A combination of apathy and collusion from the educated classes is why our politics remains largely feudal still.
Earlier this month on December 7, 2011, former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich was sentenced to 14 years in prison on corruption charges that included attempting to sell the Senate seat vacated by the then President-elect Obama. On January 10, 2011, former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay was sentenced to a three-year jail term for money laundering. In the 1970s, Vice President Spiro Agnew was forced to resign for accepting bribes, as was his boss President Richard Nixon for his involvement in the Watergate break-in.
These instances illustrate that we don't own the exclusive rights for electing crooked politicians. The Americans are just as guilty. There is, however, one crucial difference. While the Americans are quick to discard disgraced politicians, we display an uncanny knack for perpetuating them. Agnew and Nixon were forced out of public life. It is unlikely that DeLay and Blagojevich will ever return. In India, however, several politicians, far too many to name here, have emerged from the sludge of criminal proceedings to take up positions of power. Suffice to say, 153 out of 543, or 28 per cent, of our MPs are currently in the dock for everything from murder to petty theft.
Would we entrust our children to a teacher charged with child molestation, or our money to a banker accused of embezzling funds, or our bodies to a doctor infamous for selling the organs of his patients? Certainly not. Yet, we have no qualms handing over our country to lawmakers whose chief stock-in-trade is breaking the law.
Changing the system
Such an anomaly is rooted in the fact that while we live in the 21st century our politics remains stubbornly feudal. For that the educated Indian has to bear the brunt of the blame. You can't expect an uneducated person struggling to provide for his or her family to be at the vanguard of change. It is for those of us who possess the intellectual learning, as well as, comparatively speaking, the economic prosperity to step up to the plate. We, however, have consistently chosen to go down the path of expediency. Take the way we have dealt with the hot political issue of the day — corruption. Historically, our response to corruption has been threefold, the groundswell of popular support for Anna Hazare's stir notwithstanding. Either we opt out of the corruption culture altogether by emigrating to the West. Or we end up participating in it by becoming card-carrying members of the corrupt conclave. Or we follow the lead of the Prime Minister and close our eyes and ears to it while chanting the mantra, ‘But I'm honest'. Such a combination of apathy and collusion have allowed a situation to develop where the corrupt flourish and the honest are hounded.
Such a lamentable mindset is not limited to corruption. It suffuses the way we approach every public issue. By consistently refusing to do anything about the status quo, we have allowed our politics to be hijacked by interested parties who have every reason to keep it mired in the dark ages. What is Indian politics? It is, in a nutshell, a cocktail of caste, religion and regionalism, sprinkled with a liberal dash of nepotism, that is repackaged for each succeeding generation. Since where you are born matters far more than what you do, it has, not surprisingly, spawned a political class suffused with the idea of entitlement. They feel they can get what they want because of who they are irrespective of what they do. No wonder the cocktail has such a rotten taste to it
It has been said that great art needs great audiences. By the same token, a great democracy needs a great electorate — an informed, hands-on electorate that demands the highest standards of integrity and competence from its leaders. We are not going to get the kind of country we want until we have leaders that we are proud of. For that to happen, however, we first need to send a powerful message about who we do not want by turning our backs on them. That will tell the political class, in no uncertain terms, that business as usual will no longer fly, as well as assure the best and brightest among us that a political career is not tantamount to diving into a gutter. While it will not clean up Indian politics, the mess is far too formidable for any one act to accomplish that, it could, at least, halt the decline on its tracks. That, in itself, would be a significant step.