For the Nation or Themselves?
An editorial in the CPI-M's official party journal said: "It is for the Congress leadership to decide whether it wants to be seen as kowtowing to the pressures of the Bush administration or acting democratically and heeding the voice of Parliament and the people." Heeding the voice of Parliament is all right. But of the people? The N-deal never figured in the last poll campaign. How do we know what people think of it? It is possible they might oppose it. But does that not need to be tested?
Forget the N-deal. A much larger question needs consideration: how far really is the will of Parliament indicative of popular opinion on any issue? Merely because MPs are elected by people, it is facile to conclude that the majority view in Parliament represents the majority view of the public. This conclusion is facile because our Constitution is subverted, our political system is debased, and our electoral system is perverted. The lofty principles of democratic representation crumble in the dust of ground realities. Our honorable MPs rarely speak for the people. They speak for themselves, for their narrow partisan interests.
No national leader has emerged who did not participate in the freedom struggle. People's sentimental attachments to freedom struggle personalities enabled political dynasties to flourish. No national leader has emerged in post-Independence India because the last national issue that engaged the public mind was our freedom struggle. Leaders who participated in that struggle obtained national relevance. True, the opposition to the Emergency did become a national issue. But the Emergency was provoked by an official miscalculation. It was led by events, not consciously planned by political leaders.
Are there really no national issues debated and decided upon by the nation? Or is our electoral system perverted? Consider the issue of OBC job reservation. It is perceived by both media and politicians as a powerful election issue. In fact, this issue, as declared election policy, has never delivered results. When VP Singh first took it up in the UP Assembly poll after demitting office as PM, he, in partnership with Laloo Yadav, was trounced by the Mulayam Singh-Kanshi Ram combine. The latter never made OBC reservation an election issue. The former did. Mulayam Singh and Kanshi Ram simply got their respective Yadav and Dalit vote banks together to win handsomely. That is what politicians have been doing without fanfare since the days of Pandit Nehru.
Local ground realities that dictate caste alignments are wholly different from caste based reservation as national policy over which media pundits swoon with emotion. If Mulayam Singh indeed signifies OBC reservation as his policy, why have the Kurmis and the Lodhs not joined up with him, creating instead their own parties? Why do the Vannyars of the PMK heed Ramdoss and not blindly follow Karunanidhi, who fancies himself as the champion of OBC interests? The truth is that caste based reservation as principled national policy was propagated only by Lohia, VP Singh and, briefly, by Charan Singh. Lohia was never properly tested on this policy. Both VP Singh and Charan Singh failed miserably after they officially adopted it as election agenda.
Elections here are in fact fought solely on local issues, in 543 constituencies. No aggregate of local issues can be magically transformed into a mandate for any national agenda. The majority view of MPs therefore does not necessarily represent the majority of the electorate, since national issues have never figured as such in a general election. The thirty or forty odd political parties that enter Parliament do observe the ritual of preparing their election manifestos. Do their supporters really read them? That is why, over the years, elections have degenerated into tribal battles fought on caste and communal loyalties. This is the ground reality. It could be dangerous to continue ignoring it.
The electorate should not be blamed for getting divided into caste and communal groups. Indeed, the Indian people deserve praise for displaying a dogged faith in democracy: they continue to vote in elections despite the political betrayal they repeatedly suffer. Politicians are a class that seeks power any which way. With local issues dominating over national issues in the polls, politicians are led inevitably into whipping up sentiments related to local identity. These offer the surest and swiftest way of garnering support. That is why frustrated aspirants for power in fringe societies slip into separatist movements based on ethnicity or religion. That is why even mainstream regions like Maharashtra are throwing up politicians fanning separatism for quick poll dividends.
National leaders could stop the rot. But where are national leaders? Are there any left in India? How might they be created? In this, we could take a leaf from America. The US electoral system itself ensures that by the time a party chooses its Presidential candidate he or she becomes a national icon to be studied under a national scanner: to win nomination an aspirant must campaign across the nation and give his views on national issues. This process identifies national issues and creates national leaders. Who had heard of Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton before he got the Democratic nomination? Who had heard of Barak Obama before he became aspirant for the Democratic nomination? Today, all America -- indeed the world -- is aware of Obama and deliberates on his enunciated policies.
India needs to reappraise its political system. The main executive needs to directly approach the electorate with his agenda and obtain a direct mandate from the public. That will concretize accountability. It will identify national policies. It will deliver a national mandate.
If the Constitution is interpreted as originally written our political system would become Presidential without constitutional change. As suggested earlier in these columns, the only amendment required to accomplish this would be to make the election of the President, Parliament, and all the assemblies concurrent. And also give them fixed simultaneous terms. Such an electoral change would not in any way alter the basic structure of the Constitution. Newly elected MPs and MLAs would elect the new President. That would give the President a popular mandate as in a direct election.
Whether this or any other amendment to the present system is adopted, one thing is clear: the present system is neither democratic, nor does it deliver.