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Archive for September, 2013

Rahul Gandhi’s latest theatre act might be a ploy by the Congress Party to do a one-upmanship on the BJP, which had woken up only a little earlier than him to the grossly undemocratic nature of the Ordinance.  Or, it might be a last minute course correction urged on him by some younger members of his party who are believed to have been silent objectors to the Ordinance (with the exception of  Milind Deora’s public posturing), while at the same time projecting him as the youthful, fearless and iconoclastic future face of the Congress party.  Sycophants are already likening Rahul to Mrs. Gandhi’s mid-1970s rebellion as leader of the “young Turks” of the Congress and her break with the old guard, using the slogan of Garibi Hatao.  They are hailing him as having gone from next-P.M.-in-training to next-P.M.-in-readiness.

Even if the theatre results in aborting the the Ordinance pushed through by the dirty tricks department of the Congress and its allies, nothing can gloss over the fact of the Bill itself.  For, the Bill was the result of most of India’s Parliamentarians belonging to most  of the political parties implicitly closing ranks to protect themselves. If the BJP developed doubts and then adopted the stance of conscientious objector,  the objection was only towards the Ordinance that came at the end of a drama that had unfolded over weeks and months, in which the BJP,  too, had been complicit.

The Parliamentarians, in proposing the Bill meant to protect the large numbers of their kind facing criminal conviction, put forward many arguments.  That India is a litigious country and that politicians stand the constant risk of having fictitious charges framed against them due to vendetta among political rivals.  That, since judgements by lower courts can be appealed against in higher courts, convicted politicians stand the chance to clear their names in due course.  That, if politicians were to step down following a conviction, pending their journey through the legal system,  they stand to lose in the political race. And, finally, that  since the judicial process in India is highly protracted and inefficient, cases might go on forever, which would unfairly impact on the career of the politician concerned.

In other words, the law that applies to  the ordinary citizens of India cannot be applied to the politicians because the political class are a special breed who require a different set of laws for themselves.  While citizens charged with criminal offences may languish in jails interminably, often as mere undertrials, and in the process lose their jobs and livelihoods, the same cannot be allowed to happen to politicians.   Which raises the question: what is the nature of the investment that politicians make in their careers that sets them apart?

Whatever the eventual fate of the Ordinance,  we as citizens need to be cautious about embracing Rahul Gandhi’s “…all nonsense…deserves to be torn and thrown…” speech of September 27th., and believing that our politicians have suddenly undergone a complete change of heart, and that the profession of electoral politics will be beautiful and clean in the future.  The very fact that the political class was capable of dreaming up such a Bill in the first place could mean that our politicians actually believe that in the course of their “democratic” roles,  they  (and their kin) deserve to have the licence to bribe, accept bribes, forge, pilfer, embezzle, riot, impersonate, rape, murder, vandalise public and private property, beat up citizens who are lawfully doing their jobs (in order to avoid something as paltry as paying highway toll taxes, e.g.,),  threaten to strip and violate women for merely doing their jobs, abduct and/or gangrape women working for social change, etc.

And, that while engaging in all these exciting activities in the pursuit of expanding their own personal fortunes and raw power,  politicians should remain unaccountable:  whether or not they attend Parliament or  Assembly, whether they stay awake or sleep or watch porn films while attending Parliament/Legislative Assembly sessions, whether they go through years of  tenure as elected representatives without ever raising a question for debate or speaking on a matter of national or state importance, whether they shout abuses / scuffle with / hurl missiles at political rivals, snatch away and tear up vital documents from the hands of Speaker of the House, use intemperate language, lower the dignity of the House, etc., etc.

