Tuesday, 14 January 2014 00:01
Contempt for the political class grows
World over, there is a growing revulsion among activist voters to the behaviour of the professional political class in their societies. The fulltime politician who has a no other occupation other than politics is a relatively new phenomenon in the political environment. In the past politics was a past time taken up by those who had economic security through some other field such as a profession, the legal or medical ones being the most common, land ownership or business.
But as the amount of power the political class assigned to itself – by fair means and foul – over time increased rapidly, throwing the principles of good governance to the winds, the economic benefit of being in politics and exercising that eponymous and highly temporary thing defined as ‘power’ became financially lucrative.
Together with this, the cost of winning in politics became more and more costly as the less discerning voters could be turned by money and hired thug power, and the connected lowest common denominator issues such as caste, race, community, language, abuse of religion, and of course the old hoary election offences such as bribery, treating and impersonation, ballot stuffing and substitution, capture of voting booths and ballot boxes, etc. became more and more effective.
However with professional election managers, like the Election Commission of India, getting more autonomy and power, to ensure that these negative forces were kept in check, with things like electronic voting, money politics became more powerful. Television, radio, the print media, posters, etc., ruled the day. The cost of being elected became astronomical. The professional politician could not in any way meet these obligations with his legitimate income. Bribery and corruption therefore became a way of life.
In different societies, the level of corruption and the methodologies were different depending on the level of development and sophistication of the economy and the society. But there is a growing animosity against the professional political class who are seen more and more as a corrupt bunch of individuals whose only intention is to perpetuate them in power.
The most recent example of this of course is the Kejriwal phenomenon. The scion of an anti corruption movement, Arjun Kejriwal, inexplicably but in some ways predictably, broke away from his Guru Anna Hazare’s campaign to force the politicians to enact India’s longstanding, four-decade-old Lok Pal Bill to counter bribery and corruption from outside the political system and decided to take the battle to the politicians milieu by contesting the state elections for the Delhi Legislative Assembly in India.
Not only did Kejriwal and his Aam Admi Party (AAP) contest the elections, Kejriwal himself decided to contest the constituency of three-term Chief Minister of Delhi, the formidable Congress Chief Minister Sheila Dixit in her upmarket and affluent constituency. The Indian political class mocked at AAP’s chances and even some of Anna Hazare’s supporters expressed scepticism. AAP astounded everybody by winning over 20 seats and becoming the second largest party in the Delhi Legislative Assembly. Kejriwal himself resoundingly defeated Dixit in her upper class constituency. Within days the panicked Indian Parliament enacted the Lok Pal Law!
When the BJP, which had the largest number of MLAs but still a minority, refused to take office, saying they had no mandate to form a government, the Congress which had a mere eight members, offered conditional support to the AAP to form a government. When the AAP was reluctant, the Indian political class taunted the AAP saying that they were afraid to take office as they could not implement their election promises.
Kejriwal called the Congress’ bluff, after consulting his supporters, and assumed office and within 24 hours provided a quota of free water and subsidised electricity to the Delhi voters. The Indian political class and analysts are watching with a mixture of awe, fear and relief the emergence of this Kejriwal phenomenon in Indian politics and how it will affect the national Parliamentary elections scheduled for 2014.
In Nepal also, which has not had a government for a long time due to the politicians in the Constituent Assembly not being able to agree on acceptable constitutional principles, a cynical population has grown to take a dim view of the political class.
The Maoist parties specifically, which fought a prolonged war against the Nepali monarchy, has come in for particular criticism. The Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-M) are known as ‘Dash Maoists,’ because they use a dash rather than brackets to punctuate the party name. On the other hand the members of the mainstream Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) [UCPN (M)] are labelled ‘Cash Maoists’ due to their success in extorting money from businessmen, among other extractive related processes, if you get what I mean!
On 19 November 2013, Nepal once again elected a Constituent assembly. This was seen as the only way forward after the multiple traumas Nepal had faced, ranging from the prolonged civil war and the murder of the Royal family by the Crown Prince in an incident which is cynically branded as the Kathmandu Solution to a dictatorship.
All previous constituent assemblies, since the ouster of the Monarchy in 2008, have failed to agree on a constitutional arrangement. A series of unstable coalitions have succeeded each other in power since the end of the civil war and the 2008 election of the first Constituent Assembly. That Assembly’s mandate expired in 2012, and since March this year Nepal’s Chief Justice has been running the country as Prime Minister of an interim government.
Kunda Dixit, Editor of the Nepal Times and political analyst and satirist has gone on record saying, “We got ourselves all tangled into knots and deadlocked politically for the last five years. We need to get our political house in order.”
The Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal is a landlocked sovereign state of 147,181 sq, kilometres with a population of around 27 million people. Nearly two million of these are working in foreign lands and remitting funds to Nepal.
