LAST month, at a dinner, I met a middle-aged man with diverting and generally moderate views. We moved towards the dining table and there he spotted the former Congress MP, Mani Shankar Aiyar, harmlessly engaged in filling a plate. The sight brought him to a state of near-apoplexy. He became loud, unpleasant, abusive—directing all his ire at Mr Aiyar. Even as he shook with rage, he told me he had nothing personal against the man, "I just hate all politicians".
A week or so later I was invited to speak to the Delhi Rotary Club. After making the usual superficial speech, the question and answer session became quite volatile and dominated by one subject: the vileness of Indian politicians and how the country would benefit if the entire lot was thrown into the Yamuna. That very evening at an informal gathering, I found the issue of Priyanka Gandhi's search for a house being discussed animatedly, with no quarter being given to Priyanka. Everyone saw the controversy as one more example of how rich and powerful politicians fleece the poor tax-payer. When I pointed out that Mr and Mrs Vadra were perhaps being pressurised by the security agencies to seek government accommodation, I was dismissed as simple-minded.
Last week, you might remember, the Law Minister stated that the Bofors papers could not be placed before Parliament because the Swiss government had handed them over on the express condition that they be used only for purposes of investigation and prosecution. The minister added that he had only recently received a fax from the Swiss authorities forbidding tabling of the papers in Parliament. The first and immediate reaction in the media and outside was: the minister is lying, he is playing some typically dirty game on behalf of his government. It now transpires that the minister was telling the truth and nothing but the truth.
I forward these examples to highlight a distressing and destructive mood which has taken hold of our republic—a conviction that all politicians in the country are irredeemably corrupt and useless. This mood always existed, but in the past it was qualified by moderation and balance. Now with the revelations in the Jain diaries and the spectacle of Congress luminaries going in and out of court, the mood is settled with certitude and threatens to vitiate public life.
If this mood, which sees politicians as hostile adversaries undermining the foundations of the republic, was merely a debating issue amongst scholars and academics, one would not get unduly alarmed. Unfortunately, the low esteem in which politicians are held (opinion polls reveal they vie with pimps and smugglers for the last place) spells disaster for good governance and healthy democracy. The truth is that public life today is increasingly perceived by the electorate as a contest between corrupt and incompetent leaders. As a result of the suspicion and hostility with which politicians are viewed, faith in democratic institutions has broken down, exacerbated by the belief that a whole range of pressing problems the nation faces are beyond the scope of those elected to resolve them.
The 'hate politician' mood, if allowed to persist and intensify, can lead to even more dangerous consequences. If the electorate comes to believe that politicians are not only irrelevant but an impediment to order and progress, they (the electorate) will begin to look at options of governance which either eliminate or minimise the role of elected representatives. Alas, that way lies dictatorship (either civil or military) and totalitarianism. Those who remember Indira Gandhi's 'bitter medicine' of 1975 must recollect with horror how she and particularly Sanjay continually mocked politicians and 'political solutions' during that period. Extra-constitutional authority became a respectable term.
Let me hasten to add that I am in no way justifying or whitewashing political corruption. The current lowly status of the Indian politician and his commensurate public standing are well deserved. However, we should be careful to avoid absolutisms: all politicians are evil; the only truth a politician tells is a lie, etc. This posture of moral superiority grossly caricatures reality. Consider Atal Behari Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh, Jyoti Basu, V.P. Singh, Madhu Dandavate, Jaipal Reddy, I.K. Gujral, Indrajit Gupta.... Do these gentlemen fit the image of the Indian politician as it stands today? The Congress, which has contributed disproportionately to the anti-politician mood in the country, has in the last 50 years also supplied the largest number of national icons. Sweeping generalisations of the kind, "there is but one way to look at a politician, and that is down", are acceptable at cocktail parties but seldom stand up to rigorous examination.
In a perfect world, naturally, there would be no politicians, but I know of no philosopher or scientist who has devised a system of representative democracy based on adult franchise without a pivotal role for public servants. In any society, the vast majority of the population simply want to get on with their lives unobtrusively. But there is a small minority possessed of the ambition to instruct, govern and rule. However misguided this minority may be, we need them more than they need us. Thus, a total collapse of trust between the electors and the elected, the kind we seem to have in our country today, is in the long run more harmful to the electors than the elected.
There is an unwritten but sacred contract between the public and the politician. Presently it is battered and discredited but we cannot allow it to remain thus. The contract stipulates that while elected representatives are free to enjoy the perks of office and indulge their passion for setting the world right, they also undertake a solemn responsibility when sworn in. Their competence can be found wanting but not their commitment or personal integrity. Doubtless, rogues will still get elected but in the new climate of an alert judiciary (aided by the press) and a citizenry increasingly relishing the power which enables rogues to be caught and punished, the politician knows only too well that harsh penalties—from imprisonment to banishment to expulsion—will be extracted if the social contract is violated.
In most enlightened democracies the voting public views those who govern with scepticism. That is both correct and healthy. It means the people are vigilant, minutely scrutinising the conduct of their elected masters. Unfortunately, the dividing line between scepticism and cynicism is thin and we seem to have crossed it to become a nation of cynics. This is at once damaging and counterproductive, for it attributes the worst possible motives to all political activity. If the electorate is convinced that fraud and mendacity are the natural business of politicians, there is a strong possibility that the 'scoundrels' will live up to the expectation. India needs sceptics, not cynics.