Thursday, October 13, 2005

I am monarch of all I survey; My right there is none to dispute

Political discourse in our country is pedestrian – that’s not news. But there’s treasure everywhere: here’s an example which will make even the most jaded among us laugh out loud. According to Ms Ambika Soni of the Congress-I, “The BJP is a failed party because of the leadership which is autocratic and does not consult” (while discussing Pramod Mahajan’s commentary on BJP’s leadership).

Good heavens! Have you no shame, dear lady? Yes, I know, politics is the art of the impossible but how can say that and keep a straight face? You are in a party where, as even any child interested in checking facts will know, since 1967 (yes, that means since even before there was anything called the BJP), there has been no democracy within the party whatsoever!

In the 27 years since 1978, P V Narasimha Rao has been the President of your party for 5 years and Sitaram Kesri (he who had to cry and place his cap at Mrs. Sonia Gandhi’s feet to “prove his loyalty”) for another 2; for the rest 20 years, your first family preferred to be in command directly! Oh, and before I forget, just before 1978, who was the President of Congress-I? A certain Mr. Dev Kant Baruah who is remembered only for his (one) quotable quote: “India is Indira and Indira is India”. And who will be your next President? Most likely someone who – in what morphed quickly from an interview to only an informal chat – claimed that he “could have been the Prime Minister of India at the age of 25”. Goodness me, yes, the BJP’s leadership is indeed ‘autocratic’ and ‘does not consult’.

Let us face it – our politics is now a complete extension of the feudal setup that the society has endured for ages. Political power is completely concentrated in the hands of one leader per party (Mrs. Sonia Gandhi, Ms Mayawati, M/s Vajpayee, Mulayam S Yadav, Lalu Prasad, Pawar, Karunanidhi… the list goes on), not one party has any sort of working inner democracy (oh, of course they differ in degrees but when the whole class is failing, there’s little succor in Student x failing by a slightly smaller margin than Student y), power is bequeathed to wife and/or child (recent examples include Mr. Hooda in Haryana, Mr. Dutt’s daughter in Mumbai, Mr. Deora next door, Mr. Akhilesh Yadav in UP… this list goes on and on too!) and this bug contaminates all who come in contact! Socialists (Mulayams and Laloos of the world who reaped the harvest sown by Ram Manohar Lohia, Karpuri Thakur et al in their avowed struggle against the same feudal mindset), dalit leaders, communists are all infected now!

For our friends in the BJP who gloat (Ms Soni’s comments notwithstanding) that this is not so in their “organization based” party; pause, fellas – concentration of power is as strong in your setup too (and foster families are included in this reckoning). For the other friends – those of the communist variety – well, yes, you’re the ones who seem to be the in the ‘just failed’ category, but with Comrade Karat bending the spirit (even though not the letter) of the law in bringing his wife to the Rajya Sabha (alongwith that gadfly, Sitaram Yechuri) – not to forget the business interests of Comrade Basu’s son from the good old days – you’ve started your journey on the slippery slope too. The regional parties are almost always – and usually congenitally – single-leader centered.

Till the time that the votes reside either in the countryside or in urban slums – and they do so today, disproportionate to the relevant population distribution – the only way out is for the bourgeoisie (that’s you and me, dear reader – and don’t panic, please, that term has a meaning outside the Marxist lexicon too) to insist, at every given platform and at every snatched moment, that the government’s priority be more and better primary education. Until the voters are better educated, there is no redemption from these quasi-kings and queens: they are not likely to make a rational choice unless they can make the connection between the exercise of their franchise and their (or their children’s) development of the economic variety.

On the issue of education and the political process, the person who got it right was Robert Lowe (1811-1892), 1st Viscount Sherbrooke. In the matter of extending the franchise to all adult male members in England, he was of the opinion that first, “we must educate our masters, the people; else we will be at the mercy of a mob masquerading as a democracy”.

Closer home, one of the more prescient members of the Constituent Assembly, Frank Anthony (Central Provinces & Berar, General), had the following to say regarding the grant of franchise to all adult citizens “…if we had pursued the path of wisdom – more than that – of statesmanship, that we would have been justified to hasten slowly in this matter, that we would have not at one bound adopted the device of adult franchise but will have proceeded progressively; not necessarily gradually but progressively… …when the next elections are fought or the elections after that and with an electorate which will be predominantly illiterate, with an electorate which will be predominantly unaware of exercising the franchise on a basis of being able to analyze political issues in a rational way, that this electorate will not be stampeded by empty slogans by meretricious shibboleths into chasing political chimeras which will not only lead to chaos but to the very destruction of democracy which we have chosen to give them.” (Emphasis added)

If this sounds elitist, so be it! But before you jump to conclusions, mark Mr. Anthony’s words – “not necessarily gradually but progressively”. And of course, there’s no question of turning back the clock now. But the imperative is for all of us to lend our voice to the cause of education because without it, things are going to remain the same. Ach nein; not in the solutions mode again! There’s so much more to be written on that. I began this post mostly to share the mirth which Ms Soni’s comment produced in an otherwise drab day! Lets leave it at that, then – with at least the intent to come back to this topic at a later date.

