Saturday, May 08, 2010

India, Britain united in self-destruction (May 9, 2010)

By Swapan Dasgupta

Those who followed the enthralling uncertainties of last week’s British politics may have been struck by the lengths to which Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his colleagues were willing to go to stay on in power. Having been rejected quite conclusively by an otherwise dithering electorate, Brown and New Labour have abruptly transformed themselves into passionate champions of proportional representation -- an issue as dear to the Liberal Democratic Party as the abolition of Article 370 is to the BJP in India.

The reasons for this endorsement of a so-called fair system that guarantees a permanent state of coalition politics are, of course, apparent. But what is not apparent is the rationale behind Labour agreeing to fundamental changes in political practice without any reference to the electorate. It may be argued that since proportional representation was a part of the Lib-Dem testament of faith, some 22.9 per cent of the voters who voted for the party can be said to have endorsed it. Adding the votes of Greens and some smaller parties who wouldn’t mind proportional representation, we can say that one-fourth of British voters believe that the most important issue facing Britain is the voting system.

A quarter of the electorate is not an insignificant number. But it is not as awesome as 75 per cent of the voters -- roughly the numbers who are either happy with the first-past-the-post system or believe that British politicians should be devoting their time and energy into forming a Government that can attend to a crippling economic crisis.

The logic of coalition politics deems that the priorities of three-fourths of voters can be subsumed by the desires of one-fourth. This is what may happen in Britain if Lib-Dem MPs feel that the Conservative Party doesn’t feel the necessity of unilaterally conceding proportional representation to secure the support of 57 Lib-Dem MPs for a David Cameron administration. A fringe agenda may become law just because the existing Prime Minister of Britain doesn’t believe that voters have rejected him and his party.

Fortunately, there are other checks and balances in British politics and a time-tested electoral system aimed at providing stable Government may not be a complete pushover. Legislation tends to be debated thoroughly in the British Parliament and a private deal cut by Brown may not withstand sustained opposition.

Yet, the arrogance with which Brown could brush aside the verdict of the voters to accommodate a small party is noteworthy. It symbolises the sly subversion of democracy by those who claim to be morally virtuous.
Brown is hell bent on clinging to power. He is despicable but even more contemptuous would be the Lib-Dems if they chose to subvert majority opinion and make proportional representation the instrument of political blackmail.

Wholesome politics doesn’t depend on transparency alone. Of equal concern are the processes of decision-making and consultations. Britain would be unwise to change its system of voting and representation because one election in 10 failed to yield a clear majority and because Labour needed the support of some extra MPs to transform a minority into a majority. Changes that affect the fundamentals of politics or, for that matter, anything else, warrant patient deliberation. They cannot be undertaken casually.

This is a lesson that should have been imparted to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and those responsible for the horrific decision to include caste enumeration in the Census.

That a fundamental reversal of a 60-year-old policy should have been taken without any consultation with civil society and any meaningful debate is itself scandalous. What compounds the offence is that a decision of this magnitude should have been taken for the flimsiest of reasons. In 1990, VP Singh decided to accept the Mandal Commission report because he wanted to puncture a public rally that his troublesome Deputy Prime Minister Devi Lal was planning. Last week, the Congress president grandly signalled her acceptance of caste enumeration in the Census because that would iron out the rough edges of the party’s troubled relations with caste-based parties, both inside the UPA coalition and in the larger ‘secular’ world.

A decision that will change the basic structure of Indian politics, the Hindu faith and even have a bearing on the economy was taken remarkably casually. The final decision was left solely to an individual who was perhaps unaware of the earlier turbulence in India when caste was superimposed into the Census. Civil society was neither consulted, nor did either the Government or the Opposition suggest that such a decision shouldn’t be taken in a hurry and for petty, collateral considerations. The political class acquiesced in a step that will legitimise caste as a unit of political and economic decision-making, without even knowing what they have enthusiastically endorsed. A most debilitating social regression was put into effect because India’s leaders were too intellectually lazy to comprehend the consequences of what they had done.

The re-definition of Hindu society along officially-recognised caste lines will alter the landscape of India. The use of caste numbers to drive a hard political bargain was earlier based on bluff, now it will be based on tangible numbers -- an escalation in the stakes. For 60 years and more, a galaxy of Indian modernists tried to either rise above caste or keep this social institution confined to the rituals of marriage and mourning. Now, at a stroke, Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi have put caste into the centre-stage. From now on, Indians will once again be defined by their caste and politics will follow the mobilisation of caste.

Just when India seemed poised for bigger things, a hidden hand emerged from nowhere to drag the country down again. The country will pay a huge price for the Congress’ coalition management skills. It may be so high that there won’t be much of an India left.

Sunday Pioneer, May 9, 2010

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