Tuesday, 24 January 2006

Morality of middle class politics

Monday, January 23, 2006 22:50 IST
Remember the public outrage over the 'questions-for-money' and the MPLADS (Member of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme) bribery scams? Newspaper columns were full of indignant letters from middle class readers about the quality of public life. The expulsion of the tainted members of Parliament got overwhelming public support.

Contrast that with the public reaction to politicians' involvement in the demolition of unauthorised constructions in Delhi and Ulhasnagar. Politicians in both cities have been flexing every possible muscle to stop the demolitions. In Maharashtra, they even succeeded in getting the government to issue an ordinance that would, in effect, regularise the illegal buildings. In Delhi, too, there is talk about changing the master plan to do something similar. In both places, it has been conclusively proved that the politicians are opposing demolitions not out of concern for the ordinary people affected by the action but because many of the unauthorised buildings belonged to them.

And yet, people are getting worked up, not over the politicians involved in unauthorised constructions, but by those carrying out and authorising the demolitions. The same people who couldn't stop singing Delhi chief minister Shiela Dikshit's praises were on the streets demonstrating against her. Those who were not affected by the demolitions have chosen to keep quiet.

This dichotomy in reactions isn't surprising and is easily explained. The middle classes are more indulgent of unauthorised constructions because they are as much to blame for the urban mess as politicians. That's not quite the case with bribes. Ordinary people also give and take bribes but they are never of the magnitude that politicians receive. Moreover, the bribes the common person pays are usually to get absolutely mundane and even legal things done-an electricity connection, a completion certificate for a house which conforms to all the building bye-laws, a driving licence, a death certificate. It's not about diverting public funds for personal use. Therefore, it is easier to distance oneself from the bribery scams of politicians. The unauthorised constructions-or other violations of civic laws-are, however, another matter. That is something the middle class is doing all the time. Even when they don't need to.

Dikshit isn't alone in her experience of losing public support over this issue. In the previous government, urban development minister Jagmohan, was idolised when he set about demolishing slum clusters in Delhi. The minute the bulldozers reached the middle class localities, he was demonised. He also lost the Lok Sabha election. It's quite likely Dikshit will face the same fate during the next assembly elections.

Now you know why there is a dearth of good people in politics. They will just not get elected.

We are all actually quite happy with the existing system and have managed in little ways to tweak it to suit our ends-whether it is unauthorised constructions, illegal pumping of ground water, getting false certificates or some other misdemeanour. Voting an upright person into politics will mean putting this comfortable little world that we have built for ourselves at risk.

That's why the incensed reactions to politicians figuring in scams will never go beyond breast-beating, whether it is by the babus commuting in chartered buses/local trains or the elite chatting over cocktails and dinner. Forget the days when the Rajiv Gandhi government fell in 1989 on corruption charges. When it comes to the crunch, a corrupt politician has better chances of winning than a Shiela Dikshit or a Jagmohan. Because the corrupt politician will turn a blind eye-maybe even facilitate-your transgression. These two and others of their ilk won't.

It is possible to argue that ordinary people are often forced into misdemeanour by outdated and senseless laws and regulations. And it is those laws and regulations that lead to the kind of politics the country has. Sure, but encroaching upon pavements to build one's own little private garden or adding floors to a building, with scant regard for safety norms, can't be something you can't live without.

This lack of a civic sense reflects in the way people behave politically. If we see nothing wrong in fiddling with the electricity meter to draw more power than we are entitled to, we won't find anything wrong in what politicians are doing all the time-hijacking public resources/facilities for private use.

Till such time as this attitude changes, the prospects of cleaner politics is bleak. To change the quality of public life, let's start by voting in people who will not help us dodge the existing system but instead, work at framing a new system that we won't need to bribe our way through or circumvent.

1 comment:

In The Shadows said...

Committed liberal, eh. Please spare your bleeding heart for a moment for the unfortunate people losing their homes in Ulhasnagar, from your hectic schedule of campaigning for anti-slum demolitions drive and narmada issue.

Would your liberal mind just think about this - Slums, public land, illegal, no taxes, electricity stolen, many built later.

Ulhasnagar, public land, illegal, pay taxes, pay for electricity, built much earlier

Now, if slums can be allowed to stay, why not a city with its own municipal corporation.

Ahhh i suppose, liberalism does not apply to middle class, it applies only to the poor. Right?