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Discourse, democracy and debate: Are we getting what we deserve?

The popular adage is that people get the government they deserve. I am not sure that the current tenor of the electoral discourse is either dignified or graceful. We surely deserve better. If there was a debate on the quality of education in government and municipal schools, poor people could then choose whose prescription would be better for their children. They have unfortunately nothing much to choose from on this front. Offering freebies no more attracts the people. They would like to be treated fairly and be rewarded for their hard work. Any policy choice, which only talks about rights without any duties, does not take the discourse very far. Likewise, leaving the poor people mainly on market forces knowing how markets often behave also does not help. A middle ground is what works in our kind of situation. The madhyam marg [the middle path] shown by Buddha 2000 years ago still stands valid.

Despite manifestos having been issued by various political parties, the debate is not on those policies that the parties have declared as a part of their promise. There are a very few commentaries on the relative stress in various manifestos on different institutional and policy choices before people.

While some parties are strong on community involvement in decision making, others are strong in entrepreneurial approach to development and some have stayed with entitlement based approach to development. Neither the work ethic nor pursuit of excellence has figured in a significant way in various declarations. The emotional appeal makes a difference to create a connect with masses. But after so many decades of democratic independence, the quality of discourse has not necessarily improved.

It is not surprising that corruption ranks so high in the minds of voters. But corruption should not be seen only in the monetary terms. Luring people with false promises is also corruption. Making people earn their income without working hard for it could also be considered corruption and vice versa [i.e., despite hard work, majority of the people not getting their due while some get all the advantages]. Going to the class without preparation and teaching obsolete concepts is also corruption. Surrounding oneself with mediocre advisors and thus do injustice to the talented people is corruption.

Corruption takes place when we cut corners and take shortcuts to life. Corruption also takes place when we promise to subsidize those who don’t deserve it. Deep-seated institutional inertia does not continue in any society without serious corruption of ideology and mindsets. When large parts of the country are still treated almost as internal colonies, a source of cheap labour, then the policy bias producing such duality is obviously a sign of deep corruption. One cannot imagine so much systematic bias and indifference against high risks environments and tribal communities, particularly in central and eastern India. Making a trade off for expedient and short term solutions over longer term sustainable choices involves not just an ideological judgment. It also underlines the corruption of worldview which discounts so terribly the rights of future generation.

I hope that once the dust settles and new configuration of political alignments come into power, we will have a much deeper discourse on developmental choices. We cannot justify keeping patience with institutional, cultural and technological inertia in so many sectors and spaces for such a long time. It is not by chance that bureaucratic systems have begun to open up to the social criticism and accountability leading to new standards of delivery and design. The elections may throw up a clear verdict or a coalition. That is a matter of detail. Perhaps one issue on which few people may disagree is that the quality of governance will never be same as it has been in the recent past. People will not put up with the standards of so-called personal honesty and professional dishonesty. People would demand new touchstones to measure authenticity and accountability in public life. India will be governed by much more open systems than ever in past. Even if some leaders try to acquire authoritarian streak, the institutions would not easily let that happen. What happened during emergency, it seems will always remain an exception. India deserves democracy and a right to differ without being disrespectful. The creative potential of our people cannot be constrained by the myopia of the mandarins.

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