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Since 1st March, 1999
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- Why politics is not a career option for the meritorious young

“Miracles are not frauds because they are often — I do not say always — very simple and innocent contrivances by which the priest fortifies the faith of his flock.” — The Archbishop of Rheims in George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan.

There might have been no need for a managed miracle this week if the Lok Sabha had not spectacularly illustrated what M.K. Dhar, a former joint director of the Intelligence Bureau, calls “gangland democracy” in his recent account of sordid politics, slush funds and muscle-power.

This is not a criticism of only the United Progressive Alliance or Samajwadi Party because no one is sure that the three Bharatiya Janata Party members of parliament, who scattered banknotes in the house, were not acting out an elaborately choreographed play. When someone who was watching the programme with me asked if that was the going rate for MPs, another replied, “Not necessarily, it’s all the money the BJP could produce from its kitty!” The indictment is of the level of public life and of the riff-raff that rules our destiny. If history is past politics and politics present history, future generations will not look back on this age with pride. The irony, as will be explained later, is that no point of principle drove the BJP’s manoeuvres: only an octogenarian’s thirst for office.

I was reminded of Lee Kuan Yew urging N.R. Narayanamurthy that India would be transformed if he entered politics and multiplied Infosys’s culture of excellence. Jobs would be going a-begging then for a billion Indians. “When will we have people like you going for elections?” Lee asked in deadly earnest. Back in Singapore, he lamented that the founder-chairman of one of India’s most innovative ventures laughed at his suggestion of giving up his business “to do something for his country”.

One mustn’t tar parliamentarians with the gangland brush. The prime minister, who called himself “a politician by accident” in the peroration no one was allowed to hear, would cut a bizarre figure in gangland. So would Rahul Gandhi, whose pious efforts to relate energy security to the tale of two Vidarbha housewives introduced a whiff of Sunday school idealism into frenetic politicking. In zooming in on him, the cameras lit on others like Sachin Pilot and Jyotiraditya Scindia. Sadly, they are there only because of paternal precedent. Politics is not a career option for the meritorious young of good family and with a sound education.

Even the worthy few accept that it is an underworld activity that must be played by underworld rules. I remember Indira Gandhi’s great comeback at Rae Bareilly when two venerable Congressmen, A.P. Sharma and Uma Shankar Dikshit, were her campaign managers. Suddenly, there arrived on the scene M.L. Fotedar, then popularly described as a Nehru-Gandhi family retainer, and took over the show. While Dikshit spent his time sitting up in bed propped up with bolsters and hot water bottles, Sharma explained, “You see, in an election various things have to be done that cannot be associated with people of our stature.” It is this aspect of electioneering that drew sneers when V.P. Singh postured as ‘Mr Cleaner’ while quietly stabbing in the back his allegedly Bofors-tainted boss, ‘Mr Clean’.

The claim that the electoral law makes criminals of honest men — Atal Bihari Vajpayee implied it when he told a parliamentary committee that every legislator starts his career with the lie of the false election return he files — is absolute rubbish. Just as there is no limit to greed, there is no end to how much money can be squandered on buying votes. Moreover, the law turns a blind eye to spending on a candidate’s behalf. Nor is it only a question of good men having to be smuggled into legislatures through dubious means and then reaffirming their true integrity. Some 1,300 cases would not be pending against members of the legislative assembly and MPs if the material was not flawed to start with. Twenty-four hour television may encourage ugly theatricals but the roots of what the Vohra committee called “the nexus between the criminal gangs, police, bureaucracy and politicians” lies in the legislator’s access to funds, the lack of transparency or accountability and an ineffective criminal justice system.

The lashings and thrashings that passed for a debate exposed the mental calibre of our MPs. The nuclear deal’s promise of access to American technology and nuclear fuel was a non-issue. So was the expectation of additional foreign investment of up to $40 billion over the next 15 years. No one examined Manmohan Singh’s assertion that the deal will increase nuclear generation tenfold and end the almost daily power cuts. The recent decline of India's annual economic growth rate by about one point to just over 8 per cent largely because of the electricity shortfall was ignored. Fervent nationalists should have noted that though 14 of India’s atomic reactors will be subject to inspection, the International Atomic Energy Agency will have no say over strategic installations. But the jailbirds and invalids, the bribe-givers and bribe-takers cared nothing about nitty-gritty issues.

As mentioned, there is very little to choose between the Congress and BJP when it comes to agendas, which is precisely why Lal Krishna Advani, “willing to wound, and yet afraid to strike”, made a mess of his case, never able to rise above diatribe. He wants to claim credit for a repackaged 123 agreement but such sophistication was lost on his currency-brandishing henchmen, whose features told us why Lee wants achievers like Narayanamurthy in parliament. He would appreciate the need to build good governance on the convergence between the Congress and the BJP, at least on crucial foreign policy issues.

Jaswant Singh picked up the Israel ball after Rajiv Gandhi and P.V. Narasimha Rao set it rolling. Vajpayee started the economic and strategic talks with Singapore that allowed Manmohan Singh to finalize the comprehensive economic cooperation agreement and three significant defence pacts. Vajpayee first hailed the United States of America as India’s “natural ally”. He acknowledges his debt in nuclear policy to Narasimha Rao who inherited the decision from Rajiv Gandhi who, in turn, derived inspiration from Pokhran I. Despite its concern for energy, the UPA would have no qualms about endorsing the National Democratic Alliance’s enunciation of Pokhran II’s military objectives.

There is even closer agreement on economic issues as the Calcutta businessman, Harshvardhan Neotia, pointed out recently on TV. Those with long memories may recall Vajpayee accusing Narasimha Rao of stealing the BJP’s economic clothes. Those in the know of current affairs are aware that P. Chidambaram has no quarrel with the BJP general secretary and Bangalore MP, Ananth Kumar, who chairs the standing committee on finance. The objection to this system of understanding at the top and a huge chasm below is not that it is elitist but that it exposes the leadership on both sides to the mercy of hoi polloi with little grasp of (or interest in) necessary measures like the pending bills to enhance the voting rights of foreign players in proportion to their stake in private sector banks, raise the cap on foreign equity in insurance firms from 26 to 49 per cent and allow private sector participation in the pension sector.

A battle has been won. But with the Left Front on the warpath, the BJP licking its wounds, Mayavati determined not to be done out of third front laurels and Amar Singh beginning to feel his oats, the war has just begun. The bigger war is with the gangland that threatens to engulf us all and drown all values and standards. It can be averted not by framing more laws to be evaded, avoided or subverted but by people like Narayanamurthy responding to Lee’s plea. When will that happen? One can but end where one began with Shaw’s Saint Joan, “How long, O Lord, how long?”

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