Sunday, December 4, 2011

We need more intellectuals, less politicians in Parliament…..

There have been many incidents recently when the intelligentsia in the country has stood against the mood of the common people. Since we are a democracy, the mood and opinion of the common person usually trounces the views of the intelligentsia. One of the great joys of living in a democracy is the freedom of thought and expression we enjoy. But one of the ills of democracy is that decision making is driven by the opinions of the majority – those who may not be well equipped in the art of running the government. If we could overcome this, we could enjoy all the joys of democracy and avoid all the downsides. One of the ways to do this is to have more intellectuals in Parliament…..and fewer politicians.

Let me list down a few instances where the intelligentsia has been at odds with the sentiments of the common people.

Let me start with the issue of allowing FDI in multi-brand retail. Now, almost every section of the intelligentsia has urged the government not to buckle down and roll back the decision. Today’s TOI mentions a paper that Deepak Parekh and Ashok Ganguli have prepared asking Corporate India to come out in support of the government on this subject. Most senior journalists, management consultants, economics experts and gurus at top-rung universities have come out in support of FDI in retail. Even the farmer’s body has come out in support of FDI. The opposition to FDI appears to be coming from orthodox ideologies and opportunistic politics. Mamata Banerjee believes that FDI is anti-farmer. How? If so, then why is Punjab in favor of allowing FDI in retail? Why is the farmer’s body then in support of FDI in retail? In reality, politicians are misreading the mood of the people….and the intelligentsia is being given the go by. The vote bank of the aam bania (as Swaminthan Aiyer has called the community) trounces the intelligentsia.

Take the issue of Anna’s anti-corruption movement and the proposed structure of the Lokpal. Now, everyone agrees that the scourge of corruption is huge; that politicians are not above-board in their intentions. The intelligentsia also wants a strong Lokpal. The intelligentsia also wants the Lokpal to be independent of the Executive. And yet, the intelligentsia is opposed to the sentiments of the common man or of Team Anna on specific points. Most amongst the intelligentsia want the Lokpal not to be made into a superpowerful omnibus body with powers over one and all. They insist on strong checks and balances on the Lokpal. They believe that the Lokpal as an institution could itself become corrupt if it was vested with too much power. The intelligentsia is opposed also to some specific points proposed by Team Anna – covering all levels of bureaucracy, including the judiciary, etc. And most are opposed to the fast-unto-death style of Anna. Most also feel that his team members deserve to either keep their mouths shut and temper their conduct, or get out. But the sentiment of the common man is totally pro-Anna; infirmities of the proposed JLP notwithstanding.

Take the issue of bail to the 2G accused. Most amongst the intelligentsia feel that bail is almost like a birthright. The rule of “innocent until proven guilty” must be strictly adhered to. That the accused can influence the witnesses or tamper with evidence cannot be reason to incarcerate the accused forever. Yes, a certain period of stay in the jail may be required, but after the chargesheet has been filed (and that shouldn’t take so much time), there is no reason to deny bail to the accused. Most common people however have already pre-decided that the accused are guilty. When they see a Kani, they see a guilty politician. It’s ok for common folks to feel what they feel, but the country cannot be run in this manner. At a recent FICCI convention in Chennai, Justice JS Verma – ex-CJI of India – said that he was very disturbed to see how the people in the country started calling Thomas (controversial ex CVC) Tainted Thomas. Such tags do gross injustice to the concerned person.

Take the matter of letting Parliament function. Almost all amongst the intelligentsia have been complaining about Parliament not being allowed to function. Arnab Goswami had said this two days before Parliament’s winter session began – that he had heard that the BJP and the opposition was not going to allow Parliament to function. He was dead right. On one issue after another, the opposition (with help from some in the ruling party as well) have stalled Parliament. First, it was the entirely silly issue of boycotting Chidambaram (without letting the 2G trial court decide whether he should be investigated or not). Then it was insisting on voting on adjournment motions (the interest was more to embarrass the government, rather than have a discussion). And finally of course the FDI in retail issue. For one reason or the other it was clear that the opposition wouldn’t allow Parliament to function. Now many amongst the common people may feel that this is fair politics, but none in the intelligentsia feels that way.

