Ugly, evil, partisan, self-serving and corrupt. Enter into a discussion about Indian politics, and these are the epithets you commonly end with. But the popular view of politics is not very different elsewhere. If you read the commentary on American politics, you often hear that its politics is broken, exemplified by the Fiscal Cliff. In an Europe beset with economic difficulties, politics gets blamed for the mess. The countries in Middle east, now experiencing a hangover after the high of Arab Spring last year, are also laying the blame at the door of politics.
The only place where politics doesn’t get blamed for what is wrong are countries like North Korea, Saudi Arabia and China. But even that isn’t true. It might be done behind closed doors, but it is politics which determines who will go into the Chinese Communist Party’s politburo or who will become China’s next president. Politics happens wherever people live together and still it is something that we love to hate. Why? What exactly is politics? What does it do?
Politics, by its standard textbook definition, is a process by which a group of people, whose opinions or interests might be divergent, reach collective decisions that are generally regarded as binding on the group and enforced as common policy. It is by politics that people seek the power to influence decisions about such matters as how their government will manage the distribution of resources, allocation of benefits and burdens, and management of conflicts.
This is the ideal of politics. The current practice of Indian politics is of course different. It leaves a lot to be desired. Undemocratic political parties, which have led to a weak parliament, are at the core of what is wrong with our politics. As this column said last year (Democracy’s non-democratic parties, December 6th, 2011), parties are mechanisms through which power is exercised in a democracy. Lack of inner-party democracy in our parties, more than any fundamental flaw in our constitution, lies at the root of most ills afflicting our democracy today.
Take the case of the recent parliamentary vote on FDI in multi-brand retail. It is not our MPs who voted but their parties. This is kind courtesy the anti-defection law. Once the party has decided and issued a parliamentary whip — and these decisions in a party are taken not by deliberation and voting but unilaterally by the high-command — individual MPs have little role to play in the process. You could just have the leaders of the parties voting in parliament and it would make no difference. India has a ‘first past the post system’ where we elect our representatives, both as individuals and for the parties that they represent. We don’t have the List system where we vote only for a party, and the party decides on the members who will sit in parliament.
Anti-defection law means there is no way in which the electorate can judge individual MPs on their political positions in legislation formulation. The practical solution was the one proposed by Manish Tewari: his private member’s bill suggested that anti-defection law be restricted to votes of confidence and money bills. It will maintain the stability of the government while allowing MPs to vote freely on other issues.
But democratic politics works in miraculous ways. Here is how it has saved the Parliament from being completely defunct. Since the 8th Lok Sabha, which passed the anti-defection law, no Lok Sabha — we are in the 15th Lok Sabha now — has seen a single political party get the majority on its own. Imagine if with the anti-defection law in place, a single party were to get the majority, it would then render the parliament a virtual rubber stamp of that party’s high command. Coalition politics means that the Parliament can not be taken for granted. Parties have to convince, cajole, and negotiate with other parties. They make compromises. This might not be perfect but this is the essence of politics. Yes, there are times when ruling party employs sordid means to win over MPs. You may agree with David Brooks that “the challenge of politics lies precisely in the marriage of high vision and low cunning”, but politics must punish the guilty.
If politics is the problem, the solution is also politics. Serious and sustained political engagement from each one of us, which needs both passion and perspective. After all, politics, in Max Weber’s memorable words, is a strong and slow boring of hard boards.
Sushant K Singh is Fellow for National Security at the Takshashila Institution and editor of Pragati-The Indian National Interest Review