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An Invitation To “Responsible Parties”

An Invitation To “Responsible Parties”

Angry Voters Resent their Impotence

Democracies are undoing themselves. Voters are angry at their inability to influence policies. Meantime the ultra-rich keep rising and ordinary people keep sinking. And ultimately in frustration, the masses who feel disempowered surrender to a populist demagogue to get their interests attended to.

These are some of the trends that Frances Mccall Rosenbluth and Ian Shapiro analyse in their book “Responsible Parties: Saving Democracy from Itself” (Yale University, New Haven, 2018) while reflecting on the future of democracy in the world.

Several of these anxieties prove true in India as well. Political structures are being manipulated. Democratic values meet with no respect. The quality of parliamentary debate has plummeted. The anger of the farmers and unemployed has risen to new heights. Emotions decide issues. On the one hand, there has been a 60% growth of crorepatis in the country during the last 3 years... 81,000 today; on the other, the Poverty Index (MPI) of Oxford University says that half the population of a state like Bihar live below poverty line. 

The study we referred to concentrates on the U.S. political scenario and western democracies. However, with our elections near, we can draw a few conclusions for ourselves as well.  Rising lack of trust! That is the new phenomenon today the world over. “In the U.S., poll after poll reflects historic lows of citizen trust in politicians, parties, and institutions—dramatically unscored by Donald Trump’s populist stampede to the U.S. presidency in 2016. Antiestablishment parties and candidates have surged in the polls in many other democracies as well.” “Angry voters flail at their impotence, waging semi-permanent war on the politicians they elect.” 

Brazilians say their support for Jair Bolsonaro is rooted on a “politics of anger, rejection and despair.” People elsewhere too feel that politicians and bureaucrats are insensitive to their anxieties: the rise of the ultra-rich on one side, wage stagnation on the other (Rosenbluth & Shapiro 2). In India, to hide such glaring truths from attention, religious fanaticism is fanned up, Ayodhya temple is announced, army strength is flaunted, bullet trains are launched.  But people’s hurt feelings do not disappear that easily. On the contrary, the grievances of sectional, regional, ethnic, tribal, religious, minority groups, and dalits keep mounting. Resentments here are in multiple directions.

Weak Parties and Coalitions Cobbled together Weaken Democracy

An emotion-led situation throws up unreliable “mavericks” as leaders, who milk the system for narrow interests (Ibid 10). If they show themselves to be ‘strong and vocal’ representatives of a particular interest or group, the beneficiaries surrender to them unconditionally. And with that, those leaders feel dispensed from being accountable.  They hastily build up popularity doing ‘favours’ to their blind supporters. It has no relationship with achievement or accountability (Ibid 20). Reports said that crores were floated around during the recent elections in Meghalaya and Karnataka. Parties that claim to be fighting corruption were found distributing bundles of hard cash and encouraging floor-crossing. Similarly, it is reported that crores of Government money went into the celebrations of Pooja last week. People must remain contended, and silenced! This is the sort of populism that weakens democracy.

“Money is all in American politics today,” affirm Rosenbluth and Shapiro. Lower income groups have no chance to stand for elections (Ibid 91). Politicians are running a “perpetual campaign,” says Francis Lee; they are fund-raising on the one side, and favour-distributing on the other.  There is no room left for nation-building policies (Ibid 248). Can we say that the Indian situation is far different?

When money alone matters, a member’s role in the party is decided by his/her fund-raising and manipulating abilities, not by his thinking power nor the quality of his social concern or national commitment.  Consequently, the party’s ability to contribute to the social good declines, inner-party discipline weakens; and soon enough short-term advantages to the party and its crafty leaders replace the long-term good of the nation (Ibid 21). Sensational programmes for immediate popularity wins prominence. Myopic agendas develop. Demonetization?  Loan waiver? Triple talaq? Sabarimala? Surgical strike? Martial nationalism? There is no end to diversionary tactics.

The weakening of parties means the weakening of its effectiveness in the political field and its contribution to democracy (Ibid 15). This is true even more of ‘coalitions cobbled together.’ With disempowered parties and political alliances, governments themselves become disempowered (Ibid 126). “Held together by money and favours,” bargaining for power and position becomes the main task of weak parties patched together: fragmented, fractious, partisan, ideology-less, power-hungry. Did it happen in Bangalore? Will it happen in Delhi soon?

People, tired of taking and giving bribes, finally opt for an antiestablishment maverick who promises the ‘heavens’ . It is out of a sense of helplessness that people surrender to Strongmen... who then adopts inflexible positions. Bargaining for vote-catching before elections, bargaining for power-distribution after elections (Ibid 35). Politics is no more about social construction, but power-sharing, favour-distribution, cheap populism. Where donors count more than voters, voters come to be taken for granted (Ibid 40).

Mature Parties Take Responsibility for Long-term Consequences

Rosenbluth and Shapiro argue in favour of two strong parties competing, like in the UK.  In India it would seem too idealistic at the present moment, but we can readily admit that it will be parties and coalitions that have their goals clear, keep close to the electors and work for the common good, and take responsibility for what they say and do...they alone will succeed to retain the confidence of the people. ‘Unrealistic promises’ merely undermine public confidence; if not today, tomorrow. Populist leaders can make promises or launch projects irresponsibly or recklessly without attending to their costs, and without being able to see who will bear the burden. It is the nation that pays at the end...and the average man.

