Saturday, January 08, 2011

Political culture among non-politicians.

Politics (from Greek πολιτικος, [politikós]: «citizen», «civilian»), is a process by which groups of people make collective decisions.

I am not going to harp on the things that you already know, accommodating for your intellectuality in Indian politics. I will not take any names (or numbers) in this essay.

Re: Cynicism.

Politics and politicians are viewed with certain degree of disdain across the lands. Common opinion is that the kurta-clads are scoundrels and talking about them or their acts is a futile act immersed in a form of grandeur that would make you be called an arm-chair intellectual. Sure, but let us address the futility of the issue a little later. For the moment, let us recollect a time when politics was not a bad word. People of my generation probably cannot. If we revisit the Indian political leaders in the 1940's or 50's.. and our opinion about them.. ah wait, the problem with starting this argument is that it sounds like a cliche even before one starts waxing one's words. What has changed over 70 years has been addressed in many scholarly books and opinion columns that we do not like to read. (Unfortunately) either due to differences in preset opinions, or scarcity of time. But it is essential to note that politics was not always about politicians. Politics was about civilians.

There are two classes of politics - (1) the well-known party politics based on the electoral voting system, and (2) the obscure-but-valid-term citizen politics, i.e. role of citizens. Needless to say, one is more dominant than the other, but both are equally existent, in my opinion. The reason the former is more influential (obviously) is because there is a physical system that exists in the country namely the Constitution, the different administrative bodies and government frameworks - to take care of the latter. Civilian participation is mostly voting, filing petitions, the recently popular RTIs, living-room discussions, media critique and sparse online fora. And paying taxes. Both these political classes are correlated. But you already knew that.

I often wondered if the disjoint and the discontinuous cluster of events that contributes to the latter class of politics is the reason for its impotency. Up until a few years back, these packets of public opinion/query existed in diaspora. Trite as it might sound, but the advent of communication technology in the last few years accounted for a lot of populous movements, though mostly concentrated on entertainment and personal promotion. However, this technology could be the percolating pathway that unites these disjointed clusters, for there are many well-meaning educated people who in spite of the cynicism, harbour goodwill for the nation. Humour me, for I am a hopeful romantic. =)

The problem I feel is that we were preceded by (or are a part of) a generation of common men and women who witnessed a dramatic decline in the quality of political leadership. One of the primary sources of educated spirited leaders during independence period was the middle class. As the 70's-80's approached, this demographic focused on more personal economic welfare than that of the society, thereby fragmenting communal ideologies. I guess this is also the period when the middle class began consider themselves as the benefactors of the political class, and something away from the system. The decline of this section of population in politics was promptly replaced by more street-smart albeit (even) less altruistic forces. Historians would have references to Congress party here, esp. Mrs. Gandhi Sr., but I feel this very historical demonising/dietification of political leaders serves as a crutch for us to ignore politics as either dirty or elitist.

As a young man in your teenage years, you develop a certain understanding of society and a sense of responsibility - a simple pervasive fervour born out of conscience and historical rhetoric. But as years roll by, depending on your geographical positioning, you either grow cynical of the same, or variedly helpless, as you realise the distance and disproportion between an individual self and the communal environment, namely your country. Mid-twenties is an age when the self and the ego begin to part ways in a man. (The self consists of various streams, social conscience being one of them. Ego however deals with a unstemming purportful diligence towards attaining the good life as per popular models.) In a desire to make oneself someone of a consequence among a billion, one loses respect for the social conscience. The foot soldier does not fight for the system (formerly known as nation in his head) anymore, but begins to think he has to fight against/through it. As one of my friends remarked, the idealist becomes a realist.

The so-called decline in the overall quality of political leadership, it must be noted, coincided with the demise of the common middle-class middle-aged man's social idealism.

"Does this mean jump into politics?" This is a wrong question to ask, coz we were never originally supposed to be out of politics. "Does this mean I need to run for elections next time?" Not necessarily.

I refuse to believe that there are no good people in politics. Or that there are no administrators within the system who want to help the junta, given the leeway. There are several unfortunate circumstances in which the current political system works, and if you have read any newspaper in the last 10-20 years, you know why. But the political machinery works in that way, coz todate the citizen politics was never organized enough to question it. Neither did it have a national platform to serve as a reflection of collective public opinion. (Media, was supposed to be this very thing, but that is another story.) What the good seeds in the government need, is a better and transparent system where their honesty comes forth. And this can be largely aided by having an active second class of politics, which is politically educated enough, to demand better.

It is no news that an individual's identity today is both physical and virtual. And soon, what one does on the internet, would be as pertinent as what he/she does on the streets. (Online govt. offices, national IDs and NRI voting are just the beginning of a larger changing face of democracy, I feel.) There is a difference between having an odd status update and having a culture for political discussion. The stigma that needs addressing first, is that speaking about politics is not futile. Neither is it superfluous. It is our forgotten responsibility, if anything.

