An opportunity for leadership

Watching the Shiv Sena’s latest threats to non-Maharashtrians in Bombay, I’m sure a lot of people in various other metropolitan cities are thinking – could it happen here? Could the xenophobia that has characterised the politics of some groups in some parts of the country take hold everywhere? And how about Bangalore itself?

This question is interesting for two reasons. One is the usual politics of ‘us’ and ‘them’ around which endless commentary has been written.

On the other side of this fence too, the noises are understandable. Rahul Gandhi has been ticking off the Shiv Sena quite publicly on its stance, but this is not such a big deal. In fact, the statesmanlike stance in this case – all of India is for all Indians – is too easy to pass up. The Shiv Sena has handed anyone who wants to look more responsible, including its long time ally the BJP, a simple way to look good in comparison to the Sena’s own hardline view, and naturally the other parties are taking advantage of it.

Immigration across state borders has been a hot-button issue in many places, and a little bit of posturing by opposing sides is par for the course. The more important question, to my mind, is this: Why aren’t starkly different opinions voiced by opposing political parties on several other issues? Why aren’t we having more of the ‘taking sides’ on more issues? After all, aren’t there votes to be won or lost on many more things that might attract or repel voters?

By and large, Indian politics is not about opposing views. Instead it is only about opposing politicians – their personalities, their coteries, their styles of governance, their appearance, age, and pretty much everything except their views on the vital issues of the day. Most voters would be hard pressed to say what legislation or executive action one party might take that another would be opposed to ideologically. (I’m not counting the Ramjanmabhoomi kind of thing on which there is a lot of noise but the NDA was careful not to take any action.)

This is surprising, because there are many issues one can think of on which a party might choose to take the high ground. The Lok Pal bill, the 74th amendment’s reforms, the women’s reservation bill, cleaning up voter rolls, non-partisan commissions for delimitation and many more – all offer clear opportunities for some party to stake out a progressive – or at least a gracious position, and try to rally voters on that basis. I think a fair chunk of voters might also respond well to such moves, which makes it all the more surprising that the major parties don’t seem to distinguish themselves from each other on such issues.

This brings me to the best example of this entire nearer home – the Akrama Sakrama bill. The uniform calculation by all parties seems to be that there are votes to be gained by giving a free pass to hundreds of thousands of violators. Isn’t there a similarly large slice of voters whose support can be garnered by arguing – correctly, in my view – that Akrama Sakrama is a terrible idea that rewards law-breakers and thumbs its nose at law-abiding citizens?

I think so, but I’m not sure. The other day during a public meeting with members of Resident Welfare Associations, there were a few people demanding immediate passage of this bill. These were the same people who’d just complained bitterly about poor administration and governance of the city. I was inspired by their determination and public-spiritedness on so many issues, and astounded by their support for amnesty for building plan violations.

Still, I think that good governance isn’t about doing popular things. The idea of a decent society has always been a crowd-puller. Every great democracy feels the pull of this self-belief at several points in its history, heeding the call of some great leader(s) to rise above our differences, to think of justice and fairness, and to be the best that we can. Gandhi, Mandela, King … eventually every free society learns to confront its horrors. It is the only way to remain free.

And I think that politicians who embrace that view today, and boldly move into statesmanlike leadership will ten years from now emerge well ahead of the crowd. I also think this will happen. In some cases, leaders will emerge from within the large parties who have the clarity to see this opportunity, and in other cases leaders will emerge because there isn’t much room for such inner strength within the established parties. But it will happen nonetheless.   ⊕

About Ashwin Mahesh 16 Articles
Ashwin Mahesh has been involved in public policy for Bengaluru through his work with the Karnataka government. The views expressed here are his own. He is a member of the Lok Satta party. He is also CEO of Mapunity Information Services, and a director at Oorvani Media, publisher of Citizen Matters and India Together. He is also a visiting faculty with the Centre for Public Policy at IIM Bangalore.

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