Beyond Dynasty, Towards Competence


Tavleen Singh

It surprises me that it continues to surprise us every time one of our elected representatives is caught indulging in criminal activity. We reacted with the usual shock and horror last week when the honourable MP from Dahod, Gujarat, Babubhai Katara of the BJP, was caught trafficking in humans. He tried smuggling a woman out on his wife’s passport and after he was arrested the police discovered that he was a serial offender and probably part of a trafficking syndicate.

So? What’s the big deal? Human trafficking is a white-collar crime, compared to murder, rape, armed robbery and kidnapping, and we know that across our unfortunate land we are increasingly being forced to elect people who have been charged with one or the other of these crimes.

Often, the choice that Indian voters face is between two criminals, and in such situations, they usually select the better criminal, as a wise old man once explained to me in D.P. Yadav’s constituency. During an earlier election in Uttar Pradesh, I stopped at a teashop in Yadav’s constituency to ask why people voted for a man infamous for his illicit activities and the old man said, “Because the man who is standing against him is also a criminal, so we may as well vote for a stronger and better criminal.”

Yadav’s son Vikas went on to be implicated in the murders of Jessica Lall and Nitish Katara and continues to take so active an interest in politics that he wants to contest the election from his jail cell. He is not D.P. Yadav’s only heir in our unique system of hereditary democracy. The mother of Vikas has abandoned hearth and home for “public service” and is contesting in the UP elections along with other relatives of Big Daddy Yadav.

Indian politics is truly the last refuge of scoundrels. And heirs. When we are not choosing between two criminals, we are these days increasingly offered a choice between two heirs. Nearly every major political leader in the country has started his own baby dynasty, his personal experiment in hereditary democracy. The BJP, which at one point fought a strident battle against the Congress Party’s “dynastic politics” now participates fully in dynasty making, so that in Uttar Pradesh we have the heirs of Rajnath Singh, Kalyan Singh, and Lalji Tandon all fighting to keep the family business intact.

Rumour has it that the BJP’s holier-than-thou national leaders are encouraging this trend because they have themselves discovered the benefits of hereditary democracy.

But who can cast the first stone when this is an all-party, all-India political trend. In the recent Punjab election, nearly every “new face” was an heir, whichever party’s list you wanted to examine. The new Punjab government is almost a Badal family affair. The most outrageous example of “public service” as family business remains the Rabri Devi story, in which our union minister for railways had handed the chief ministership of Bihar to his semi-literate wife when he faced a jail term for alleged corruption.

The contempt our political class has for India shows every time some so-called “leader” dumps an heir on us, and this contempt is evident in our most refined and educated politicians and in the least.

Are we going to waste a decade or so acquiescing or has the time come to start thinking about a correction in our system of democracy? Has the time come to demand a referendum on the kind of political system we want?

One of the letters I received in response to last week’s column came from a former chief justice of Himachal Pradesh, who suggested that we begin a public debate on why we should not switch to a presidential system of government. This column supports the idea from the bottom of its Fifth Columnist heart.

The two most obvious benefits of directly electing a president are that he (or she) would need to prove that he had the support of the whole country, and the second is that he could choose his cabinet from outside the ranks of our elected representatives.

Governance in the 21st century requires administrators who are technically competent to handle their jobs, not men who are there just because they are the people’s choice. One of the reasons why Indian infrastructure is being built at bullock-cart pace despite lagging so much behind the rest of the world is that our ministers for power, transport, urban development and, for instance, telecommunications, are often men without any knowledge of the subject they are in charge of.

We can no longer afford on-the-job training. If the Indian economy is doing better today than ever before, it is despite government, not because of it. But think how much faster things would happen if we had good governance? It’s time to talk of change.