Sunday, 17 May 2009

A week in politics is a long time - Politics in Britain and India

I’ve followed the 2009 general elections in India with interest, fascination, and since I am an Indian, with pride. Here was the world’s most populous democracy coming together to elect the 14th Lok Sabha, to choose how and by whom it will be governed for the next 5 years. Never mind all the hyperbolic statistics so beloved of western journalists, the results were what would matter for all of us.

At the same time I watched with increasing dismay and not a little sadness the goings on in the Palace of Westminster. MPs twisted and bent the rules on expenses for personal profit. Not just a few bad eggs, but almost everyone was in on the game. There were guidelines, yes but hey, what the hell, rules may be enforced but guidelines are there only for those who chose to follow it. Just don’t get caught.

Now that it’s all out in the open, everyone has a view of how to reform the system. No doubt some new system will emerge and surely if slowly politics can return to some semblance of business as usual.

The contrast between the two apparently unrelated events could not be starker. On the one hand a raucous, noisy election in India hailed as a great success, and on the other a mature democracy (the mother of Parliaments and all that) suffering from an acute loss of confidence in the very fabric of the parliamentary system of elected government.

In reality, the truth for both countries is somewhere in between those two extremes. The Indian election may have filled me with pride but maybe that’s just because of the view of it that I got from NDTV. Our politicians are no less venal than they ever were, some are even convicted criminals, there’s very little in the way of ideology that separates the main parties, there are scores of regional parties that serve the interests only of the local thug, and caste and religion appear to pervade the whole process. We feared major violence and the best result we dared hope for was a hung parliament leading to an unstable short-lived Government.

It turned out differently and how! The Election Commission pulled off a Herculean feat of organisation and logistics to deliver a free and fair vote; the security services ensured a largely safe election – albeit there were 60 deaths due mainly to Maoist violence. But the real prize goes to the people for returning a clear verdict in favour of continuity, and against a creed of religious intolerance and persecution of minorities. In their favour the politicians too acted honourably – the losers were quick to concede defeat and accepted the verdict with good grace; and the winners acknowledged their victory without humility and without hubris.

So where does this leave us in India? Well, after all the euphoria dies down, it will come as a sobering shock that none of the massive problems facing us has gone away. The poverty, the economic policy dilemmas, the mess of our education system, the degrading lack of basic amenities, the denial of fundamental economic and social freedoms - all remain to be tackled.

Contrast that with what happened in the last couple of weeks in Britain. MPs’ claims for expenses were published and we learned that they were claiming for a whole lot more than just legitimate expenses. It was sad to see a senior figure like Menzies Campbell being boo-ed and heckled on Question Time. Most British politicians are decent hardworking people – okay they sometimes throw away their convictions and act on the basis of whatever they think will make them popular but that’s practical democracy for you. Their crime in claiming expenses for things that were not ‘wholly, necessarily and exclusively’ in the pursuit of their parliamentary role, was small indeed compared to the things politicians in other countries get up to. And yet there is a mood of anger, of disgust and revulsion at what our MPs have been up to that is out of all proportion to the consequences of their actions.

Why is there so much public anger in Britain at such a seemingly inconsequential violation of the expenses rulebook?

Perhaps it is all down to our expectations. In Britain we expect better from our MPs. We expect basic honesty. We expect them to be morally upright. We expect them to level with us.

In India we expect little from our political institutions and even less from our politicians. And so when we get a decent election and politicians behave half intelligently, I am elated, hopeful of brighter days ahead for India, proud that India is coming of age.

In Britain we expect a lot from our politicians. So when they fiddle the system and when we learn how the system allowed it for so long, I feel let down, fearful of difficult times ahead for Britain with the threat of extremist parties finding favour with a disillusioned electorate, dismayed that Britain is sliding backward.

Perhaps there is a lesson here for India’s democracy. The 543 new MPs in the new Lok Sabha in New Delhi had better take note.