Take the bashing up of Prashant Bhushan or Sharad Pawar. None in the intelligentsia supports such things. But amongst the common people, there is widespread support for the hit on Prashant Bhushan (for his Kashmir remarks) and on Sharad Pawar (since he is a politician and assumed to be corrupt).

In a democracy, we elect our leaders to Parliament. Each person above 18 has the right to vote – irrespective of whether he/she is literate or illiterate. Since we the people elect the politicians, it is but natural that they the politicans represent the “average” level of thinking in society – its average level of intellect, orthodoxy and economic thinking. Now this is dangerous. If the quality of our politicians is the average of that of our society – rather than being miles ahead – then we are doomed. A leader must be intellectually far superior to the mass he/she leads. This is what happens in the corporate sector. The leader is the unquestioned thought leader of the team. Many times, younger people are preferred over older people since thought leadership (and not age) is of paramount importance. In the army, it is not the average subedar who is the Chief of staff, but the savviest General. In the cricket team, its not the average guy on the street who is the captain, but the most competent player. It should be the same with the government as well. In a country full of people who have been deprived of education, of social progress and of equality for so long, we cannot let the average become the bar for our leaders. But how do we make sure the most intelligent, the most visionary becomes our leader?

The bureaucracy is supposed to be the institution that provides the intellectual horse power to the government. At one time, the IAS had some of the most brilliant people working in it. Today, the best prefer to go to the corporate sector. After all, who wants to spend his entire life earning less than what a person with 5 years experience can earn in the corporate sector? Who wants to operate under the constant glare of those who believe that every bureaucrat is corrupt? Further, by making bureaucrats subservient to politicians, we have made them totally impotent. The only success stories of visionary bureaucrats making bold moves come when they have been taken out from under the politicians and given independent roles. A Seshan revolutionized the CEC for instance. But how many Seshans have we had in the last 60 years? Surely, we need more of them?

For this, we need a change in the way we fill up Parliament. Since we follow universal adult franchise, there is no way to have differential voting rights (for instance, graduates could have higher weightage than the illiterates). An alternate that we could consider is to have a higher number of nominated members in Parliament. Those nominated should be apolitical and should have very specific qualifications to be nominated. For instance, we could have more doctorates in economics, more academicians, more management consultants, some grass-roots level achievers (like Anna), several corporate head honchos (like Nandan Nilekani), some NGO heads etc Today, there are only 12 nominated members in Rajya Sabha; none in the Lok Sabha. They could be chosen by an independent Constitutional body. Maybe we should mandate that at least 25% of the membership should be filled up by such nominated experts. They should not be counted when choosing the party that will run the government. That should still be based on the number of elected MPs. The will of the people should still be the determinant of that. But the nominated members should be allowed to be part of the government and vote on all bills that come up in Parliament. Given their numerical strength, these members would ensure that important policy decisions are taken logically, not politically. Yes, it would weaken our politicians a bit; but maybe that’s not such a bad idea….

An alternate could be to reserve a certain % of cabinet berths for nominated people – again intellectuals with impeccable credentials. This would give us the requisite horsepower. This is what happens in the US when the President chooses his team. It’s good to have people like Nandan Nilekani run the UID program – we need more like him in government.

We have seen what politicians – if unchecked – can do in a democracy. Much of Western Europe is in trouble because of the short-sighted policies adopted by its politicians. Their inability to take tough decisions in time. Now, more and more countries are relying on experts to help sort out the problem. In Italy, a “technocrat” government has now been installed. We should learn from the mess in Europe. We need to reduce the role of politics in our policy making. We need more intellectuals to run our government. But we simply have to change the present system – where unqualified politicians often decide on major policies.

The real truth is that we need to overhaul our political system. Either we have more nominated intellectuals in Parliament or we have seats reserved for them in the cabinet. We need to do something to raise the quality of policy making in the country. Hopefully this will also reduce corruption (one cannot imagine Nandan Nilekani being corrupt). Hopefully this will also bring efficiency into government……I welcome more ideas on this subject….

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