Surely after twenty years of witnessing the political circus, one should be able to have eye to sift the bullshit out from the shit. Without falling prey to agents of polarising opinion, one could have a well-rounded opinion on current affairs by having a communal discussion with an educational pursuit. Gray versus black/white. Not back-slapping or huddles of like-minded commentators demonising X or Y, but a balanced debate on policy which includes self-critique. Diversity in opinion demands for factually relevant points to be expressed, which would propel the discussion away from personal issues and more towards the ideological arguments, which is what at the end of the day politics is about. About ideologies of citizens, not politicians.

Unless we take politics seriously, we are not a serious society. And if not, we do not deserve serious leaders.

P.S. This turned out longer than I thought. =p


Anonymous Partha said...

All of the things you say are right (or at least make sense). I think the reasons to why we the people are the way we are is way too complex, combinations of history, culture, both present and past, internal and external. The emergence of corporate culture, media, that list is frankly endless.

But the point is, when a Mayawati or whoever the politician we crib about is elected. Even taking into account rampant rigging, in some sense the people have spoken, and that is their verdict. Why do they not "see" that our politicians are corrupt? Their concerns cannot extend beyond the everyday existence. Will I be able to make enough for today is the biggest concern for a majority. To expect them to make a "smart" decision is shameful, but the irony is they decide who is elected. (I have no numbers, and I might be talking out of my ass here, please correct me if I'm wrong.)

But one point which you have hit on the head, and is the most worrying thing is, this complete lack of idealism amongst youth (us). We have relegated these issues to interesting pub conversations.

12:34 PM  
Blogger Sharad Ragas said...

I am not going to sit on any moral high horse, this is the first time I blogged about #politics in six-seven years of blogging.

@Mayawati paragraph: This post dealt only with educated middle class (a demographic I can identify with - 300 million I think this counts as, need to crosscheck too), the poorer people's mind is something I do not know of. If daily livelihood question or 500 rupees per vote .. or innocent looking faces on ballot who promise kindness is their voice of decision, can only be a guess, as good as any.

I am primarily now interested in developing a habit to read/understand about Indian politics by spending 'x' amount of time on it each week. I hope my friends also try to do the same. 'x' of course is a relative quantity that could vary from person to person. =)

1:07 PM  
Anonymous Chaitanya S said...


Politics is everything. In the prevailing climate of hopelessness in the middle class, the more "apolitical" you are, the more chic you are. "All these politicians are corrupt bastards yaar", you hear often. But then these very "corrupt bastards" decide everything. Politics decides our physical, economic and social security and wellbeing, to put it in one sentence. By ceding the political ground to fly by night operators whose sole aim is to earn enough profit to serve several generations, the middle class (coming off a time when ensuring a decent livelihood was a challenge and was the sole preoccupation) has missed an important trick in its search for nirvana. They thought economic liberalization and reforms would take care of everything but now there is a slow but perceptible realization that all those neat 4-lane roads, 24 hr electricity, regular drinking water, decent employment, good business, social dynamics and the psychological comfort of the confidence of returning home safely after venturing out - are all linked to politics in various ways.

Hopefully this realization will translate into action on the ground. The means being - as you put it - balanced debate, inviting and accepting diversity of opinion and ideological arguments. Although I'd like to add that successful politics requires a seamless integration between the realm of the mind and the real world, appreciating all its complexities and practical necessities.

There is nothing wrong in being political. If things are wrong with politics, the way forward is to become more political, not less. After all, it is our rights, our tax money and our culture that are at stake.

8:51 PM  
Anonymous ravptor said...

Well written adarsh. Very thoughtful.

6:08 AM  
Blogger Sharad Ragas said...

"If things are wrong with politics, the way forward is to become more political, not less." -- Well put, Chaitu.

The other critical point that people need to be convinced about is the "what is the use? how will it matter?" question. Coz I do not think "social responsibility" thing will fly amongst the ambitious and the driven.

I think it is also important for people who do talk about politics (or are interested in some sorta information campaign) not to judge people who are not willing to participate. This is not an be-all-argument about who is right or better, and fighting against the "does all this talk lead to action/change?" skeptics, is not a way to convince them. For these are all adults and every adult comes to a point where he/she can justify his/her actions (to oneself). Including us. Milton Glaser called it 'the third act', this phase of life i.e.

It is hard force one's 'opinion' on others. It can also be counter-productive. The only way I can think of, is going about one's ideas diligently, and exhibit enough sincerity that others realise your point, by themselves.

@Ravi: Thank you.

11:43 AM  
Blogger Quicksilver said...

Its quite true what the entire post says. Sad but true. A few years ago, the fiery idealist in me would have thought that something had to be done, but now I'm relegated to realist who has become a slave to the corporate paycheck. The "middle class" & the "ego" probably had a part to play, but all for the good I guess.

But still the least one can do is do all that he can as far society is concerned, apolitically of course. Communication Tech I believe is going be a huge game changer in not so near future. I'm quite impressed by the kind of people coming into Indian Politics on the National scene, but too bad AP/Tamilnadu/Karnataka/Maharashtra (states that I know directly about) are still filled with "do you know who my father was ?" type junta.

The Business, Industry & Education scene is juggernauting ahead, I just hope the Political machinery takes a change for the better real soon to stay on par with them. But they are not mutually exclusive

2:01 PM  
Blogger Sharad Ragas said...

