Friday, December 19, 2008

VP Singh, the missing obituary, and how to judge politicians

Ashok Mitra says that VP Singh, in passing away on November 27 might have chosen 'the worst possible day ... to take his bow, with the nation in the grip of the trauma of global terror. On the other hand, he would conceivably have liked nothing better. He was a man of principle, he was also a man of great civilization, with intense distaste for flamboyance.' Most of us will remember VP Singh for Mandal. Mitra shows how there was much more to the Prime Minister we forgot even when he was alive. In another moving obituary, Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey describe his unwavering support to the right to information and right to work movements, even when his health was precarious.

What I found most attractive in these obituaries is that they show a man, although fallible, had unquestionable integrity. How many of our politicians can make that claim? He might have had a relatively short stint in the PMO, but the man appears to have more in common with Nehru than Devegowda.

An aside on politicians. India, like most of the world, loves to hate her politicians. But the last few days have seen the hatred expressed as never before. Harish Khare warns against this trend: 'Above all, we shall have to re-examine our political habits that endlessly and mindlessly encourage a disrespect for public authority. Democracy is a partnership between those have to operate the levers of the state and the citizens. We need to make a distinction between (legitimate) dissent and (undesirable) disregard of the citizen’s obligations. The state does have a duty to ensure the citizen’s safety against vendors of violence, but this charter cannot be discharged without an active involvement of responsive citizens in restoring the legitimacy and popular acceptance of our public institutions. Only then can we expect the citizens and voters to punish those who produce bad politics and reward those who strive for good governance.'

I couldn't agree more. Parroting 'middle class' clichés and painting them all with the same brush is easy but unproductive. Namita's fantastic report on the PRS conference discusses the role of the media - 'the media also tends to focus only on the nonsense and shouting matches that go on in Parliament in order to sensationalise news instead of covering parliamentary debates in the manner that they should be covered.' I watched the live debate on the terror bills for a while. Kapil Sibal's defence of the reasons for not making confessions to a police officer admissible was remarkable in its eloquence, research and wisdom. I did not come across a single news report or editorial dealing with the substantive content of his speech. We hear anecdotally that our parliamentarians do good work in the standing committees - but these being opaque, one can never know for sure.

As with everyone else, we must be slow to judge our politicians, and approach our evaluation with scepticism appropriate for all power, but not with cynicism. And let us judge them individually, not as a class. Let us start with the presumption of innocence. And let us demand morality, and judge them on high moral standards. Only after we have adhered to these requirements of due process, can we rightly pass harsh judgments. On the other hand, if we expect too little, we get too little.
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