For, our politicians also seem to believe that the crowning success of becoming “elected representatives” is that they may do all of the above without regard for the fact that their salaries and perks come from the taxpayers’ money:  fat monthly emoluments;  daily allowances for attending Parliament sessions;  free houses;  free phones, free electricity, free water,  free cars with drivers and lal battis and unlimited petrol/diesel for themselves and their kin;  free airline and railway miles and privileges for themselves and their kin, etc..  And, that in the course of their political careers, they may give themselves periodic additional privileges:  hefty raises in pay packets and perks, special security and police protection for themselves and their kin from unspecified threats, etc. And get V.I.P. or V.V.I.P. status, surely a uniquely Indian invention to further skew an already highly hierarchical society.

The politicians’ story does not end with becoming V.I.P.s or V.V.I.P.s.  At the end of five years of having the time of their lives – during which they and their kin are known to make unimagined fortunes through bribes, real estate deals, ownership of gold, and other forms of property and power, such as charitable religious, educational, health,  “cooperative” trusts, politically appointed offices such as heads of government corporations, etc., – they have the means to re-enter the political system once again, this time  with even greater muscle and money power.

Are these then the kind of “people’s representatives” that we will be voting for all over again at the coming elections?

When the Anna Hazare movement  raised the above anti-corruption issues, members of the UPA, even while stooping to every means to discredit the movement and besmirch the personal reputations of those at the forefront,  derisively declared that only those entering electoral politics had the right to speak of changing the way the political system works.

The Aam Aadmi Party came into existence in response to this challenge, and their experience of negotiating the unreformed political system remains to be seen.  During the last general elections a few idealistic young people – taking Plato’s adage to heart that those who are too smart to engage in politics end up being governed by those who are dumber – had already bravely sought to enter politics as independents.  But all of them lost, and went back to their professions.  Because they did not have what is required for entering politics.

So what does it take to enter politics?

From where I live presently – in the heart of an agrarian community in the heart of northern India – I have had the opportunity to watch politics play out at the grassroots.  You can’t get more aam aadmi-like than where I am.  And what I see going on around me challenges all the holy cows of electoral politics in this country, whether it is  gender (pro-women), or poverty (pro-poor), or caste (pro-backward and scheduled castes),  or the primacy of Indian heartland (pro-rural, pro-agriculture), or ideology (pro-secular), or panchayati raj institutions (pro-grassroots democracy).  It demonstrates that for all that our politicians in and out of government may pontificate in front of T.V. cameras, it is their consistent venality that has trickled down right to the grassroots with the message that politics is not public service, but the surest route to making huge money and acquiring massive power.

The story I tell below spells out the DNA of those in politics, old or new.  If this  story of a novice in politics who started from a position of relative social vulnerability sounds depressing, I leave you to imagine how much worse the stories of  powerful political families and political mafia must sound.

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The story of Sita: Background

It is a little over two years since I first wrote about how I witnessed  Sita’s impressive rise from farm labourer to successfully elected grassroots politician. (https://rr2606.wordpress.com/2011/05/31/the-changing-rural-scene-in-eastern-rajasthan-%E2%80%93-4-dalit-women%E2%80%99s-lives-some-cameos-4-4-sita/).  In the last two years I have continued to watch Sita’s further integration into the political ethos of this country, and the aspirations and style that she has begun to develop for her political future.

My observations show that politics at the grassroots takes its cues from the way national and state level politics works, so powerful is the demonstration effect of the macro dynamics. Fundamental change for the better, therefore – the assertion of the value of public service, and unequivocal demonstration that probity in public life is non-negotiable in a polity that professes to be democratic – must necessarily come from the top.

My observations further show how, behind the façade of declared universalistic norms of development, democracy and  inclusion,  affirmative actions based on gender or religion or caste are deliberately subverted by the way our system of electoral politics works, until both the social identities of gender/religion/caste, and the universalistic norms themselves, stand totally debased.

Sita: The Story Rolls On

Sita won the election for Sarpanch (Head of the Elected Village Council) while contesting on a “reserved” seat, i.e., one that sought to empower a woman who is also a dalit, by creating an entry point for her into electoral politics.

