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New Policy on Discussions of Politics

I've got to be honest with you - I don't really like politics anyways. Governance, I like governance. I believe in good governance. But I don't believe in good politics - in fact, I don't even think there is such a thing as good politics. Politics can certainly be bad or stupid or destructive, but almost never good. Diplomacy can be good. Governance can be good. Politics can at best strive not to be bad, stupid, and destructive; it can't ever be good.

Yet, sometimes I'll see a discussion on some outpost of the internet that I visit, and then I might be tempted to jump in. From now on, new policy - no trying to persuade anyone of my politics. Instead, I'll look to share some historical background or references I've read or learned about that I find valuable, and let people mostly draw their own conclusions. Maybe I'll share my own views if I've already given a number of relevant examples.

But no more just trying to convince someone their politics are mistaken - it doesn't work, and besides, I don't like politics anyways. I should talk governance with people with historical examples, not politics. Governance is good. That's something I can get behind, good governance. Politics, not so much.

Politicus

On Reflections

You, Me and the Future of Governance in the World's Biggest DemocracyNational security. International relations. Economic growth. Reduction of poverty. Political stability. Political engagement. Public services. Private sector. Rights of the people. Corruption of their representatives. Faith based politics. Secularization. Majority politics. Coalition politics. Manipulation of voters. Promiscuous manifestos. Affirmative action. By some people, of not all people, and if recent history is anything to go by, then surely not always for the people. How political are you?