I guarded against using the language like "something needs to done today, let's do it,
now change, now!!" ala the now infamous Obama rhetoric. Coz I think it has a fundamental flaw -
it is unrealistic.

The #change narrative among Indians is short-termed, often seen in the form of knee-jerk whenever something gets bombed or when it is Aug 15th.. I also think has its sights misplaced. If we take a careful look at the political system of our country, we theoretically have the framework which works for both classes of politics (i.e. incl. civilians). Ironically, the educated class do not read it enough, coz we do not have the political know-how to use the system.

What I am suggesting is that we inculcate a habit (not a
response), but a culture - with the target of 2014 elections. Three years I feel is enough to grow a habit. Just like the political parties prepare for the upcoming elections, the junta can prepare too, instead of getting a crashcourse from NDTV or The Hindu a month before and then vote on broad issues. During these three years, if the junta starts talking and asking about the relevant issues, the political parties have no option but to up their game, and come up with intelligent solutions. The raja has to be smarter than the praja.

For example, the Twitter junta who give media houses and celebrities a hard time for double standards. The internet is therefore making us live in glass houses, and the government will soon be no exception.

And the first step towards this, is to get over the cynicism. =)

P.S. Idealism must be brought back. Like, now!! =p

3:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A "real-world" suggestion... Soup up the gov of India websites. Eg: the LS and RS websites host profiles of its MPs in a rather incomplete fashion. It would be really motivating atleast to see a full fledged online profile of a couple of our heroes! Also, an interactive online forum on these sites will help get the wheels rolling..

11:07 PM  
Blogger Sharad Ragas said...

You mean the virtual word, right? =) Yes, I always wondered who our MPs are.. with Wikipedia in financial trouble, I reckon a good 'About our MPs' section in the govt. website is reqd.

Reg. the online forum, with all due respect, I do not think we are ready for it yet. Such fora would be littered with fanatic capital-lettered comments calling P or Q a male/female reproductory organ and why X or Y religion is the root-cause for all our misery. Hence, the more gradual approach towards developing balanced views.

But I agree, your suggestions are on the right track. May be a couple of years later, the govt. could have a PR/IT department handling its own networking site. Facebook for India, where the login is your national ID no, and you can 'like' your MPs or comment on their policies. 0=)

11:32 PM  
Blogger Quicksilver said...

Now that idea, I like.

4:01 AM  
Anonymous Leena said...

Every gov't we've had so far has been derided and called useless, and I thought, how is that possible? How can they all get it wrong all the time. Best thing abt India is we are a functioning democracy and we have elected leaders. I want to give a few of them benefit of doubt, second chances. But just to have that faith, some kind of knowledge, info of these elected individuals (center and state level) would be of great use. I will have to start reading more. (some of Chaitanya's links are helpful :P)

I never completely reflected if I should be having an opinion on this. I do not pay the taxes at home and did not vote, yet. But I do want to have a say. I don't understand the workings/terms of politics completely - the center, left or right. Center-right. But I do understand the importance having a debate, of getting to know what the future of our country's politics will be like.. I don't underestimate the civilian politics or the power of the regular people standing up.. as seen around the world, in Iran or recently in Tunisia.

To make things better, one of the ways as you have rightly said would be to start talking about it, to have a voice.. and Adarsh, this essay of yours is enlightening.. inspiring,even.

11:57 AM  
Blogger Sharad Ragas said...

@Leena: The NRIs feeling disconnected: I think this is prolly stemming out of the thought that we are not physically present there, and we cannot have a right to decide the fate of those you live there. I feel this is a wrong way to look at it.. coz most of us would not have thought otherwise even if we are actually there. (In a lighter vein, by you and me not being there, we are actually reducing the traffic/pollution.. just kidding!) It also stems from the guilt that we are leading a better life instead of "being there". Again, this is where I point towards the growing online presence of citizens (coz there is an online presence of the govt. and fast expanding!) Regarding taxes, it is true that we don't pay taxes.. but we can still contribute towards the betterment of the society by donating some $$ towards legitimate NGOs or other similar organizations. The problem comes when all the well-earning Indians abroad start donating some $$ yearly and think that they have done their bit for the society (especially the ones who are certain they will not "return"). The 'futility' argument kicks in here, but really as a young educated person, there are hundreds of useless things we do/talk about, which at the end of the day - have no practical result. We could really have valid debates in this class.. coz at the end of the day, I feel most perceptions about the govt/politics flow out of the educated middle class (towards both poorer/richer sections - who are too busy with their own lives). And this section of the society can do a better job than what they are doing at the moment.

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8:50 PM  
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ut the point is, when a Mayawati or whoever the politician we crib about is elected. Even taking into account rampant rigging, in some sense the people have spoken, and that is their verdict. Why do they not "see" that our politicians are corrupt? Their

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ut the point is, when a Mayawati or whoever the politician we crib about is elected. Even taking into account rampant rigging, in some sense the people have spoken, and that is their verdict. Why do they not "see" that our politicians are corrupt? Theirics

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