Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Political parties - policies and programs?

My first attempt to publish a piece (25th July 2007) is unceremoniously rejected by The Hindu in double quick time - I get a rejection mail within an hour of sending the writeup. Not sure why they did not like it - it was meant for the Sunday 'opinions' page. Anyway, here it is:

What Quality Indian Democracy?
Every school child is taught to take pride in India being ‘the world’s largest democracy’. What is commonly understood of our democracy is that it is a representational democracy, that is, citizens elect representatives who have the responsibility to act in the people’s interest. Representatives typically belong to Political Parties. Political Parties provide a basis for the electorate to exercise their choice by presenting a set of policies and programs that they commit to. The ‘choice’ offered to the citizen therefore is not only the personal characteristics of the candidate (his personality, caste, religion, connections, record of social service, etc) but most importantly the policies and programs that his party commits to. At least, that is how it is supposed to work.While the major political parties in India may commit to populist programs and sometimes even implement them when in power, it is at the level of policy debate that one sees a real vacuum. Our political parties shy away from discussion and debate on issues of public policy that have far reaching consequences for the country - either because they do not have a defined view, do not care to make public their views or are simply not bothered by these issues as they do not have a direct bearing on their ability to come to or stay in power. Instead, they do their best to fill the public mind space with sterile discussion. Witness the level of political discussion over the last month on candidates for the post of president and vice president, the energies spent by the nations leading politicians and the parties they represent crying hoarse in favour of or against some candidate. Now that the dust of the ‘battle’ has subsided, can someone explain how the choice of the president will make a difference to the woman or man on the street?What are some of the burning policy issues of the day on which there should be more discussion? If we open our morning paper or weekly magazine we can’t miss the issues starting at your face. Indian agriculture is in a deep crisis. Everyone knows about the farmers suicides, but what policies (of the past) have brought on this situation and what policies need to be set in place to prevent these in future? We would like to hear the Congress, the BJP and others spell out their positions on this. And the farmers suicides is just a portent of much worse things to come. Food grain production has reached a plateau over the last few years. How is India to be fed in 2020 when an estimated 400 million tons of food grains will be required which represents a 100% increase over current production levels? Again what policies do we need to ensure food security in the future? Yes, food security is not just an issue of the past as some would like to have it. And yes, we would like to hear our national political parties debate and come up with their positions.Leaving agriculture for the moment, let us look at one major problem common to all urban areas in India, even the most richly endowed metropolises – water supply and sanitation. How are the water needs of our cities to be met? We are just beginning to understand how precious water resources are. What do we need to do to safeguard our water resources? Can we continue to use water the same way in future as we have done in the past? Can our political parties state their positions and engage in a debate so that the Indian people become aware of the options?Today, public policy that needs to be widely debated is being left to the wisdom and judgement of a few bureaucrats to formulate. But for some committed members of civil society and the press who take the initiative to question and cross swords with the bureaucracy, there would be no ‘second opinion’. Much as we expect the quality of goods and services to improve, can we not expect a higher quality of informed opinion and debate from Indian political parties on issues that matter for India?

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