Reform political behaviour

Written by YRK Reddy | Updated: Mar 15 2008, 03:26am hrs
No prizes if anyone had predicted that political parties and responsible parliamentarians would suddenly rally for the continuation of old airports even after new airport projects had been announced years ago and completed with great commitment and efficiency. No prizes also for predicting that the Budget would be criticised as an election Budget and for falling short of much needed allocations to all farmers, despite the questionable largesse in the form of a loan waiver. The point is not merely of any particular policy, but of the behavioural patterns of our leaders. Public representatives are exhibiting Pavlovian responses in their sacrifice of logic and public interest at the ring of a political point. Thus, support and opposition have been predictable, depending on the required political distance to be maintained vis--vis others, rather than on the actual contents and implications of any policy. Hardly anything is left unpoliticised.

As a former secretary general of the Lok Sabha recently pointed out, opposition and ruling parties seem to switch their behaviour along with their changed roles. Thus, what they say as ruling or opposition parties is not the same when the position changes. While memories have always been short, conscience has indeed evaporated and accountability is being twisted to suit electoral prospects. Doublespeak is the uncrowned king of our polity now, despite the great history of political integrity, commitment, transparency and nationalist character that some of our leaders epitomised in earlier decades. National energy and time are being devoured in scoring brownies, with an eye on the votebanks. It has simplified a historic and great art to that of maintaining divergence at any cost in the hope that voting markets would fall for crudely differentiated products. Some leaders conveniently blame the media for this.

The proliferation of political parties has fragmented voting markets, resulting in even more competitively divisive behaviour. It is now divisivenessnot mere differentiationat any cost, as convergence seems to pose a greater challenge even if it is logical and in national interest. Thus, in all democracies, constructive opposition is considered an oxymoron. There is fear among leaders that if they start supporting a policy, they will blur their own identities and fail their followers. The challenge of keeping distinctions alive in the minds of voters seems to be even greater for parties extending outside supportanother oxymoron. Such issue-based support should be read as interest-based opposition.

Take the case of the 123 Agreement that has been depleting such emotional and trust capital in maintaining distancesor on appearances of opposition while agreeing in private that energy security is paramount and that this is a unique opportunity to break Indias nuclear isolation; that it implies dealing not just with one country alone, but many, including France, Russia and China; that it deserves consensus among parties, even if some tactical issues need to be resolved by and by. This desperation to keep distances is crowding out optimal solutions, despite the realisation that those opposing the deal would have to face the dire prospect of managing energy shortages. At times, it appears that the government is lobbying indirectly with other countries at a huge price just to forge a consensus among national parties!

Leaders who have assumed such differentiation as a workable tactic in the hope of a perpetual anti-incumbency factor, may soon find that the Indian public has matured in recent years. The increasing number of parties, high decibel levels and rhapsodic rhetoric may have only made them more sensitive, if not cynical. They are now able to discern between intent and content in statements, between national interest and political interests, and between good governance and appeasement.

The communication and behaviour they seek may be more nuanced, and of evident sincerity, logic, consistency and national interest, than opposition for its own sake. Indian voters have matured. But will political leaders measure up to them