I live in a dalit majority region, and both the Congress and BJP have been fostering dalit candidates here for the state legislatures.  Usually these politicians have been males.  But whenever the seat is recast into one reserved for a woman,  it is inevitably the widow, wife or daughter-in-law of the male candidate who gets the seat.  Dynastic imperatives that govern thinking in political parties – based on familiarity of a candidate in the eyes of the voting public, and his/her winnability – do not work at the political top-end alone.  Parties foster them at the grassroots as well.

This was the first time that the Sarpanch seat in particular had come under the reserved category, i.e., specifically for a woman and a dalit.  Partly because she was an unknown quantity and perceived as being docile and pliable, and more so because both her political rivals (dalit women who had earlier held office as Panchayat members and were now aspirants for the higher post) had built up unfavourable reputations for highhandedness, Sita won the election by a close margin.  The fact that her husband had been able to sell some inherited land and there was ready cash available – running into a few lakhs of rupees – to influence/buy votes, helped.  Also, her husband – a man with a few years of schooling, and familiarity with urban ways, having worked as a driver to a  merchant in the city –  worked solidly for her success.

Sita has been in office for a little over three years now.  As early as a few months into office, Sita had started making serious money from the then newly-sanctioned government road construction project, for the  improvement of the approach road to the village.  That was the beginning.  Since then, it has been open knowledge that she has also been making money through other ways.  She has been urging every one who owns homestead land to get their ownership deed registered with the Panchayat within the next two years (i.e., the duration of her tenure).  And for each of these registrations she has been charging a cool commission, often  running into several lakhs.  She has not been sharing this money with the other elected members of the Panchayat, which is how this fact has become public knowledge.  She has also become a major land broker in the area, since she now expects every land sale or purchase to go through her.  This is a region where land prices have been rising due to proximity to the capital city, and real estate developers have been busy offering to fill coffers of political parties in return for government facilitating their access to land to build “townships” along the state highways leading out of the capital.    Those locals who have not already sold their farm lands to real estate developers are eager to keep their land records in good shape as they wait for future windfalls.  So there has been a rush in response to Sita’s urging.

Within less than a year into office as Sarpanch, Sita began preparations for her next political step:  candidature for elections to the next higher level of local self governing bodies.  In this case, the Zilla Parishad (district-level elected body) and the Mandi Samiti (the wholesale vegetable and grain market prices committee, which has power over a huge constituency of farmers in the area).   Doing the rounds of biggies in the area, making herself appear a winnable candidate on grounds of caste and gender, and spending the monies required to facilitate all these efforts, all came from the use of her office of Sarpanch.

Sita sadly lost those elections.  It was a huge blow for her, but it did not deter her in her even bigger ambitions and her bigger greed to make money.  The elections had at least ensured that she got noticed – as also her ambition  – by local power brokers.   Along the way, she has acquired friends with questionable connections who hold out hopes that they might be able to guide her in her onward political career. These political fixers, who are from outside her jurisdiction as Sarpanch, take her around to introduce her to other power brokers and land mafias  connected to both the Congress and BJP at the district and state levels.  For, Sita  has set her next sights on standing for the coming elections to the state Legislative Assembly,  and is now exploring where she might successfully put forward her candidature.

In her entire tenure as Sarpanch, all that Sita has done to merit her monthly government salary and elected office is to install one hand pump for the village hunter.  But her efforts to become a powerful controller of land in the area have been bearing rich fruit.  She has already taken steps to reward her new political friends by allocating Panchayat-owned land (public commons) in the village in their private names.  Hundreds of acres in this land-rich panchayat were set aside by the former jagirdar of the area for school playgrounds, pastures, woodlands, river banks, etc., in the wake of  the jagirdari abolition act and the setting up of village panchayats by the government in the early to mid 1950s.  In the decades that followed, these commons began to be privatized by unscrupulous state and central level government bureaucrats and politicians engaging in benami transactions to benefit kin and hangers-on, leaving villagers to look on helplessly.  Until Sita’s time, local villagers themselves had not brazenly resorted to land grab.  Sita’s recent initiatives have set off a competition among the more unscrupulous elements in the village to further privatise what common lands still remain,  under the guise of goshalas (cow orphanages), temples, shops, and colonisations that mimic urban slums.   As Sarpanch, Sita is the appropriate person to check this form of grassroots level corruption.  But as the initiator of such corruption herself, she has neither the interest nor the moral authority to stop its trickle down.

