime university in Chennai. The Left MPs wanted it in Calcutta. So instead of debating the issue like gentlemen politicians, they simply fought like street thugs. As one of the brighter young MPs, Sachin Pilot, put it: "Sometimes in politics it looks like a race to the bottom. Politicians are not liked but aren't they part of a system that includes bureaucrats, the police, public..."

The great tragedy of Indian democracy is perhaps that the politician is now seen as an amoral and venal creature. And politics a dirty business. The Outlook opinion poll shows a complete lack of respect for the Indian politician. They are criticised on every possible ground. Clearly, the Indian public is sick of politicians with their VVIPs cars, chamchas and overweening clout. This is because last week's drama was not the only instance of shameful political conduct. In legislatures spread across our great federal republic, the people's representatives have often indulged in shocking behaviour. Physical brawls are now passe. MLAs have abused speakers and chief ministers, one has urinated on the speaker's chair, another has landed up semi-nude, some have staggered in drunk, while far too many chargesheeted criminals turn up with their thugs and henchmen. Says BJP leader Arun Jaitley: "There is no denying that politics decides the destiny of the country. But the big problem today is that the stature and ability of many politicians does not match up to the power and influence they wield."

But Jaitley's party too can be accused of bringing down the prestige of the House with constant boycotts and walk-outs. Parliament should ideally have 100 working days. But over the last few years, it is estimated that business is achieved on only 40 to 45 days. Perhaps as damaging to the institution is the fact that when a member does make a meaningful, well-prepared speech on a subject like agriculture or subsidies, he is speaking to empty benches. His colleagues have more pressing things to do such as loitering around central hall and chatting with fellow MPs.

BJP’s Bangaru Laxman on Tehelka tape, taking bribes

Union urban development minister S. Jaipal Reddy also blames the media for the state of affairs. "When people talk sense, the media finds it dull and nothing is reported. But politicians survive on publicity and propaganda. So some of them take the short cut of making it to the news by creating a ruckus. Headline-hunting has become a problem but if you start believing the news, you will get the impression that MPs do nothing but quarrel in Parliament." Is there a solution? Reddy says that parties should reach a consensus to stop using Parliament to settle grievances. The current situation is such "that decent people start losing their decency when they enter Parliament". Former foreign minister Natwar Singh believes that "the disgust with politicians is largely justified. Jumping into the well of the House is not the answer. Once we were a role model for countries emerging from colonial rule. Today we have made a mess of the great system the founders of the Indian republic gave us."

While Parliament may be one of the pillars of our democracy, the health of political parties too has deteriorated. Historian Ramachandra Guha points out that the irony is India was built by politicians. Says he: "It was the tireless work of a generation of politicians that created a system that gives you and me the freedom to abuse politicians." He believes it is a miracle that our system has survived the Indian diversity. That is its strength. But with the old generation of idealists having passed away, the system today is flawed. Guha says that caste and kin have been the key to the decay within parties. With the exception of the Left and the BJP, most of the key regional parties have become family concerns. In Tamil Nadu, CM Karunanidhi openly promotes his son M.K. Stalin as his successor and his daughter too is now politically active. RJD chief Laloo Prasad Yadav may claim to be a leader of the masses but it was only his wife Rabri Devi whom he trusted enough to make her CM who is now a most ineffective leader of the Opposition in the Bihar assembly. Similarly, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mulayam Singh Yadav is known to be grooming his son Akhilesh to take over while brother Shivpal Yadav has emerged as the number two in the Samajwadi party. Besides the prominent players, political dynasties are now the norm in India.