N.b. Perhaps the real tragedy was in having, as the acting President of the Constituent Assembly, a person who embodied all that was good in our countryside – and whose estimation of his fellow villagers was based on self-referencing (and therefore a romantic, not realistic view) than a hard look at how vested interests could manipulate things.
Dr. Rajendra Prasad, in his closing remarks,
said the following in reply to Mr. Anthony’s point: “Some people have doubted the wisdom of adult franchise. Personally, although I look upon it as an experiment the result of which no one will be able to forecast today, I am not dismayed by it. I am a man of the village and although I have had to live in cities for a pretty long time, on account of my work, my roots are still there. I, therefore, know the village people who will constitute the bulk of this vast electorate. In my opinion, our people possess intelligence and commonsense. They also have a culture which the sophisticated people of today may not appreciate, but which is solid. They are not literate and do not possess the mechanical skill of reading and writing. But, I have no doubt in my mind that they are able to take measure of their own interest and also of the interests of the country at large if things are explained to them. In fact, in some respects, I consider them to be even more intelligent than many a worker in a factory, who loses his individuality and becomes more or less a part of the machine which he has to work. I have, therefore, no doubt in my mind that if things are explained to them, they will not only be able to pick up the technique of election, but will be able to cast their votes in an intelligent manner and I have, therefore, no misgivings about the future, on their account. I cannot say the same thing about the other people who may try to influence them by slogans and by placing before them beautiful pictures of impracticable programmes. Nevertheless, I think their sturdy commonsense will enable them to see things in the right perspective. We can, therefore, reasonably hope that we shall have legislatures composed of members who shall have their feet on the ground and who will take a realistic view of things.” (Emphasis added)
Dr. Rajendra Prasad’s village – Jiradei – is a part of the Siwan parliamentary constituency. Were he alive, his MP – serving a respectable 4th term as a member of the Lok Sabha – would have been Mohammad Shahabuddin.


sudeep said...


The argument against universal adult franchise, when taken to its logical conclusion - really translates into a plutocracy or an oligocracy (is there such a word :-) ?).

The argument asserts that people, unless they are educated or have a certain intellect are not qualified to have a say in the matters that govern them.

If it is education that is the qualification for an informed opinion, more education translates into an opinion even more informed. By induction, you reach the final solution which is to be governed by the opinions of one person, who is the most educated in the land.

This argument, that people are not qualified enough to govern themselves has been used in the past, by the British Imperialists, by the segregationists, theocracies, and by MCPs. :-D

I would love to read an analysis on the reasons for lack of inner party democracy based on the structural nature of Indian politics and government. An answer that people are not educated enough is too simple and easy.

One interesting angle that I keep coming across is the nature of government in India - a very strong center with very little invested in local/smaller levels government. In this model, the local government derives its power (monetary power/legal power) from the center and not the other way round. It then follows that the central leagership becomes the purveyor of power to the local leadership through elaborate patronage networks. There is a certain inevitability about the local leadership now beginning to derive its power from the central personas.

Hereon, its merely a manifestation of basic human nature, for the central leadership to try and amass as much of this power within family and fried circles. IMO, this is inevitable.

- Sudeep

Nikhil Prasad Ojha said...


Thank you for leaving your thoughts.

I agree, the jump from inner party democracy to education seems to be a long one. To my mind, though, this is another instance of a complicated problem but one that will be found very sensitive to this "simple" solution.

On your other point (re the limiting case of qualification and informed opinion), this is where social sciences are divorced from the linearity of simple mathematical functions.

In this instance, the function describes who's qualified and who's not, it does not solve for the "most qualified and therefore the obvious choice" outcome! The references I made linked to 'minimum qualification' and a "not necessarily gradually but progressively" extension of the franchise - which would, by definition, have forced the politicians to invest behind - and citizenry to demand for - more and better education (the criteria for extension of franchise).

And in any case, what is done is done. There is absolutely NO case - can NOT be one, ever - for a rollback!


Anonymous said...

It is oligarchy!

arohan said...

well I also used to belive in the same way as you or Mr Frank Anthony. Nut after coming at IIT and see people voting like herds in gymkhana and hall elections where there are not much spoils i am most willing to forgive a vilager who is at lest promised a spoil for his voting.