Sita’s hunger for money is not only a function of her newly-aroused ambition.  It is also dictated by the structure of electoral politics as it operates today in the country.  In order for her candidature to be accepted, Sita has not only to be perceived by political parties as “winnable” (currently all she has to commend her are her gender, caste identity, and recent exposure through the district level elections).  She has also to be able to pay a sum of at least Rs. 4 crores to whichever Party is willing to accept her candidature.  In addition to this purchase money for being selected as a candidate, Sita must be able to demonstrate that she has the money for her election campaign and actual vote winning, yet another ball game altogether.

Sita’s current challenge, thus, is how to put together that initial Rs. 4 crores.  To this end, she is constantly on the road, led by her new political fixer friends, looking for rich sponsors.  No doubt, she will be making promises to her sponsors of rewards that she will deliver if elected.  If she is able to swing it this time, Sita will become unstoppable.

It is interesting how economic power and political ambition are releasing women like Sita from the bondages of social constraints like purdah and limited physical mobility that rural women like her in this region still have to endure.  But the flip side of this is that the rest of her family have become dependent on her staying in politics as the family’s golden goose, for their own sense of personal wellbeing.  Without her husband’s support, of course, Sita would never have been able to launch on this political journey.  The day she decided to stand for Sarpanch, he resigned his job and began escorting her around and campaigned on her behalf.  Since she is illiterate, it is he with a few years of schooling who attends all her meetings with her, speaks on her behalf, and acts as her scribe doing all the writing that her work as Sarpanch involves, to which she merely affixes her signature (a recently acquired skill).

Naturally, Sita’s husband partakes of her financial success.  Within six months of becoming Sarpanch, Sita and her husband bought a new car that he drives her around in. They did a several week long vacation through the length and breadth of India, that included both pleasure and pilgrimage. Two years down the line, they have bought yet another new car. Sita’s eldest son whom she is trying to educate in the city (which includes putting him into a hostel)  has already run away from school twice in order to be home to enjoy the perks of his mother’s office.  He has taken to drinking and driving rashly and has already become a  menace as a sexual predator to the young women in his own home and around, activities that he undertakes under the assumed immunity that he believes his mother’s office gives him.

Also interesting is that Sita’s baptism into politics started with the flouting of a law, and a lie.  Sita has three grown children. Under a rule that debars anyone – man or woman – who has more than two living children from standing for public office, a rule that harks back to Indian democracy’s stated political commitment to upholding the two child  norm,  Sita was not eligible to become Sarpanch in the first place.   When Sita won, one of her failed rivals challenged her election on these grounds.  So what did Sita do?  She simply got a false certificate made stating that the second birth had resulted in twins (even though the so-called “twins” are several years apart; she also got their ages on their respective school certificates modified accordingly).  While I do not necessarily subscribe to the two child norm nor the penalties accompanying it in the political sphere, it could be a delicious pastime to imagine what strategems  our national level politicians like the famous Yadavs – and, no doubt several others like them – must have employed to make themselves eligible to enter and stay in politics.

As I said at the start,  Sita is a woman, a dalit, and a former agricultural labourer.  She started political life at the absolute grassroots in a Panchayati Raj institution, and has since gone on to dream big.  This in itself should earn her public commendation and support. However, she is now coming to the end of her five year term without  having done anything at all for her constituency by way of constructive work.  Rather, she has used the access afforded by her elected office to boost her family’s finances and to build her own political future.  She  has no ideological leaning to speak of,  and is eager to be affiliated with any party that will accept her.  The parties that she is considering, in turn, look for no ideology or vision on the part of their candidates, other than that they be  “winnable”,  pay up the entry fee of Rs. 4 crores, and demonstrate their capability to finance their election campaign.  In all of the above, Sita’s case has been true to the institutional processes of which she is becoming an increasingly compliant cog.

