Saturday, 2 May 2009

Challenging Political Cartels

Independents in the poll fray are increasingly facing criticism. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called them spoilers. Singh's harsh words can be forgiven - even dismissed - as arising from pique, since they cut into votes. All political parties feel that way about Independents.

But when a columnist like Shekhar Gupta starts questioning their relevance, as he has done in this article, then it is time to worry.

Gupta is pretty scornful of people like Meera Sanyal, the banker who contested from Mumbai South, and Capt Gopinath, the founder of Air Deccan who contested from Bangalore South, and even Mallika Sarabhai, the danseuse who contested against L K Advani from Ahmedabad. He says they `betray an ignorance of our democracy’ and `lack respect for the ordinary voter’. Party politics, for him, is the essence of parliamentary democracy and Independents are trying to invent a new kind of politics that is `undemocratic’.

Firstly, I fail to understand how contesting for an election is `a lack of respect for the ordinary voter’? It is, in fact, an acknowledgment of their power. Isn’t that better than politicians who have lost Lok Sabha elections or who know they can never win one entering Parliament through the Rajya Sabha?

But I have far more serious issues with Gupta’s arguments. I admit that there are practical and logistical problems with too many independents in the fray. They reduce the chances of one single party getting a majority, something that is necessary for administrative stability and coherence in policy. But to term the rise of independents as undemocratic is carrying things a bit too far.

Why are such people are coming into politics, and as Independents? Gupta himself points to the growing anti-politician mood in the country. It has been there for several years now, but became more strident after the 26/11 attacks. Such tirades have always been met by taunts – especially from politicians – that it is easy to sit on the sidelines and criticise; why don’t these critics engage with the system and try to bring about change? But when they do just that, they get flak for being spoilers and for being undemocratic! It’s clearly a damned-if-you-do-and-damned-if-you-don’t scenario.

Ok, so Gupta isn’t criticising their joining politics, but in their jumping in as Independents. He equates this to `challenging and wrecking’ the system from outside and then building a new one.

But why must people who want to join politics do so only a member of a political party? What if no party represents their ideology or world view? Should they stay out of politics, then? Will political parties give space to such people and listen to what they have to say?

In any case, what’s wrong with trying to build a new system? The point is that the existing system isn’t delivering on a lot of things. So clearly some change is needed. And that is unlikely to come from those within the current system – the political parties. Remember how Rajiv Gandhi tried to reform the Congress? And how miserably he failed? Change has to come from someone new. What is wrong if these new entrants appear `driven by a divine right to come and clean up our politics and governance’, as Gupta sneers? On a lighter note, there is a certain family which thinks it has a divine right to rule this country!

Let's look at Parliament as a political marketplace and apply the rules of the market to it. All markets function on the basis of competition and delivering value to the consumer. Different producers of a product package and price it differently to compete. But market distortions take place. Price cartels are formed and the producers gang up against the consumer, who then has no choice but to continue buying what is on offer.

What we are seeing in Parliament today is a market distortion, really. Existing parties have formed a cartel. Their products (their ideologies) may be different, but the kind of politics they indulge in is all the same. Just like commercial cartels gang up on pricing or other unfair trade practices, so do political parties display a rare unanimity on a range of issues that further their interests alone – hiking salaries of MPs, blocking moves to bar criminals from contesting elections, to name just two – even as they fight bitterly over measures that will further the welfare of the people.

In the market, cartels can be dealt with in two ways. One, government intervention or regulation, which doesn’t always work because crony capitalism tends to kick in. Two, new players in the market, who tap into the dissatisfaction of the consumers and offer them a better, or a more reasonably priced, product. This is a more effective way but will work only if there are no entry barriers.

Forcing people to join politics only as members of political parties is like putting entry barriers to challengers to the current brand of politics. It will mean allowing the existing cartels to continue unchallenged. That doesn’t seem very democratic to me.

I concede that a few Sanyals and Gopinaths may not be very successful. In fact they may be miserable failures. People don’t identify with them, don’t understand what they stand for. But that doesn’t matter. Initially all new players start small, face problems of acceptability and make losses. But they persevere and one day they challenge the incumbents and force them to change. The Indian marketplace is full of such examples. At least these Independents are giving some choice to people who don’t want to vote for the same tired lot of incumbent parties.

Gupta is apprehensive that even 10 per cent of independents could lead to sheer anarchy. I feel that is exaggerated, but even if one grants that, maybe we need some kind of churning in the near term from which a better system may evolve.

That said, this market parable should be understood by the Independents as well. If they seriously want to change the system, they should not disappear after losing one election. Instead, they should continue to engage in political activity in some form and contest elections. At least Sanyal and Gopinath, hailing as they do from the world of business, should know that success is always a long haul.

If they don’t hang on, put up with the grind, then they will prove Gupta right. And we will continue to suffer the current system.

1 comment:

Vivek said...

Shekhar Gupta clearly got it wrong...I read his piece on Saturday and spend a considerable amount of time reading it (given that being the editor of the newspaper, he fills up the whole page) and could not figure out what was the point he was trying to make....