Ignore democratic aspirations at your own peril

In politics, Napoleon Bonaparte had once declared, “never retreat, never retract... never admit a mistake.” This dubious adage has found plenty of takers among politicians over the last two centuries despite the fact that Bonaparte’s own career ended somewhat prematurely and in complete disaster.
It is unfortunate that Rahul Gandhi, the leader of the waning Congress Party upon whose relatively youthful shoulders much hope rests, has taken a page out of Bonaparte’s philosophy. More than a month after his party’s rout in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, he has shifted the blame to the party and Uttar Pradesh state leaders for the debacle.
“My hands may be soft, but they will take harsh action,” he is reported to have thundered at a meeting of Uttar Pradesh Congress leaders. The party, which had led in about a 100 Assembly segments in the 2009 parliamentary polls, now held only 28 of them — a huge decline in just three years.
The suggestion that the disastrous electoral showing was due to organisational weakness, incompetence of state leaders or the bumbling of Union ministers is not entirely tenable. For, it is too soon to forget that Mr Gandhi had led from the front, marginalised all other leaders in the campaigning and promised the Uttar Pradesh electorate that he had come to the state to stay until their manifold problems were solved.
The trouble with Mr Gandhi’s analysis is the lack of political perspective. Indian democracy for all its faults has matured rapidly and is no longer tied to personal charisma, Bollywood glint or dynastic glamour. The quality of leadership, organisational strength and so on might be factors in electoral contests but at the end of the day votes flow to the party that is most attuned to popular concerns.
Mr Gandhi’s personality and family heritage might constitute an advantage but are not sufficiently relevant in today’s political context. The real problem has to do with the dramatic rise in democratic aspirations in this country and the perception that the Congress, along with a coterie of powerful businessmen and bureaucrats, has hijacked the country.
Last year, for the first time in many decades the anti-corruption movement had roused millions of Indians and brought them out in the streets, not just in New Delhi but even in small towns and many villages. Since then the force of the movement has effectively been smashed and parliamentarians have closed ranks against any encroachment of their powers.
Civil rights activist Anna Hazare’s personal horoscope might be declining. RTI activist Arvind Kejriwal and numerous other individuals trying to tweak the system might remain obscure, and parliamentarians continue to be united in their resistance to any change that dilutes their powers. But the fact is that the Congress’ precipitate decline cannot be averted as long as it does not acknowledge the immense groundswell against the accumulation of powers in the hands of the government.
The sentiments for slashing the absolute powers of the government and politicians are far from dead; they have merely gone underground. These subterranean forces are bound to influence political behaviour. Mr Gandhi’s shortcoming is his failure to acknowledge the dynamics of democratic aspirations.
While there is nothing new about the nexus of power at the top echelons of the state, democracy is all about redistribution of power. Political dynamics arise as different groups compete for power and through it get access to resources. In a democracy this scramble for power is regulated by the people through the power of vote.
Indian politicians would do well to recall the progress of democracy in the US and constant assaults on the privileges of the powerful. When the US first gained independence in 1776, only white men of property could vote, get elected and make laws. It was only in 1820 that the property requirement was dropped and all white men were allowed to vote, although many states checked popular participation by stipulating literacy and religious requirements as well as imposing a vote tax. These conditions were revoked after 20 years of popular agitation but blacks and other racial minorities had to wait another 30 years before they got the right to vote. Women in the US got voting rights only in 1920 and the young (18 and above) were granted the same only in 1971.
There is clearly something inexorable about the democratic process, a lesson that Indian politicians can choose to ignore at their own peril. The overwhelming feeling among most Indians today is that while they remain “under-powered” ministers, bureaucrats and politicians siphon off hundreds of crores of public money. Many believe that the government-businessman nexus is the root cause of the country’s poor infrastructure, lack of civic facilities and inadequate opportunities.
Millions of Indians continue to live desperate lives, sweating through summers of power cuts, travelling in cramped buses and trains and forever having to make do with less and less. There are few monuments of hope.
Most young Indians do not read budget speeches or believe in government statistics of growth or poverty. While crores of rupees disappear, powerful businesses default on bank loans and development stumbles along, the government raises taxes and claims it is working for the people.
The debate is not about what is true or false but about perceptions. The Indian politician has to address rising democratic aspirations. Unless Mr Gandhi does that the fortunes of the Congress will not change.
Perhaps the role model for Indian politicians should not be Bonaparte but Abraham Lincoln, who had once observed: “What I do say is that no man is good enough to govern another man without that other’s consent.”

The writer is an independent security and political risk consultant

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