Nepal was a monarchy throughout most of its history, ruled by the Shah Dynasty form 1768, when Prithvi Narayan Shah unified its many small kingdoms, including tithe one, in which is located Lumbini, where Gautama the Buddha was born, in the fertile Terai region bordering India.
A few years ago the descendants of the Shah dynasty were all murdered by the Crown Prince while they were at dinner at the Palace in Kathmandu, and the monarchy was ousted after several weeks of mass protest; tithe monarchy came to an end and Nepal became a federal Democratic Republic.
Since then the political class has been unable to agree on a political arrangement to balance sectarian, caste, religious and communal differences.
Two main issues
The two main issues facing tithe current Constituent Assembly are: how far to go in giving the state a federal character and what form of government Nepal’s new constitution will choose – a Presidential one or a Parliamentary one.
The UCPN (M) wants anything between 11 and 14 provinces to be created on the basis of nationalities spread across the country and an executive President directly elected. The other view is that too many provinces created on tithe basis of caste, community and other local identities will weaken the nation, they feel that the number of provinces should be limited to seven.
The spokesperson for the Nepali Congress has said: “We don’t want caste, religion or communal identity to be the basis of federalism. That kind of federalism will destroy both Nepali identity and national unity.” The ‘cash Maoists do not agree, they say: “For 240 years Nepal has been a monolithic state and society under a monarchy and ruling elite of Brahmins and Chetris, who represented only 10% of tithe people. Now is the time to create a multi identity state that will represent all the oppressed nationalities, oppressed gender and other historically disadvantaged people.”
The Cash Maoists
Meanwhile the Cash Maoists are having a hard time living down their reputation of having immense amounts of illegally extracted cash. Hisila Yami, a former Minister and wife of Baburam Bhattarai, former Prime Minister and Maoist ideologue, dismisses the allegation that she is the most corrupt politician in Nepal: “Please don’t talk about that. I’m sick of answering questions about it,” she says, referring to allegations of corruption against her. She accuses the other group of Maoists – the ‘Dash Maoists’ – of spreading the canard about her. Yami says: “Actually they have more money than us.”
But the leader of the Cash Maoists Pushpa Kamal Dahal – better known as Prachanda, his guerrilla nom de plume – is alleged to be a man of substantial wealth now. Maybe to manifest this, Prachanda contested the Constituent Assembly elections from two constituencies and three other members of his family, including his wife and daughter, also contested seats.
Critics trace the source of the Maoists’ money power to Nepal’s 10 year insurrection, saying: “They looted 300kg of gold and hundreds of crores of rupees from the banks in those years. They used the money in 2008 and added to it in their years in the government. Even now they extort money from businessmen and common people.” Yami dismissed all this talk, saying: “We want to make Nepal a cash nation, a prosperous nation. But we are not cash party.”
All this talk of constitutional arrangements and allegations of corruption against professional politicians are almost unintelligible to the ordinary long-suffering Nepali. They ask: “What does this all mean to us who can barely survive? Do you know even the ordinary variety of rice costs 75 (Nepali) rupees?”
This growing contempt for the political class by the cynical ordinary voter is being manifested in many ways the world over. For example, in Sri Lanka, the opposition Tamil National Alliance (TNA) executed a master stroke in selecting an hitherto non-political retired Supreme Court Judge as its candidate for Chief Minister for the recently-held Northern Provincial Council elections.
The Chief Minister, once elected, reinforced this view when he, repeatedly in public, told and retold the story of recently phoning up a friend who had been elected to political office to congratulate him and after exchanging pleasantries, had asked him what his priorities were. The stunning answer had been, ‘now that I am in power, to recover all the money I had to spend to get elected!’
Revolt against officialdom and highhandedness
Opposition to this kind of thinking is what drove Anna Hazare’s Lok Pal movement in India, from which was cloned the AAP and Kejriwal. Adarsh Shastri, until recently a Mumbai-based top executive for Apple Corporation in India, has resigned from his job to join the AAP, saying: “The mood of the people is changing; young people want responsive government.”
The Economic Times of India in an editorial said: “The anti establishment mood today is strong and the AAP has generated such euphoria among youngsters and the middle class that India may be at an inflection point.”
Dipankar Gupta, a sociologist and author, says: “This is a revolt against officialdom and highhandedness; it’s the same kind of thing you saw in Tahrir Quare in Cairo and Tunisia, but not against one dictator. It’s against 1,000 tyrants that parade in the garb of democracy.” Ashok Malik, a New Delhi-based political commentator, says: “Kejriwal represents the anger of the little man.”
This is what drives the UKIP party in Britain, which opposes unlimited immigration into Britain, which sees the greed of big business for cheap imported labour, driving the British politicians to allow low cost East European labour into Britain. This is also why the average Singaporean opposes the Government’s plans to allow more and more migrants into Singapore to provide cheap labour for their labour intensive industries like the construction sector and thereby depress local Singaporeans’ earning capacity.