Every policy has consequences on other policies (Ibid 28). Left parties, if they are responsible, will attend to business and consumer interests as well; and similarly, Rightists will ensure labour protection, health, social insurance (Ibid 32). Favouring workers should do no damage to the interests of business; favouring business should not fail to do justice to working class (Ibid 35). In India, majority-dominated parties will attend to the anxieties of the minorities; and parties on which minorities have influence will be sensitive to the needs of the majority.

Conscientious political parties must take responsibility for the consequences of what they do beyond the next election. Ultimately it is the nation that must win, not parties for their own benefit. So, parties under responsible leadership put their ‘attractive policies’ against the ‘burden of the cost’ involved, in making decisions. Hence they do not make the nation to stumble, but bring to it long-term benefits (Ibid 250). A healthy picture is that of two competing parties holding out two proposals, both attractive from different points of view, for the voter to choose. They make sure that benefits and costs too compete. For, one-sided pursuance of an issue can lead society down a blind alley. It is the common good that they are seeking to ensure (Ibid 230), not cheap popularity.

If the Opposition party has the same sense of responsibility, they will offer intelligent and well-studied criticism, and not disrupt parliamentary proceedings nor have recourse to rowdy behaviour to press their point. They constitute government in waiting, therefore they remain principled and dignified (Ibid 74).While they evaluate and criticize the possible negative consequences of a proposed project for the sake its better implementation, they will never block a worthwhile proposal merely to gain political advantage. They monitor implementation and evaluate  performance (Ibid 37). No responsible party will make a secret deal with the business-community for mutual advantage and “externalize the costs onto others,”  onto the consumers and the general public (105). But is that not happening today?

Strong Parties Alone will Ensure Democracy’s Success

The authors’ central argument is that competition between two strong parties alone will ensure the long-run interests of society. Vulnerable groups also will benefit (Ibid 5).  Strong coalitions in similar fashion can yield the same benefit. When two parties (or coalitions) are really strong, they tend to move to the political middle, avoiding fanatical extremes.  They quickly come under mature leadership with ‘clarity of policies’ and a greater sense of discipline (Ibid 12). Mavericks will be made to avoid exaggerations (Ibid 76). Voters will come to know what each party stands for and what they will implement. The party will be recognised for its effectiveness in public life (Ibid 21) and for its coherent and consistent strategies.

Such parties will be action- and achievement-oriented, and not addicted to personality-cult and fund-dependence. If they are in the opposition, they will seek to suggest better ideas on any proposal (Ibid 73). Unfortunately today there is too little of intelligent sharing of ideas and an excess of ‘character assassination’ in political life (Ibid 113).  

However, the authors admit, in a majoritarian party-system there is a great danger that the minorities will be neglected. They quote Alexis de Tocqueville’s reference to “majority tyranny” (Ibid 43) to which James Madison also refers (Ibid 27). Nevertheless, if a ‘sense of responsibility’ is brought to the system, this danger can be avoided  (Ibid 13). That is the thrust of their entire argument.

Healthy Competition between Parties, Ideas, Proposals, Advantages, Disadvantages

The benefit to be drawn from competitive politics is that what is good in each party’s ideas can be tapped; advantages can be studied against disadvantages. It is different from playing emotion against emotion which means one exaggeration invites another (Ibid 47). Parties should be made to compete also for minority votes, thus encouraging an eagerness to please the weakest (Ibid 49).

Playing identity politics to excess can be dangerous even for the dominant party. An over-emphasis on ‘Hindutva’ invites everyone else to over-assert their identity. “Identity politics begets identity politics.” Fire is fought with fire, until all are burnt (Ibid 55). The greatest danger is that the majoritarian party outright ignores minorities since they expect no support from them, and the Opposition in their turn (e.g. Congress in India) takes their support for granted (Ibid 56). Today the phenomenon the world over is that centrist parties are fragmenting, and moderates are unsure of their goals and strategies; meantime  extremists are growing more extreme with clear goals and definite designs to attain them (Ibid 131).

Exaggerated Majoritarianism Weakens the Majority Community Itself

Gathering against minorities, the dominant community may look very strong for a while. But soon enough internal divisions break them up. Gujarat first turned against the Muslims, then against Hindu migrant workers from the Hindi-belt. Over 20,000 of them fled the “Model State.” Migrants from the same region are victimised in Mumbai by the Siv Sena, who are supposed to be Hindutva allies.

The heartland of the Hindutva forces sends its poor to the East and West to earn a living. It is not a great advertisement for their ideology. The zone that rules the country not only fails to draw investment from outside, but shows itself unable to bring up worthwhile projects that would give livelihood to their working men. For Yogiji cow-care is more important. Collectively, they have to take responsibility for neglecting their men and being a drag on the nation.

While the RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat fumes promising to build a Temple at Ayodhya – no matter what the SC decides, environmental activist G. D. Agarwal dies at Rishikesh after 111 days of fast against the pollution of Ganga. Agarwal was particularly upset about Modi, whose Ganga programme, he said, benefitted only the “corporate sector and business houses.” Manmohan Singh was far more sympathetic to his cause. As for the Ayodhya temple, Om Prakash Rajbhar a UP minister himself admits, it is ‘less about devotion, and more about division.’

What emerges ultimately is that Hindu causes are not best served by the Hindutva fanatics, but by right-minded Hindu believers and their fellow-citizens, no matter what tradition they belong to. Similarly, the interests of the minorities are best served by their good friends in the majority community along with the rest of the Indian society. In order that this may continue to prove true, we need to strengthen our Democracy and not yield easily to cheap Populism.

(Published on 05th November 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 45)