Wednesday, January 28, 2009


I read two excellent articles on politics and our role in them written by Siddharth D. Sanghvi and Swati Ramanathan.
Siddharth wrote “In India, politicians have come down with politics as if it's a sexually transmitted disease; an affliction, a bane. Under the guise of governance, genocide, rape, torture have become institutionalised in India, all instruments in our War against Terror.
Image associations with politicians scare me. Say Narendra Modi and Jagdish Tytler and I see flames. Say Raj Thackeray and I see broken glasses. Say Lalu Prasad and I see cowsheds of cash.
While all countries have corruption in their system, only India has a system within the corruption; our system is officially a sleaze ecology. For when our politicians are not whorishly auctioning their votes on nuke deals, they're brokering development contracts with builders' lobbies.”
Aristotle was right when he wrote that "to live an ethical life it is impossible to not engage in politics".
But as Swati says “ mere 9 per cent of the urban youth vote. This political abstinence by our youth, in a country with 47 per cent of our population under the age of 20, does not bode well for the future health of our young democracy. We are in danger of creating a permanent and large constituency of non-voters.
Engaging in the politics of our city, state and country, is engaging in nation building. Yet most Indians, young and old, prefer to stay away from politics, viewing it as a vehicle of corrupt power and crime. Engaging with government is anathema to most Indians.
Faced with a choice, we prefer to go over, under and around government, anything rather than engage with it. While we do volunteer for causes, the average Indian feels that he or she has little political or social impact beyond the occasional power trip to the ballot box."

British sociologist Herbert Spencer who coined the concept of social Darwinism argued that the same forces of natural selection guiding evolution should apply to human society too.I read a column by Indrajit Hazra where he wrote “You, model citizen with the well meaning furrowed brows, may well ask why there is no similar natural selection for our political leaders. Why aren’t the incapable, power’n’pelfwallahs simply kept out of the system? Isn’t evolution all about filtering out the bad and keeping the good, until we get the super-duper, long grained variety of political leadership.No, evolution- or in Darwin’s words, ‘descent with modification’- isn’t about constant betterment. There’s nothing qualitative about who stays on and who goes. One survives by doing whatever it takes to survive- and that’s determined by whatever we allow as survival tactics.So will being a performing politician become a necessary requisite for politicians? Well that’s purely up to us who’ll be doing the ‘selecting’ in the April elections. Ultimately, we’ll get the political leadership we’ll be allowing to survive down the years.”
Going back to what Swati wrote, “Looking towards the US again, volunteering is considered a bedrock of community building, inculcated through schools and colleges. In his campaign speech, Barack Obama promises a $4,000 tuition credit for students who commit time to community service.
More than 60 million average Americans commit volunteer time. Youth volunteering in the US is estimated to be 36 per cent between the ages of 15 and 25 and more than half of those volunteering firmly believe that they can make some difference to the community they live in.
The youth that volunteer in political organisations—13 per cent-believe they can make a difference on various social or political issues. Studies in the US indicate that youth are twice as likely to volunteer, engage in politics or vote, when they grow up in a household where someone volunteers.
The good news is that volunteerism as a concept is not new in our society and is deeply embedded in social structures, building a stronger sense of community and trust. We continue our social networks and support structures in our cities, but these networks are not concerned with politics.
The reality is that we cannot do away with politics if we are to solve our overwhelming social issues-poverty and crime, for example.
In India, we have long been used to a relationship of patronage, ruled by feudal lords, maharajas, and the Raj. We have yet to embrace the power of the citizen in a democracy. We are a billion voices with the power of a billion votes at our command.
Our right to vote is the privilege of our democracy and a civic duty. Yet, we have reduced our role to that of a complainant and critic of our governments. Most of us do not invest in our political identity or political beliefs.
In striking contrast to what we are currently witnessing in the US, average citizens and students in India do not campaign for political candidates, or attend public meetings, or concern ourselves with public policies. We see our role of "citizen" through a limited lens-paying taxes and obeying laws. Our political identity of "voter" is supremely undervalued.
We are comfortable forming networks to engage in music, religion, business, rotary, social service, but are uncomfortable about engaging in politics. We shun politics with an unusual righteousness and starve our youth of civic role models.
The protestation that corrupt candidates turn us off voting has become something of a convenient copout. Perhaps, we do not have good enough candidates because there are not enough good voters who care enough to cast their votes.
Clearly, our change is not going to be led by individual messiahs. But do we believe that one billion voices are powerless? Let's not get trapped into a nirvana fallacy, waiting for perfect conditions before we are willing to play our rightful role in India's political journey.
Our youthful demographic dividend has been hailed as an economic positive. Let's also consider it a democratic positive.
Turning 18 can become a milestone not just because it allows you a driver's licence, but also because it allows you the licence to vote. Will the youth lead our one billion voices out of political indifference?
We live in a country that demands so little from our citizens. Over 20 countries, including Australia, have introduced compulsory voting for its citizens. Singapore enrols all male citizens upon reaching 18 years, to a mandatory two years in national service under the Singapore Armed Forces.
Jury duty is mandatory in the US and can be deferred only twice. During times of war, all able young men have to register for the draft. We demand absolutely nothing of our citizens, of our youth, for the privilege of citizenship.
The spirit of service is what drives tall leaders around the world to do great things and average citizens to commit to causes of common good. It inspires individuals to look beyond themselves and empower others.
But in order to empower others we must be empowered ourselves. Let's begin with the simple act of voting.”