POVERTY OF POLITICS - If politicians lack vision, the rate of change will remain slow

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By Surendra Munshi The author is professor of sociology, Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta
  • Published 10.11.05

The word ?politics? goes back to the Greek root ?politikos?, which refers to citizens and the body politic. It relates to public as opposed to private life. Man is a political animal. This is what Aristotle tells us in his treatise, Politics. Men live together; their common interests bring them together. That man is more of a political animal than other gregarious animals such as bees, is said to be evident from the fact that his power of speech goes beyond merely the voice possessed by other animals. While other animals voice pleasure or pain, man discerns and expresses the just and the unjust by his speech. Aristotle goes on to say that the establishment of the state was the greatest act of benefaction, for, in his words, ?man, when perfected, is the best of animals, but, when separated from law and justice, he is the worst of all?.

Thus, politics can be seen to be concerned with the state or social organism as a whole, with the objective of achieving the common good. In our own times, it was Hannah Arendt who gave in The Human Condition (1958) the greatest importance to the statesman, for she believed that a shared public life gives meaning to our private pursuits. Marxists have believed from the time of Marx that the abolition of all modes of alienation will make it possible for individuals to gain their freedom in and through a genuine community based on their free association.

There are important deviations with respect to this rather positive view of politics. In Aristotle?s thought, slaves and women are assigned inferior positions. Arendt noted in reflecting over the Eichmann trials that bureaucracy had turned evil into routine. The free association of Marxist thought turned in reality into a totalitarianism that denied every kind of freedom.

At a mundane level, politics has become a way not to achieve the common good but the good of the persons engaged in it. Thus, it is common to talk of political and governmental corruption. Corruption is found in different parts of the world. South Asia is mired in it, and it has been noted that corruption in India runs across the entire political order. What is of concern in India is that democracy tends to throw up many politicians but hardly any statesmen. Disinterested promoters of the common good are becoming rarer to find. If leaders like Gandhi and Nehru tried to give their visions about the nation, politicians today give blatant evidence of their selfish interests. They make a trade of politics. It is believed that when Laloo Prasad Yadav was asked once why he had taken care of his family, not the state of Bihar, he retorted in his inimitable manner: ?If I don?t take care of my family, will you?? This raises the important question concerning who takes care of the poor, who have remained voiceless in many ways.

Corruption, though often recognized, can be only one point in the discussion on the poverty of politics. Yet another point to consider is the quality of persons who are attracted to politics and the manner in which they conduct themselves. What needs to be emphasized here, moreover, is the perspective of politicians driven by narrow egoism. Excessive preoccupation with one?s own interests leaves little scope for concern with bigger issues. This is detrimental to the broader interests of society in more than one sense, especially in a situation of rapid change.

Let us briefly turn to Joseph Schumpeter here. If it is considered that a society may pass through the process of slow change or the process of rapid change, then it stands to reason that what works in the first place may not work in the second. If traditional ways of doing things work in the first, there is a need for going beyond routine in the process of rapid change. The economic person must thus bring into play conscious rationality if rapid change is to take place. As Schumpeter says, ?Carrying out a new plan and acting according to a customary one are things as different as making a road and walking along it.? Now, the poverty of politics in a country like India is that what is required for making a road in a world that is becoming increasingly one is not adequately realized. That it requires among other things a high level of efficiency (in the plain sense of ratio of the desired output to the total input) is something that needs to be understood. There is, so to speak, a vision deficit in the persons involved.

Nothing illustrates the problem better than the current disagreement between N.R. Narayana Murthy and H.D. Deve Gowda.

The facts can be stated briefly. It was reported in the newspapers on October 21, 2005, that Narayana Murthy had walked out of the Bangalore international airport project after Deve Gowda had publicly questioned his contribution to the project. It was reported in the papers the next day that Infosys had issued a rebuttal of Deve Gowda?s reported allegation that the company?s request for land on Bangalore?s outskirts for a software development centre was an attempt to grab land. Later, Deve Gowda appeared as the chief guest at the inauguration of Bangalore IT.in, and asserted that IT companies must provide jobs to those displaced by land acquisitions. He also harped on his pet theory that some companies had launched a ?whisper campaign? to destabilize the coalition government in Karnataka.

Narayana Murthy heads a company that finds mention along with two other Indian companies in the list of 50 fabulous Asian companies compiled by Forbes magazine. Yet another milestone that Infosys has achieved recently is being the first Indian company to be compliant with Section 404 of the Sarbanes Oxley Act of 2000, which relates to internal control structure and procedure for financial reporting. Infosys takes pride in transparency and ethical behaviour. Narayana Murthy has an exemplary clean reputation as do his associates in the company. Indeed, in attacking Narayana Murthy publicly, Deve Gowda has attacked a person of national eminence who has contributed to society by his personal example and vision.

A major problem in Bangalore is poor infrastructure. The IT industry there realizes that an important bottleneck for its growth is the physical condition of the city. Bangalore suffers from bad roads, traffic congestion, high pollution, and other ailments that arise out of the fact of its success story not being matched by developmental work. In fact, Narayana Murthy has been talking of improving urban governance. He has said more than once that not only Bangalore, but other cities need to have good urban governance, allowing for planning, coordination, and greater voice for citizens. When we consider what happened in Bangalore during the recent rain or to Mumbai earlier, then his emphasis on improving our urban governance can be better appreciated.

It has been said that Deve Gowda is protecting his turf. He likes to project himself as the son of the soil. He holds daily darbars for the common people from his territory, and he has not been averse to promoting his sons in politics. It is alleged that the family has done economically rather well for itself in politics. We need to differentiate between the rhetoric and the substance of what he has to say for the local people. The issue of urban elite and rural life that he has raised needs to be discussed dispassionately and with factual details for serving the cause of justice to all.

Narayana Murthy and Deve Gowda represent two faces of India. While Narayana Murthy is a visionary who looks at the world as his arena, Deve Gowda is a local politician doing politics in the routine manner who is more concerned with his vote bank and his space in state politics. Both of them have their own compulsions. On how this contradiction between visionaries in different spheres and routine politicians will be resolved not only in Karnataka but also elsewhere in India will largely depend on the forward movement of the nation, or rather, whether it will move at all.

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