In Europe the opposition to immigrant labour is driven by the same thinking. The insensitiveness of the political class to the concerns of the ‘ordinary man’ – the Aam Aadmi of the AAP in Hindi is the driving force. The Tea Party, faction of the Republican Party in the USA, is also driven by this sentiment. There are similar political entities driven by the same sentiment in many other countries, other than AAP of India, the UKIP of Britain and the Tea Party faction of USA’s Republican Party. For example Norway’s Progress Party, Hungary’s Jobbik, France’s National Front, Greece’s Golden Dawn, etc.
In South Korea software tycoon Ahn Cheol-soo is preparing to launch a new political party to ‘change the paradigm of Korea’s economy’. The novice politician, who pulled out of the recent Korean Presidential election out of fear of splitting the liberal vote, has an opportunity to capitalise on the anger of the ordinary voter against an increasingly dysfunctional government. For three months the Korean Parliament has failed to pass even a single piece of legislation!
Three common characteristics
Generally it can be said that all these so-called ‘insurgent’ political parties have three common characteristics: that the nations ruling elites have lost touch with the common man’s needs and aspirations, that government is a bloated, corrupt , nepotistic , self serving dinosaur, not at all ‘fit for purpose’, that government is controlled by a nepotist, politico-business nexus who are only interested in ensuring that corporate and their profits are maximised, even allowing uncontrolled immigration to fuel the economy with a cheap work force.
The cynicism of the ordinary voter against the political class is fuelled by one or more of these issues may be in some instances combined with other more parochial factors. For example the whole reform movement in India was driven by the dilly dallying of the political class with establishing the Lok Pal, for 40 years, as they were reluctant to have an independent autonomous body to investigate the corruption the political class and the bureaucracy. Even what has been finally set up by law has been described by AAP’s Kejriwal as a “Joke Pal” as it is considered too weak and not independent enough.
On the other hand, America’s Tea Party has its roots in a venerable tradition of small government conservatism. In Europe these fringe political groups are small rebellious outfits, some from the far right. They are angry people, harking back to simpler times. They worry about immigration. They belong to the squeezed middle class, people who feel that the political elite at the top, the creamy layer and the unprincipled free loading, social welfare, scroungers at the bottom of the pyramid, the sediment, are prospering, at the expense of ordinary working people.
They also believe that the centres of national power are dominated by large numbers of professional politicians and bureaucrats who are corrupt and constantly coming up with schemes to ruin ordinary hardworking people’s lives and get themselves re-elected. These groups of insurgents are prospering because governments are corrupt and/or have performed badly.
Governments have encouraged consumers to borrow, let the banks run wild, instead keeping the financial sector on a tight regulatory leash and not cracked down on corruption and nepotism. Ordinary people have paid the price for these European follies, in higher taxes, unemployment, benefit cuts and pay freezes.
A refreshing experiment
The Aam Aadmi experiment in India is a refreshing experiment at restabilising the credibility of government. The political class in all our countries have to regain the confidence of the ordinary voters. In the same way that one analyst called for those responsible for producing the national statistics for Sri Lanka should undergo an internalised process and credibility exercise to restore their own credibility among us ordinary mortals, who are fed their rampantly false numbers on a daily basis, after one of their own disclosed how the numbers were fraudulently cooked upwards!
Also allegations of massive corruption, like for example the PM’s office issuing letters to get concessions for the release of a container containing hashish, do not help. So also the more recent manifestation in Sri Lanka, in local government authorities, where a revolt by the low-ranking elected members, against systemic flaws in the system and rampant corruption, the benefits of which are not “democratised,” has led to a series of defeats of local authority budgets.
Similar hostility is reported between the ‘family,’ the ‘old guard’ and the ‘recent jumpers’ at a higher level. How the development and emergence of these so-called ‘insurgent’ political groups will finally work itself out, in the political environment of these countries, is difficult to predict. Observing the ongoing political process will be very interesting.
One hopes that at last the long-suffering Nepali people are finally blessed with a constitutional arrangement which could fully accommodate their political aspirations, notwithstanding the machinations of the ‘Cash’ and ‘Dash’ Maoists. It will help us all if the AAP in New Delhi, led by the redoubtable Kejriwal, succeeds in setting a higher standard of behaviour for elected politicians and in this year’s Indian Parliamentary elections the AAP can extend its reach to other parts of India. Democracy will be really reinforced in our part of the world.
(The writer is a lawyer, who has over 30 years of experience as a CEO in both State and private sectors. He retired from the office of Secretary, Ministry of Finance and currently is the Managing Director of the Sri Lanka Business Development Centre.)