Politics without policy

The acrimony between the government and the opposition has worsened to such an extent that it has subverted attempts to reach workable solutions to practical problems

The French sociologist and columnist Raymond Aron had pointed out that in English, there are two different terms, “politics” and “policy” whereas in his own language there is only one single term, “La politique,” to cover both. It is the same in German as in French, for the same German word, “politik,” covers both policy and politics. We should make use of the resources of the English language to reflect on a distinction that has acquired crucial importance in the present phase of our democratic system.

The central concern of politics, as I understand it, is the pursuit of power. In a democracy the contest for power is never free from uncertainty and anxiety, and Indian politics is now marked by increasing turmoil. Those who make politics their career become accustomed to its turbulence and some even take a peculiar pleasure in it.

Policy, on the other hand, is a matter of setting clear goals and working methodically towards their attainment. It is, in Max Weber’s famous phrase, “a slow boring of hard boards.” Policymaking requires a calm and settled environment, and a clear and even temper in the policymaker. Politicians are expected to play to the galleries and to gather public applause for their eloquence. Policy cannot be made under continuous public gaze, although it can hardly be effective without passing the test of political approval.

Although politics and policy follow distinct compulsions and have different orientations, they need not act against each other. In the last 10 to 15 years politics has taken such a turn in India that it not only unsettles the environment required for making viable policies but openly subverts attempts to reach workable solutions to difficult practical problems.

Kind of duumvirate

The relations between government and opposition have become increasingly acrimonious over the years. Even where there is broad agreement over, let us say, foreign policy or economic policy, each side maintains an adversarial relationship with the other, fearing that there will be a loss of face if not a loss of support from its constituents if it appears conciliatory. The habitually confrontationist conduct of both government and opposition is complicated by the fact that neither the one nor the other speaks in a single voice. This may be a good thing where it serves to defuse tension but it is not conducive to deliberations on policy.

The present system in India has settled into operating as a kind of duumvirate with its own distinctive features. It has done so without starting with any clear plan to be what it has become. A division of responsibility and power has emerged between the Prime Minister and the head of the ruling party who is also the head of the ruling coalition. It corresponds neither to the Westminster model nor to the Leninist model favoured by Communist parties throughout the world. In the former the prime minister enjoys clear pre-eminence while in the latter power rests with the head of the party. Should we be disheartened that Indian democracy is following a path of its own?

The general belief among both allies and opponents is that the relationship between the Prime Minister and the head of the Congress party is an unequal relationship in which the former has to act at the behest of the latter, which would make it closer to the Leninist than the Westminster model. This, I think, is a mistaken belief. Whatever may have been the equation between Ms Sonia Gandhi and Dr. Manmohan Singh in 2004, that equation has changed with the passage of time. It is true that Dr. Singh cannot do without Ms Gandhi, but it is equally true that Ms Gandhi cannot do without Dr. Singh. This truth becomes more and more evident as we recognise that both the Prime Minister and the head of the Congress party have to contend with alliance partners whose sudden demands can unsettle the most reasonable agreements on policy.

Distinctive party system

The political party has emerged as an important institution in modern democratic nations. India has developed its own distinctive party system. It is neither a two-party system nor a multi-party system with three, four or even half-a-dozen parties of the kind commonly found in continental Europe. It is a system with a multiplicity of parties. This multiplicity is a reflection of the size and diversity of our social and political order. Attention to the demands of coalition partners requires accommodation of the claims of patronage as well as of personal vanity. Any action that may be construed as an affront or a slight by the leader of even a minor ally can cause a major political upheaval. The demands of this kind of political management deflect attention away from the long-term requirements of policy. In the 21st century devising effective policy calls for technical skills for which sound political instincts cannot be a substitute.

The government that Dr. Singh heads would not work if the Congress party and the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) did not hold together. For all his intelligence, hard work and probity, it is doubtful that he would be able to hold the alliance and even his own party together all by himself.

To say that the relationship between the head of the government and the head of the UPA has acquired a kind of stability is not to maintain that it can be made permanent or given an institutional form. Indian democracy has moved a long way since the country became independent and adopted a republican constitution more than 60 years ago. It has created new political arrangements as it has faced new political challenges. It has shown considerable resilience and in some ways strengthened itself even while setting aside old arrangements and established ways of thought and action.

Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of independent India took charge of both politics and policy. His pre-eminence within the Congress party, particularly after the passing of Sardar Patel and the withdrawal of Rajaji, was widely, if not universally acknowledged. But his mastery of policy was also widely acknowledged, at least within his own party. It would be unrealistic to expect the present head of the Congress party to have the kind of grasp of policy matters that Nehru had or Dr. Singh has. It would be equally unrealistic to expect the present Prime Minister to deal with party matters with Nehru’s self-assurance.

We cannot go back to Nehru’s age, or to the dawn of independence which began with great, some would now say unrealistic expectations from our leaders of government and politics. Nor should we be beguiled by the hope that a new leader will soon emerge, a true statesman who will combine in himself all the virtues that we expected in our political leaders at the time when the new republic came into being. We have to make the best of what we have achieved and what we have which is not inconsiderable. Indian democracy may be disorderly but it is also vibrant and, like any living system it undergoes continuous change. It is easy to lose heart in the face of so much disorder, but democracy advances by facing disorder, not turning its back on it.

(André Béteille is Professor Emeritus of Sociology, Delhi University, and National Research Professor.)

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Printable version | May 20, 2020 12:12:43 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/politics-without-policy/article3577559.ece

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