Sunday 24 June 2012

Learn the right lessons from the US and UK (Sunday Guardian)

PM Manmohan Singh arrives at Air Force station Palam to leave for his foreign tour to attend G-20 summit last week. PTI
oon after being sworn in (aboard Air Force One) as President of the United States after John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Lyndon Johnson gushed to his mentor Sam Rayburn about the Cabinet that he had inherited from the late President. To a man, they were the creamiest of creamy layers, educated in the most expensive (and therefore the most prestigious) universities in the United States, and coming from million-dollar careers in the corporate world. Rayburn had been the Speaker of the House of Representatives for years, and he was not impressed. "I would be happier," he replied, "if one of them had run for sheriff once". Not a single person in the Kennedy (and now Johnson) Cabinet belonged to tiers other than the elite, and it showed in the way that they blundered into Vietnam and destroyed the Johnson presidency.
India's rulers apparently do not place much faith in the electoral system. The logic must be that any system which elects individuals such as those who have been responsible for governance in India over the decades cannot be much to write home about. This is presumably the reason why, thus far, not a single appointment has been made to the Election Commission of any individual who has fought even a panchayat election. From Chief Election Commissioners down to more lowly levels in the Election Commission, all the slots have been filled with officials. Thus the body tasked with superintending elections in India does not contain anyone with first-hand knowledge of what that entails, which is presumably why the EC has spent its energies in futile efforts at reducing election expenditure, whereas the worm at the core of the democratic process in India is the absence of inner-party democracy.
While the media in India — especially the print version — has clearly failed to unearth at least 90% of the muck that goes on in the name of governance in India, yet it is all that voters have in order to gain some insight into what political leaders are thinking about issues of the day. Unlike in genuine democracies, where politicians get subjected to intense media scrutiny, in India it is easy for a politician to not give a press interview at all, except the pre-digested variety that passes for media cross-examination in this country. A cake has to be judged in the eating, and the governance being served up to the citizen of the "world's largest democracy" is undoubtedly rancid.
So, despite the frowns of Katju and Sibal, what needs to be done is to institutionalise a regimen on live press conferences on the same lines as Prime Minister's Questions in the UK House of Commons. The PM ought to spend an hour each week before the media, with those getting a reply being chosen not by the media advisor of the day but by a draw of lots at the start of the conference. Once a month, there can be a similar interaction, this time with the foreign press.
And not just the PM. A similar freewheeling exercise needs to be conducted in the case of leaders of all national parties, as well as Union Cabinet ministers. Only by having to reply to sustained questioning will there be a climate of accountability within the government and the political system. Such a process would quickly expose those who are hollow inside, in that they are led by handlers rather than by their own convictions. There is much to condemn in the US or in countries such as the UK, but equally, there are facets to admire and emulate. Among the most important of these is the way in which politicians in both countries get questioned by the media. The press conferences of a US President or a UK Prime Minister are very different in tone from that of those conducted by journalists with, for example, the chairperson of the UPA. Unfortunately, it would seem that the UPA chairperson and her chosen PM are adopting those facets of US-UK life that are toxic anywhere, such as indulging those who impoverish millions through speculation. In contrast, Sonia Gandhi needs to set an example in transparency by coming forward and conducting an open press conference each week.
Or, in case there are valid reasons why this is not possible in her case, to get Manmohan Singh and his Cabinet ministers to open up to the media at least four times a month. The age of private ownership of political parties may take a while to retreat, but in between, there needs to be much more transparency about what our rulers have in mind for us.

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