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WHAT is one to make of the recent Outlook survey placing politicians just a notch above criminals and smugglers in public perception? Is this just another case of politician bashing, arguably a favourite sport of our well-heeled middle and professional classes? Or is it indicative of a deeper malaise in our political system? For if politicians and political parties, the bedrock of electoral democracy, are facing an eroded legitimacy, then systemic breakdown is no distant fantasy.

As much as the impending elections to five state assemblies, seen by many as the semi-final to the 2004 general elections, the recent ‘antics’ of our politicians lend an edge to this discussion. The decision of the privileges committee of the Tamil Nadu assembly to arrest five senior journalists of The Hindu, fortunately stayed by the Supreme Court, should serve as a wake-up call. Underscoring the capricious record and vindictive streak marking J. Jayalalithaa, the Tamil Nadu chief minister, or that the entire non AIADMK political class lined up in support of the journalists, hardly establishes the democratic credentials of our politicians.

For even if Jayalalithaa remains a one-off, a rarity in the degree to which she is willing to stretch her understanding of authority, few politicians across party divides are comfortable about subjecting themselves to public scrutiny and accountability. Ever since aired footage exposing corruption in the ruling establishment, it has been subjected to unprecedented vilification and harassment. And while the opposition has tried to target the ruling party, support to the ‘messenger’ or even demanding institutional fairness has been less evident. And now that George Fernandes likens the assault on the The Hindu to the worst excesses of the Emergency, are we to read this as reflecting a democratic temper or merely the current isolation of the AIADMK supremo?

The record of each of our other parties – from Narendra Modi’s continuing targeting of critics (Mallika Sarabhai is only the latest) to Laloo Prasad Yadav’s aborted attempt to bring in a press control bill – speaks for itself. The more sophisticated may instead try to ‘buy out’ the media, a strategy perfected during Arjun Singh’s tenure as Madhya Pradesh chief minister, but it is the rare politician who does not try to manage the press.

But more than the curbing of journalistic enthusiasm, which too, it must be admitted, is often prone to excess and partisanship, what disturbs is the use of state power – the police – to handle dissidents and evade scrutiny. Ruling parties, even when confronted with evidence of political and police complicity, are unwilling to transfer investigation to the CBI, as is happening in Maharashtra. It is as if once in power, state resources have to be treated as a private jagir and power deployed for personal ends. How else is one to make sense of the bland denial by the prime minister of media reports about the demand for funds from public sector units by ministers in his cabinet, despite the issue being brought to his attention by the chief vigilance commissioner.

Skeptics aver that these are stray examples, that for every unscrupulous politician there are many more honest and hardworking leaders and activists whose collective labours have ensured that India remains a democracy. We are also reminded of other survey results showing an increasing faith and participation, particularly of the underprivileged strata, in our elections.

Faith in electoral democracy does not, however, imply approval of politicians. The same surveys also point to the inordinately high proportion of sitting legislators who lose elections and often switch constituencies to escape voter ire. To avert the likelihood of sectional dissatisfaction with specific politicians turning into a wider repudiation of the system, it is thus crucial to push for radical political reform. Fortunately, the conjoint efforts of citizen’s groups like Election Watch, the Election Commission and the judiciary, making it mandatory for all candidates to declare their income/assets and prior criminal record, constitute a worthwhile first step.

It is symptomatic that even these elementary measures faced strong resistance across party divides, indicative of the fact that reforms related to electoral financing and expenditure, the functioning of legislatures, codification of the privileges of the House and, most crucially, reworking the ‘first past the post system’ or introducing a ‘right to recall’ is unlikely without continuing public engagement.

Parties and politicians are an integral part of democracy. Yet, without institutionalizing new norms of political functioning, our politicians will continue to bend rules to first win and then hang on to power. As the stalemate in Sri Lanka demonstrates, and not for the first time, pursuit of self-interest by politicians can contribute to social disaster.

Harsh Sethi