D.P. Yadav in Bulandshahr jail in November ’91

But the mother of dynastic parties must surely be the Congress. Ram Guha, who is working on a comprehensive history of India, believes the rot set in when Indira Gandhi first broke the democratic structure of the Congress and began grooming son Sanjay Gandhi as heir apparent. The crown eventually went to Rajiv Gandhi but the die had been cast. Today the biggest weakness of the Congress is the triumph of sycophancy over productivity. Partymen devote more energy trying to please Sonia Gandhi than in working in their states. The result is that the genuine political talent in the Congress, too proud to kneel before a leader, is sidelined, while people with no mass base are running the show. All off this while Sonia's heirs have shown no real aptitude for politics nor achieved anything spectacular. Yet the party is theirs for the asking whenever they get into the mood to muddy their feet in real politics.

Perhaps politicians are only reflecting Indian society where ties of caste and kin override all other linkages. But are they mirroring society with the obscene levels of corruption too? Veteran journalist Inder Malhotra is despondent about the state of affairs. "Now it seems that it is impossible to stay in politics and not be corrupted," he says. One simple indicator of corruption, he says, is the lavish life-style of politicians with the exception of the Communists. Laloo Yadav for instance organised huge weddings for his two daughters. Last year, thousands were invited to a Delhi five-star hotel for his second daughter's wedding. "Laloo is supposed to be the poor man's leader. So how did he pay for that marriage?" asks Malhotra. He recalls the Nehru era. Once a Congress unit organised a lavish meal for Nehru; he simply refused to eat it.

Syed Shahabuddin with his armed bodyguards

But today no one bats an eyelid when politicians who claim to represent the poor organise elaborate functions. Mayawati celebrates her birthday with diamonds and donations. Mulayam spends money like water thanks to his industrialist friends. But no one sees anything immoral in such displays. In fact, all the three great hopes of the Mandal revolution—Laloo, Mulayam and Mayawati—are mired in serious corruption cases. But since their politics works on caste, corruption charges are nothing more than minor irritants for them. Says Telugu Desam leader Chandrababu Naidu: "The sad part is that more and more people with criminal backgrounds are entering politics. They have private armies and capture booths. Young entrants in politics have few good examples to emulate. For today's politician is not just needy, he is greedy." Strong words from the former chief minister.

An AIDMK worker falls at Jayalalitha’s feet at a public function

But CPI boss A.B. Bardhan paints an even more disturbing picture. He says the real problem is that MPs are now controlled by certain business houses. There is something sinister in the manner in which politics is downgraded but no one ever points a finger at the business houses, he notes. "Spurious business interests have invested in politics. They get favours in return. That is the biggest danger to our democracy." As for the incident when the Left MPs became unruly, Bardhan retorts: "What about the BJP which has disrupted the House routinely ever since they lost power."

Clearly there is the need for a complete overhaul. Congress MP and chairperson of the fourth administrative reforms committee Veerappa Moily certainly seems to think so. "I accept the people's perception about us," he says, "but it is not fair to paint the entire political class with the same brush". If there is a complete overhaul he believes that "an honest system will displace dishonest politicians". M. Ananadakrishnan, chairperson of the Madras institute of development studies, says a code of ethics can be institutionalised. He says that "the government machinery should be insulated from politics, the election process should be completely transparent and financial control of politicians must be regulated."

Most people see the rot being irreversible. But there are some optimists like veteran journalist George Verghese. A lot has changed he says, and the elites who once ran Parliament like a club have been displaced by new classes and castes. That is a good thing. Besides certain institutions like the EC have been strengthened for the better; Article 356 which gave the Centre too much control over the states has virtually been defanged. Although many see coalition politics as chaotic, Verghese believes the system has matured because no one individual or party can get away with dictatorial behaviour. Allies have to be consulted and India's federal structure remains healthy. He has also not lost faith in MPs. He says many approach think-tanks to understand issues they are tackling. "But the media looks for the tamasha and the serious work that gets done in various committees is never covered," he says.

There are, it seems, still a few good men. But they are rarely seen or heard as the nation remains mesmerised by the MPs as trapeze artists who jump into the well of the house and holler. Every time this happens the politician falls another notch in public esteem.

By Saba Naqvi Bhaumik with Madhavi Tata, Anuradha Raman, Sharad Pradhan, Jaideep Mukherjee and John Mary
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