We are all political in one way or another. We have opinions and ideas about how to govern our own lives. We have our own personal manifestos. We surely care about our own safety and, to a large extent, the safety of our loved ones. We are concerned as much about accumulating wealth as we are about reducing the poverty of our families. We strive hard to bring stability to our relationships and engage in debate and deliberation with our friends and relatives. As much as we believe in ourselves, we still partner with others to reach our goals. Those who have worked or are working in offices will surely understand the complex milieu of human interactions that we call "office politics". So then, governance of a nation isn't all that different from governance of our own private lives. This is because most of us have a sense of direction, goals and motivations in some form or another. All this makes us natural politicians. Of course to be an elected member of a party, one must showcase certain qualities such as the ability to speak clearly in public; qualities that need not be shared by all of us. If we assume, however, that such special qualities are not that rare as to be deemed extraordinary or can be learned as part of a general all-round education, then we have to ask ourselves why most of us do not consider a life in politics of the nation or of nation building.Why do we shun a career in national politics? Why do we not care? The answer cannot be the lack of skills because it is the same set of skills we use to succeed in careers ranging from teaching to entrepreneurship, from media to corporate management. The skills of a leader, of a communicator, of a teacher, are those that can be replicated in any domain. So then we can have vision, we can be reflective, we can be communicative, we can have a sense of right and wrong, we can have a determination to challenge the status quo, we can be progressive in thought and in action, wecan be leaders. What else, if not this possibility, can explain the success and progress we have witnessed so far - the economic growth driven by the entrepreneurial spirit? For if these skills were a super-rarity, we would've struggled to make progress with our lives be it in any field.There may be more plausible reasons, than the lack of skills, that can explain our disinterest with politics over and above the personal level. One regularly cited reason is the corruption that is endemic to politics in particular and to governance and power in general. Lord Acton remarked: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Another reason for our general distaste for politics may be connected, in one way or another, to incentive structures when compared to alternative career choices. Students these days regularly check the average pay of graduates post graduation in a given subject before they take a decision. Then comparison will boil down to purely what one gets from a banking job relative to what one must make do with in a Government job - this discrepancy can be one of many reasons for corruption, taking us back to our first point. A third point that can shed some light on how we look at politics may be connected to the attitudes of the ever-growing middle-class in India, destined to become the most economically dynamic and powerful group of consumers in the world. The attitudes of such a significant and influential group will unexceptionably have a deep impact on the national zeitgeist. Let us consider some of these points.Can endemic corruption be an eternal deterrent to political participation? I argue that it cannot be. Since our point here is implicitly making a relative valuation between politics and private sector employment, then let us consider the level of corruption and unethical behavior outside of politics. Only then can we make a fair judgment. By now you must already have an idea where I'm getting to. The private sector is awash with corruption and unethical behavior; as much as in politics if not more. To use a few well known examples, consider the Enron scandal: boosted profits and hid debts totaling over $1 billion by improperly using off-the-books partnerships; manipulated the Texas power market; bribed foreign governments to win contracts abroad; manipulated California energy market. Related to the above scandal, consider the story of the well known accounting firm, Arthur Andersen: shredding documents related to audit client Enron after the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission of America) launched an inquiry into Enron. On June 15th, 2002, Andersen was convicted of obstruction of justice for shredding documents related to its audit of Enron, resulting in the Enron scandal. Nancy Temple (Andersen Legal Dept.) and David Duncan (Lead Partner for the Enron account) were cited as the responsible managers in this scandal as they had given the order to shred relevant documents. Since the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission does not allow convicted felons to audit public companies, the firm agreed to surrender its licenses and its right to practice before the SEC on August 31, 2002. This effectively ended the company's operations.The list can be very long if we take a closer look at practices of many well known brands. This, however, is not an argument against the idea of free enterprise or a reason to undermine the importance of business in society.Unethical behavior and greed can be traced to every corner of private enterprise whether it is software companies, pharmaceutical companies or in financial services. It must be stated that unethical behavior in the private sector takes place in spite of plum salaries and fat bonuses. Then it cannot be due to poor working environment or insufficient pay checks or lack of opportunities. It is clear that corruption and unethical behavior can and will continue in some form or another as long as we remain human. So then those who talk about political corruption are only telling half a story. But hey, the pay in private sector is much more than in public sector, so, what the hell! What does that tell us about our choices? If we decide to choose a higher paying job in private sector (based on the argument that corruption and dirty deals deter us from politics) that is as susceptible to corruption and unethical behavior as politics, then it is sanctimonious, philistine and disgraceful on our part to condemn corruption in one part of organized society and turn a blind eye in another part where the personal pay-offs to us might be greater. I suppose then it is difficult to make a person understand that corruption is obviously possible even outside of politics when his or her pay-check depends on not understanding it. Difficult but not impossible.The second point is about incentives. Is there an incentive to working in politics? What counts as incentives to you? There is no running away from the fact that there is a huge difference in income between working in politics and working in private sector. Is it possible to have another perspective on incentives? Let us take a quick look at some of the impact that good politics and good policies can have. India, as we speak, is thrusting ahead, breaking barriers, and looking to become the center of the world. Policies that were ignited 16 years ago is having clear impact now. We embarked on an economic reform in 1991 and since then we have transformed ourselves from an agrarian and closed economy to an open and a progressive one. The benefits have reached a broad constituency. Since 1985, India has lifted more than 100 million out of desperate poverty, both in urban centers and the hinterlands alike. We laid the foundation for broader economic growth in an environment that was more conducive to foreign investment so that we positioned ourselves to draw more wealth from services and industry. In the last four years, the average GDP has been 8.6% and the planners expect it to grow by an average of 9% through to 2012. India now boasts an impressive and vibrant private sector in automotive, IT, manufacturing and pharma. The stars of Indian industry are now capable of foreign acquisitions like Tata Steel's $11billon takeover of its Anglo-Dutch rival Corus. These are just a few examples of what right policies can do. Are these not incentives? The policies that are put in place have significant impact even on the health of the private sector. For free enterprise to thrive, it needs a supportive environment. That is the role of the government. The government is run by people's representatives.This is not saying that it is all done. India still faces significant challenges. A significant segment of the population is still deprived. There are challenges in power distribution, water supply, sustainable agriculture, and massive challenges in the provision of world class infrastructure such as proper roadways, railways, bridges, dams, airports, seaports and container terminals and much needed urban regeneration in overflowing cities such as Mumbai and Delhi. There are more challenges in dealing with "softer" infrastructure such as education in general and schools in particular, health care and hospitals. Discouraging infant mortality rates and alarming levels of illiteracy are just a few examples of gross shortfalls that we need to deal with quickly. To add to this, we need to maintain a thriving and vibrant labor market. To accomplish these goals, we need in place a series of socio-economic reforms guided by strong policies backed by stronger political will. The incentive structures here are different and yet can be much grander. In which other field can you expect to have the largest impact on the largest numbers? Much remains to be done about the exact running of the Government machinery, about the productivity and efficiency and its reputation and goodwill. It requires a different kind of reform within itself. This requires leadership and vision.Third point is about the attitudes of the burgeoning middle class. I suppose the issue about incentives too is, in many ways, part of our attitudes. The middle class in India is growing stronger and stronger economically but at the same time they are also becoming more apathetic towards politics. There was a time when the middle class played a crucial role in Indian politics leading to the eventual independence and the writing of the Indian constitution. Power in India was not always concentrated in traditional landed elites, but in the old middle class—educated, professional and, of course, from across various religions. Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, represented this class. Although rich enough to have studied at Harrow and Cambridge, he did this on the money made by his lawyer father rather than revenue from inherited land. So did the deputy prime minister, Vallabhbhai Patel, from a mercantile community; successive presidents of India—Rajendra Prasad, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, Zakir Hussain (the first of three Muslim presidents)—were all middle-class intellectuals. Even the great BR Ambedkar, who rose from the poverty of a Dalit family to be the leading author of the Indian constitution, created a middle-class background for himself by becoming a lawyer. Their efforts have had direct impact on the lives of millions and set the scene for the rise of the modern Indian middle class. What we can now observe, however, is a growing distaste for political participation, whether be it voting or direct participation in party politics. It is obvious that many issues in hand such as micro credit, and the amount of money ploughed back into rural regeneration and agriculture need not touch a middle class nerve. How about the unpredictable supply of electricity? Urban infrastructure? Tax regimes and exchange rates? Politics influences policies which in turn have wide ranging impact across the whole spectrum of the society. Still the middle class is slowly backing out. Politics is now frowned upon and the rights are taken for granted. The general neglect comes from the surety of the middle class success; their belief in self-upliftment. Many do not acknowledge the services of the state and many do not even bother to form an opinion on the role of the government and this culture is fast spreading - people, especially the younger generation, are now, in general, politically apathetic.The $1-$5-a-day crowd still remains the most politically active segment and for obvious reasons. They know that it is their lives that are most likely to be impacted by the policies of their elected representatives. Decent schools, crime-free neighborhood, clean water supply, adequate health care and the supply of other basic amenities matter to this segment the most. These are areas where the government can and should intervene to bring about change and progress. After all, investment in health care in Tamil Nadu, education in Kerala, roads in Maharashtra, targeted agricultural relief in West Bengal have all helped the working poor, and political parties that have delivered have thrived over several electoral cycles.Political activity can have different faces with different colors. Voting is one thing but being voted for is another. The general indifference of the middle class to political participation does not spell good news down the line. We need the young, intelligent, and the educated to take more active role in national and domestic governance. The public governance arena must attract talent and to do so it must clearly distinguish between higher and lower performers. Public administration and politics should compete for talent with other sectors. Part of the this solution is in the hands of the current administrations and the other half is in the hands of the growing young middle class. Today, IT professionals tend to contribute to their corporate charity bag and thereby boosting corporate philanthropy. They believe this is a more reliable way to make a difference. It may indeed make a difference. However, philanthropy is no substitute for good and able public governance. To have a sustainable impact on the lives of people and the future of the country, we need visionary leadership willing to make hard choices and bring about the right policies that create an environment suitable and conducive to growth and prosperity. This cannot be achieved by merely contributing to corporate philanthropy.It is not hard, with a few minutes of reflection, to imagine the consequences of our indifference. Over the last many decades, one of the predominant characteristic of the Indian scene has been the continuing rise of communalism; the compartmentalization of identities; the drawing of new horizons of narrow cultural frontiers. This can probably be traced back to Indira's Emergency. We have come a long way in terms of economic progress since the License Raj. However, even now, we still see politics being played with communal cards; efforts to ghettoize different parts of the country. Election manifestos can conveniently avoid discussion of the more immediate social needs such as education and health care or stressing on reform initiatives in the agriculture sector. India has the world's largest school-age population. These are the children on whom we depend to drive innovation, productivity and development to ensure India's sustained progress. Only 60 per cent of Indians are literate which shows that the state governments, by and large, have done a poor job of providing quality education. Another issue that is central to the education debate is the supply of skilled and inspiring teachers. Teacher absenteeism and their basic qualifications remain a serious challenge to the development of a sound education system. To add to these issues, our education system is neck-deep in affirmative action; even recently, the number of reserved seats for medicine was increased leaving fewer places that can be awarded on merit to students who deserve it. Such decisions are driven, overwhelmingly, in fear of losing valuable votes of the so-called "marginalized". Clearly there are other ways to make sure higher participation in education and we need to base our system on merit. This is and will continue to remain an urgent issue to be resolved by courageous leadership. India accounts as the world's third largest HIV/AIDS infected population, infant mortality rates remain twice as high as that of China, clean water and sanitation remain out of reach more millions. Yet public spending on health care remains less than 1 per cent of GDP. The rural areas need to be educated not just on education and health care opportunities but also on how best they can utilize wastelands, for example, to cultivate it with crops such as eucalyptus trees and jatropha, which have global markets and can be grown economically on relatively unproductive land. It is clear that many of our "representative" parties have promiscuous agendas and, I hope, we can all agree that the tactic of purposefully creating schisms between different communities or between different levels of the economic order must stop.No, I do not intend to say that all politics today is a grim business. We do have intelligent and visionary leaders even now. However, coalition politics turns policy making into a tea-party where people sit around and make "polite" conversations; a situation where the Prime Minister has to think of the survival of his coalition rule before the basic needs of the people. More can and must be done in terms of educating the masses about the priorities, about the give and take of economic policy making. New political parties need to take shape whose agenda remain strictly secular, the idea and ethic on which India was born, and progress oriented, driven by a much younger, intelligent, energetic, reflective, passionate, optimistic and most importantly communicative bunch.Where is the oomph from the young middle class, which made all the difference in the past? We are the first to form complaints (remember your looks of disgust, your disparaging and inimical remarks, your it-is-so-much-better-wherever

-else comments, your feeling of hopelessness - the flawed system; the brotherhood of shit and squalor) about the status quo but remain, shamefully, the least interested in resolving them. Progress will be followed by interregnum; possibly with morbid consequences for us all. The largest and the most dangerous pitfall lying ahead of us is this: adoption of a ghetto mentality where we scamper to get our nails into every pie of progress but remain, in many ways, exiled from of our nation. To forget that we belong to a larger community, to exclusively identify ourselves in straitjackets is, in my opinion, a voluntary self-expulsion from the diverse realities of the multitudes; multitudes that have been the defining characteristic of the very idea called India. It is time to redefine politics and the role of the government. You and I have a larger part to play in a participatory democracy. I am hopeful. Vive la Republique!

Posted Rahul Nair on Blogger

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