The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Nowadays, to politicize means not to build but to bleed

In an article that appeared in this paper recently, I argued that a crippling contradiction in Indian society is between visionaries in different spheres and routine politicians. While routine politicians are concerned with political business as usual, visionaries try to go beyond routine. They try to make a new road rather than walk on the beaten track. Since visionaries are becoming more and more rare, especially among politicians, it can be argued that there is, so to speak, vision deficit in the field of politics in the country.

This argument needs to be extended. Politicians do not just operate in the sphere of public life opened up by democracy. They also intrude into institutions, professions, and other activities. This is done with the objective of politicizing them. To politicize in this sense means to serve the interests of those who engage in politics and to offer patronage to those who support them. Since there are competing politicians, factionalism becomes rampant. This may be expressed in terms of competing parties or cliques within the same party. In exchange for support, leaders lend political muscle to their followers.

This political muscle operates in different ways. It may make it possible for someone to openly indulge in harmful activities and to defy rules drawing strength from a powerful patron or a political party. It may on the other hand mean something as mundane as the neglect of duty at the place of work. Thus, to mention a recent event, the death of a patient in a public hospital in Calcutta after ants ate one of her eyelids could have happened only in a condition of shocking apathy. It is reported that the hospital staff refused to remove the ants from the bandage on the ground that this was not their job. It stands to reason that such apathy can exist when the persons concerned know that they will not be punished. Indeed, protection from punishment due to political patronage is common. This patronage may well result in reward for those who ought to be punished.

Professional politicians, who live off politics, are to be differentiated from politicians in different professions. Let us call them micro politicians, for they operate at the institutional level or at best at the sectoral level. The intrusion of professional politicians into public institutions is made possible because there are politicians among those who earn their livelihood through other means. Thus, it is common to see micro politicians among teachers, doctors, lawyers, civil servants, and others. Their objective is to corner the power and the resources of the institutions in which they operate through an optimal use of their skills, which include the skills of networking and coterie formation. They develop skills for promoting themselves through typically factional politics. Often they cultivate contacts with the politicians of the political sphere, and this enhances their image and serves their interests.

These micro politicians are miniature versions of professional politicians. Some of them aspire to become professional politicians through the skills achieved at the institutional level. Most often, though, this is too high an ambition, and they are satisfied with the limited turf of the institutions in which they operate. These micro politicians often take advantage of the democratic means available to them just as they indulge in intrigues for promoting themselves and their followers. Democratic practices are used to subvert them. Ideology can be a useful tool in this game. These are the people who are usually in the forefront for seeking important official positions. In fact, when a really worthy person gets selected for any of these posts, which does happen at times, it becomes a ground for hope. Some micro politicians are even cleverer. They show disdain for these positions, for they find it better to have power through remote control. This gives them power without any responsibility. It is useful for them to have weak persons in positions of authority, for they can manipulate them easily.

Who loses out in this game' The price is paid by society and public institutions. Collective interests are sacrificed. Politicians of all types corner power in proportion to their cunning and combined effort.

Education has suffered much in this respect. It goes to the credit of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee that he acknowledges that education remains his story of failure. He is reported to have said that he has not been able to eliminate the control that his party exercises in the field of education. I was once surprised when I ended up offending one of his ministers at a public function, where a document for the improvement of education in West Bengal was presented, by making a plea for recovering the lost glory of the state in education. The recognition that all is not well with education in the state by the chief minister is in itself a reassuring beginning. Several academic institutions in the state are nowhere near what they were at their best.

Bhattacharjee has talked about disruptions caused by outsiders in the sphere of work. This is equally true of the sphere of education. But there is no point in blaming only professional politicians. Any honest appraisal of the state of education not only in West Bengal but also in the country as a whole must not overlook the disruptions caused by insiders. This is the story of several institutions at all levels in the country. All those who are outside this game ' and I like to believe that there are many of them ' get marginalized in their own institutions and are reduced to being sad spectators. They have to sit and watch the decline of their institutions and the rule of mediocrity.

Micro politicians tend to get taken as the representatives of their professions. They not only reduce their institutions but also their professions. Several professional organizations operate in a manner similar to trade unions. These organizations tend to be controlled by them, just as they tend to control internal democratic forums. While they present demands in a routine manner before authorities, they fail to make demands from themselves. Why is it that organizations representing teachers have not clearly come out, for instance, with the demand that private tuition should be abolished and those found guilty punished' All of us in the teaching profession know what a menace it has become at all levels, including the university level. As I was interviewing once a young daughter of a poor villager for an organization that gives scholarships to students on a merit-cum-means basis, she confronted me with a counter-question when I asked her why she had taken private tuition when her father was not in a position to pay for it. 'What could I have done when teachers of our school teach only outside school' she asked me. It is generally believed that more money needs to be put into education at different levels. This is indeed true. If children go to a school without a proper school building or even a noticeboard, not much can be expected. But even more important is to ensure that they go to schools that have teachers. And that these teachers teach in their schools.

A developing society needs to consciously develop social institutions to meet its increasingly complex needs. What is often overlooked is that social institutions are not developed by putting rules on paper and then finding ways to break them to suit selfish interests but by developing a common commitment to these institutions. It will be na've to overlook individual aspirations. Nor will it be right to deny the existence of differences of interests and ideas. Indeed, if a common commitment exists, these differences can contribute to the growth of these institutions. A great university or a great hospital cannot be built unless different people are willing to find a common ground for collective effort.

This common ground is often overlooked in India. It could have been the task of politics in India to define this common ground. This is what some of our best leaders of the nationalist movement did. What is visible today in routine politics is the opposite. To politicize now means not to build but to bleed. A situation exists that is similar to that of Coleridge's mariner. Indeed, at the time of independence the ship was cheered and the harbour cleared only for the ship to find itself later in a situation sad as sad could be. There is 'water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink'.

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