As Sita roams the hinterland looking for financial backers and an ‘easy’ constituency from where she can stand for elections to the state legislative assembly, and dreams with her family of the lal batti on her car besides untold financial windfalls that her success will bring her  – inspired  no doubt by her political role models in Delhi and the state capital who  think in terms of nothing less than 1000s of crores of rupees  as the gains of political office – voters like me will have to ask the question:

What kind of political future would we be voting for in the coming elections that would  be different from what Sita at the grass roots, or her more suave and educated counterparts in Delhi and the state capitals represent?

Is the ongoing theatre around the infamous Ordinance enough to assure us that the good boys (and girls) are back in the driver’s seat after a short period of excusable delinquency?

The impulses to corruption and criminality would seem to be too deeply embedded in what the present electoral process demands of a political aspirant.  And no one who aligns themselves with any of the existing established political parties can get away from the imperatives of these impulses.   Nor, indeed, can any one hold one’s own any longer as an Independent candidate within the electoral system.  It would be interesting to see the fortunes of the Aam Aadmi Party in the coming elections, and what chances they have for clean and principled participation in the electoral process as it presently obtains in India.

In the meanwhile, with elections just around the corner, ordinary citizens like me must continue to engage with the dilemma before us.  Is “voting to reject” – the right recently granted us by the Supreme Court – then the only option left open to us?

Non-cooperation,  Gandhiji’s style?

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During the week that the country was outraged  by the gang rape case in metropolitan Mumbai,  the national newspapers were perhaps barely reporting that the rule of law  was  being systematically  undermined in yet another fashion in  a tier two state capital, this  time in the guise of the benign cause of student empowerment.

Rajasthan University recently concluded its student union elections.  For weeks preceding the date,  electioneering  panned out far and wide, way beyond the city of Jaipur the apparent home of  the voting constituency.   Giant colour posters of the candidates prominently displaying their caste surnames were visible everywhere in the city and rural hinterland, both as static hoardings and on moving local and inter-city buses, jeeps and autos, blatantly  demonstrating  big buck support for those  in the fray.

Then came the elections.  Voting, counting, and post-election declaration of results all took place amidst violent political and caste battles between supporters of the rival candidates in and around Jaipur city.  Public buses  and trains were burnt, cars stoned, inter-state highways occupied, and persons attacked.  In the midst of daily local newspaper coverage of the raging  lawlessness, the “winners” of the election were declared by the university’s  vice chancellor.  The bizarre  picture  of the group  flashing wide smiles and victory signs adorned the day’s front page, in complete disregard for the ethics of the circumstances under which the university has acted as a nursery for these budding politicians.

For whom was this a victory?    For the cause of higher education, that is the raison d’etre of any university including the Rajasthan University?   For student governance – or misgovernance in this case – that these expensively and violently elected representatives will engage in for the rest of their student tenure?  For the big political parties which, financially and institutionally and through cadre support, backed these candidates in the expectation that they will before long  arrive on the national stage as seasoned politicians?   For the  rival  caste groups that are looking to these  politicians-in-the-making to carry their particular causes into future electoral processes, both state and national?

Is it surprising then that this is the kind of political leadership we have, and are likely to get in the future?  Is it surprising that all our political parties have closed ranks in the face of  the Supreme Court directive that all elected politicians  who are charge-sheeted for criminal activity should immediately resign from their posts as representatives?  Should not political and electoral reform if they are to succeed  begin in these nurseries, rather than wait for youth politicians to mature into violence and lawlessness co-terminously with their maturation as national level “representatives”?

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