Wednesday, March 21, 2012

When politics meets the future

Rajesh Sharma

Politics is a game of calculated risks. It is at its best when the risks involve putting everything at stake. This is possible only when the future is grasped in a flash, and the way opens for the paradoxical unity of calculation and risk to be realised.
            Something of the kind seems to have happened in the political theatre of Punjab. Thanks to this the year 2012 may go down in history as a watershed year when the complexion of politics in the state underwent an extremely significant change. If the change is consolidated – let's hope it will be – Punjab might lead the country to a new politics to which the future belongs.
            In a sense, Punjab has proclaimed the triumph of politics over economics. Whatever the sophisticated and well-meaning advocates of the preponderance of economics over politics might have argued over the last two decades, it remains true that democracy is endangered when the politics of all is subordinated to the economics of a few. Democracy is undermined when you denigrate the wisdom of the people to promote the so-called expertise of a handful of specialists and technocrats (whose arguments often end up cancelling each other out). In the prevailing situation in the country, it required courage to see beyond the seductive picture conjured by the potent neoliberal 'reformist' discourse. That seeing was made possible, I believe, by listening to the people's heartbeat. And trusting the sight and acting on its lessons involved the risk of inviting ridicule of the well-informed 'intelligentsia'. The Shiromani Akali Dal took that risk; perhaps they alone could have taken it.
            One important result is that the social agenda, underwritten by the Constitution but thrown into oblivion for long, is back in politics. The new government, for instance, reportedly proposes to make education up to post-graduation free for girls – a truly radical measure in a society in which most people are still reluctant to spend on their daughter's education. One only hopes that the free education will include professional degrees also, at least for the economically disadvantaged girls.
            Surely, the prospects of free or subsidised education have to be viewed against the actual state of public institutions of education in the state. These institutions will require special nurture, considering how important these are for an equitable distribution of opportunities and socially relevant education and research. The handful of colleges opened recently in educationally backward areas of Punjab have kindled new dreams in young eyes. Surely, these few colleges have proved to be beacons of hope and trust in a sea of apathy and despair. The rural Punjab has immense untapped intellectual wealth. We must not delay bringing it to light, for who will not be made richer by it?
            The previous government had prepared a draft bill for opening libraries in all villages and towns of Punjab. Among the first things one wishes this government would do is to enact that bill into an act and unleash an intellectual renaissance in Punjab. Let those who say no government in Punjab will promote a culture of reading be proved wrong. I am sure this government can prove them wrong.
            What would matter now is how strongly and to what extent the government can build upon the foundations that the SAD as the leading alliance partner has laid for the future of the state. The signs and hints so far are quite encouraging. The electoral victory has been received with grace and without loudness or vulgarity. One reason is that the victorious alliance as much as the losing parties acknowledge that it is a victory of democracy and its institutions. No one has any grudges against the Election Commission, and the latter has said good things about the political leadership. This is a very important sign of the future of democratic politics in Punjab, a sign that deserves to be read with joy and satisfaction.
            But then why are so many people shocked by the electoral results? Probably the sense of shock has to be understood in the light of the expectations people have become accustomed to. It is not that the expectations have been shattered but that the habits that governed those expectations have been dealt a blow. People are coming to terms to with the fact that electoral results cannot be taken for granted and, secondly, that elections are not like gambling. So there is a positive sense in which electoral management has to be understood, a sense in which it is intrinsic to the functioning of democracy. It points beyond fatalism and chance to active human agency as the lynchpin of democracy.
            What, however, most qualifies the emerging politics in Punjab as the politics of the future is the decisive break it has made with sectarianism of all kinds. Even the rivals of SAD would concede, I am sure, that the party's leadership took eminently salutary risks in consigning to the past a politics of identities and embracing a politics of solidarity and universal humanity. And the best thing is that the people responded with an equal measure of magnanimity. Hopefully, we are 'returning' to a future guided by the wisdom of sarbat da bhala.
            And it seems that those at the top in power fully appreciate that secularism and development mean much more in a democracy when the people are suitably empowered to seek justice. A lot requires to be done - and the return of the Punjab Governance Reforms Commission suggests that this is also the feeling in the corridors of power - but what has been done was itself unthinkable a year or so ago. Official accountability is extremely difficult to ensure for various reasons. The Right to Service will be enlarged, it should be hoped, and not only the listed public services but all official activity will be progressively made transparent and accountable. Indeed this is the shortest route for a government or a political party to take to reach the people’s hearts. In their routine interface with the government, people should experience convenience. And they should feel they are heard and respected. Only then they will feel this is their own government. It appears, fortunately, that the distance between the people and the government is set to reduce as governance is improved through further measures and democracy becomes actually more participatory.

Published in Daily Post on 21 March 2012

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