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The Hindu's scribbling pad




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Hi Friends!
Greetings from Chennai! Here is a thought provoking article from "The
Hindu". Some of you may want to react to it. Best wishes.
Henry

The Hindu, Sunday Feb 28, 1999, Magazine Section Page III

The Scribbling Pad - Sudhanshu Ranade

Blah blah Black Sheep

Politicians are not too popular in some quarters, and yet, to blame them
for
letting us down is like blaming a pebble for sinking in water.  After
all,
like swans, they themselves manage to stay afloat; without wetting a
feather.
As I discovered to my surprise some time ago, while writing a story
about
the self, society is (or political parties are) comprised not of
individuals
with roles attached to them (individuals who have chosen this or that
role
for themselves), but of roles that have individuals attached to them.
Individuals simply take on the character of the roles they happen to be
"attached" to; the results for the system as a whole being determined
more
by the structure of roles, than by the individuals who happen to occupy
them
at any particular point of time.  Change the roles, change their working

environment and these very individuals will turn in performance that is
second to none in the world.  But if you merely change the players, who
is
in and who is out will not make much of a difference for us; though of
course it will matter a great deal for the individuals themselves, and
for
people with access to them.
This is a bit of an exaggeration, since individuals do, clearly, make
some
difference, but, all the same, it is a useful way of looking at things.
Honesty and capability do indeed make a difference.  But they are
certainly
not the reason why we are today in the mess that we are in, with no hope
in
sight.  First of all, as in the case of the swan and the pebble, many
people
manage to do pretty well out of what seems like an utter failure to us.
That is why they keep doing it; competing so furiously with each other
for
the honour of "serving their country" that only the utterly cold-blooded
can
survive.  Secondly, the sort of money that people make on the margin by
buying hundreds of thousands of crores of rupees worth of guns or
aeroplanes
or TV sets, or by doubling the thickness of road toppings, though
probably
running into many thousands of crores of rupees every year, is chicken
feed
compared to the costs they inflict on us in order to ensure that they go
to
or remain in a place where they can book or collect on all those
orders.  It
is this second kind of indirect or "unintended" cost that has got the
entire
system stuck in a deep rut.  It is this that leaves us utterly unable to

respond to any of our problems; it is this that causes us to forgo all
opportunities; it is this that causes us to fall farther and farther
behind
the developed world with each passing day.
I am speaking, of course, of the largest single source of corruption in
India; which, sadly, is not even recognised as a corrupt practice; as
something for which people can and should be held accountable.  Populism
is
the name of this game; the tendency of politicians to just distribute
other
people's money in cash (or, like free electricity, in kind) under
various
"schemes" (so apt, that word) so as to enhance their personal popularity
at
the cost of the exchequer.  In connection with my point about roles
being a
more important determinant of policy outcomes than the character of
specific
individuals, it is striking that this disease affects all parties, right

across the spectrum.  You will find the BJP at this game, the Yadavs,
the
DMK, the AIADMK, and even (as indicated by their attitudes towards
subsidies, and towards the non-working "working classes" in sick
factories,
auto stands), the Communists.  Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi too were
big
players at this game; in fact, they pioneered it.
It is worth noting here that this game is no longer played just to win
cheap
popularity.  In most cases it continues because they cannot afford to
stop
playing it.  To become popular, they have to keep thinking up new
tricks.
The other major component of the costs of populism derives from the
large
number of things that urgently need to be done but are left undone
either
because this would give our politicians "a bad time," or because they
have
other personally more pressing matters to attend to.  And because of the

large number of diversions that have to be created (like Rajiv Gandhi
sending the IPKF to Sri Lanka in 1987, and Mr.Vajpayee's bus ride to
Lahore)
to keep people jumping up and down in their seats, excitedly, as they
are
being taken for a ride; asking every two minutes "when will we reach;
are we
there now?" To keep people lustily cheering on their leaders even as
they
lead them to their doom.
Vehicular pollution comes readily to mind as an example of this second
category of "populism."  It is this sort of neglect that causes courts
to
intervene "in the public interest".  Political decisions are preferable
in
theory because this is supposed to ensure a social acceptance of the
distribution of costs and benefits.  But, the courts have thus far
managed
to get along without any serious danger to their credibility; and,
generally
speaking, it is welcome that someone is doing what would otherwise
remain
entirely undone.  But some of the things would probably have been better

left undone, and in any case the way they are going about it is like
trying
to empty the oceans with a teaspoon.
What we need really is something that will alter the operating logic of
the
political system.  Something that will change the way our politicians
behave
by altering the constraints to which they are subject.  I am not
thinking of
anything very grand; just a ruling, in "the public interest", that
populism
is a corrupt practice; something which politicians can be held
accountable
for.  Can we, for instance, bring about a regime under which
administration
can be held to have "broken down" for purposes of Article 356 if
(because of
vehicular or industrial pollution), people still do not have air to
breathe,
or clean water to drink six months from now?
The crux of the matter is whether we can move towards a system, which is

sustainable on a long-term basis.  A system in which no one is allowed
to
"live off capital" (in the area of law and order, for instance), or to
run
up debts without corresponding accumulation of assets.  The attempt of
the
BJP in this regard, to impose a basic minimum tariff of 50 paise per
unit
for electricity supply in all States, is very welcome.  But, frankly, I
do
not see much good coming out of it; or out of anything else the BJP
does.
The BJP has far too many bees in its bonnet.
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