Friday, March 7, 2008

THE VORTEX OF COMPETITIVE PANDERING

The Prime Minister questions whether “ a multi-party model where parties with varying national reach and many with a limited sub-national reach is capable of providing the unity of purpose that nation states often have to demonstrate". He is disturbed that "Narrow political considerations, based on regional or sectional loyalties and ideologies can distort the national vision and sense of collective purpose”. The Speaker of the Lok Sabha, after decades of seeing truly shameful scenes in Parliament, finally wakes up one day to the long delayed realization that parliamentarians are actually “working overtime to destroy democracy”.

Thankfully a few political leaders are beginning to realize, or at least publicly admit, what the common man has known, said and lived with for long: The parliamentary form of democracy that we have copied from a tiny island, has failed in this vast and diverse nation. A different model is needed.

I had, in an earlier post, brought out how this country, which has always prided itself on its spirit of tolerance and accommodation of different beliefs and practices, has been pushed into a vicious vortex of competitive intolerance by our politicians. With each passing day, newer and newer battle lines are being drawn, as politicians readily succumb to pressure along often never heard of fault lines. This extremely dangerous, destructive and unsustainable race is going to give only diminishing returns to political parties. The nation, and its secular fabric, on the other hand, is going to get increasingly perforated till it becomes beyond mend.

Competitive intolerance is inseparably linked to competitive pandering, another vortex down which the country is being inexorably pushed.

When did this pandering start? Was it when the government did not honour the judgment of the Supreme Court in the Shah Bano case or was it when it allowed the Shilanyas of the proposed Ram Mandir in Ayodhya? Or was it even earlier in the Punjab where extremism was allowed to blow out of proportion for fear of losing Sikh votes?

Who can forget VP Singh’s dumb effort to get votes by unleashing the long forgotten Mandal Commission report even when there was no demand for its implementation, just like there was none to declare a holiday on the birthday of the Prophet? The damage caused by Mandal is never ending as politicians to this day are looking to pander to the demands of more and more sections of society to get their votes. Dalit Christians and Muslims, Gujjars, even Brahmins now, are getting into the reservation nets of politicians as they try desperately to give wind to often unjustified and illogical grievances.

Some politicians are even calling for doing away with the ceiling laid down by the Supreme Court on the percentage of reservations, saying that the honourable court is out of sync with “social realities”, only so that they can get a few more into the quota racket! Every one has forgotten that Mandal never got VP Singh the votes for which he irretrievably messed up the social landscape with damaging long term effects.

The Union Budget presented to Parliament on February 29, 2008, has managed to open one more dirty can of pander worms. Out of the blue, the Finance Minister announced that all loans given by banks to small farmers would be waived! The cost? A whopping Rs 60,000 crores! The eye was on the impending elections and nothing else. Don’t be fooled by the claims being made about caring for poor farmers, committing suicides for the last many years.

What has this announcement unleashed? The BJP has gone a step ahead and asked for waiving all loans, including those taken by farmers from moneylenders at exorbitant rates of interest. Mayawati has gone even further: she is promising to write off loans taken for running of small and medium businesses! Soon someone is going to write off loans taken to finance tractors, pump sets, scooters/motorcycles and, don’t laugh, the yet to be launched Tata Nano!

Again, everyone has forgotten what happened to the earlier proponents of waivers, Devi Lal, Charan Singh and Deve Gowda. They have also forgotten that the one man who recently showed integrity and courage by not waiving electricity bill arrears of farmers before elections stunningly won the same. Real leaders can take tough, sincere decisions when required. Ordinary politicians pretending to be leaders try cheap, insincere tricks to get votes. You know which kind we have in complete abundance.

Take one more big example, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREG). The Comptroller and Auditor General has already confirmed what the common man has known about such programs for decades. Only 3.2 per cent of registered households got the laid down 100 days of employment per year and the average employment was for only 18 days! Still, the Congress plans to extend the scheme to all districts of the country. The expected cost? Rs 50,000 crores per year!

Not one to give the Congress even a whiff of a chance to ‘poach’ voters, Mayawati has promised to give employment under the scheme for not just 100 but 365 days a year. This will cost upwards of Rs 1,50,000 crores a year of your and my money. For what? Doing almost unproductive and rudimentary work which will in no way add to the growth or infrastructure of the country. And this even when past experience shows that over 90 percent of funds allotted for such schemes are lost to corrupt politicians and bureaucrats.

In short, this truly mega scheme is basically to make these guys richer by over Rs One Lakh crores, and keep the poor poor, if the scheme is fully implemented in the country for the whole year! The loan waiver scheme is also going to similarly make many of these guys much richer than they are. No wonder so many Indians line up to join the civil services. It is like getting a diplomatic passport to unimaginable riches with full job security, assured career progression, little accountability and almost zero risk of getting caught! That is also the precise reason why so many hardened criminals are itching to get into politics.

Don’t be surprised if other parties start announcing even more ‘attractive’ schemes for the rural poor, including money for doing nothing at all. Don’t also be surprised if someone finds another undiscovered niche pandering to which can translate into vote banks in the cities too! This vortex is sickening and endless.

The politics of competitive pandering has gone too far. Every political party is desperate to ensure that its opponents do not score any ‘point’ in their vote bank’s mind. That is why their disgraceful behaviour in Parliament over petty issues and their almost complete disinterest on major national issues for debating which the Parliament is really meant.

National vision and sense of collective purpose lie not just distorted, as the Prime Minister mildly said, but have been mindlessly sacrificed at the altar of immediate and petty political gain. This is hollowing the very core, the soul of the nation and is driving it towards some sort of an upheaval which will happen suddenly and, if we are not lucky, with disastrous consequences.

Many years back, the Jan Sangh, as the BJP was known in its previous avatar, advocated the adoption of a Presidential form of government. Those days, it had absolutely no chance of coming to power under the present system but fancied that head to head Atal Bihari Vajpayee could get home. Now the party does not want a change; I suspect no party does, particularly the smaller ones who make a lot of hay out of fractured mandates.

The electoral mandates that we have witnessed over the last couple of decades are the unending fuel that keeps the raging fires of competitive pandering going. The country can get out of this vortex of doom only if the present model of multi party democracy is changed. Dr Manmohan Singh, a political lightweight, has already sounded a warning.

Do any of our political heavyweights have the integrity and courage to look beyond their narrow interests? Do they have it in them to accept this harsh fact and work as real national leaders to get the nation out of the morass that their mindless race has landed it in?