It is the season for politician bashing. Enraged Indian citizens, fuelled by hysterical television channels, have gone after their political class following the Mumbai attacks.
The Indian politician is facing a myriad of accusations: not governing and protecting lives, sowing divisive politics, being callous and insensitive, not paying heed to the needs of the security establishment and using the incident to cultivate new voters.
Contexts differ, but holding politicians singularly responsible for all our troubles is a tendency across South Asia. Abusing netas for being corrupt, for ruining the country and for other real or perceived ills is a favorite Nepali past-time, too. And the attack on politicians is infinitely more malicious and less informed among Kathmandu's chattering classes than in the tea-shops in villages and towns. It would be more helpful to look with empathy at the tough life of politicians before dismissing them with such contempt.
Let's begin from the top. In a private conversation, a senior CA member was giving a break-down of his monthly remuneration of about Rs 45,000, which seems generous given the average Nepali income.
Rs 5,000 goes right back to the government as tax. In his case, Rs 7,000 is a compulsory donation to the party. Another Rs 10,000 is spent entertaining guests, constituents, paying for meals and tea, crucial to building and maintaining political relationships. After years of travelling on buses and cabs, the member recently bought a second hand small car and got a driver. He spends up to Rs 15,000 on fuel and other expenses. Rs 10,000 goes to visiting his constituency once a month. "This is the bare minimum I have to spend if I want to invest in a political future," he says. So his entire salary is finished off without any household expenditure: no money for rent, or school fees for children. The case may not be representative but it gives a glimpse into the invisible challenges faced by leaders.
What does a politician do then? In the best case, he starts off a business or NGO on the side and uses his political links indirectly to develop it. Or he may use power and his proximity to push deals, act as an intermediary or take a kickback if he helps get someone a job or admission. Can an instant moral judgement be made about this behaviour in this grey zone? The system and incentive structures have left him with limited choices.
The disdain for politicians also side-steps the struggles they have to wage on the ground. This is particularly true of non-Maoist politicians for their rise is often a tale of individual enterprise. The Maoist leaders and cadre had it tough during the war. They are motivated and work harder, but they always had a larger party framework which provided constant support, nourishment and guided the politics. The fact that they are paid full-timers gives them an enormous advantage. Given the organisational disarray and personality-centred nature of the NC, Madhesi parties and also the UML to a lesser extent, a village or district level politician is on his own.
Getting into student unions, hanging out as a crony for a national politician with the desperate hope of getting noticed, aspiring to become a district committee member, waiting to be selected as a general convention representative, getting a ticket to fight polls, helping with tedious organisational work-most politicians have made long journeys through difficult stages. Investing years in a fragile, unstable and increasingly violent political framework without strong institutional support requires courage.
And can politicians alone be blamed for ineffectual governance? Those at the helm of the state at any point must take a larger share of the responsibility. But a fragmented polity with multiple interests, a change-resistant bureaucracy, a system just not geared up to deliver public goods on a wide scale and the demands for private goods among citizens (a recommendation for a personal job is valued far more than a village welfare program) are equally responsible.
Our politicians did not create the social contradictions, economic inequality and discrimination existing in the country. To only blame them is to miss the point and indulge in escapism. Let us look into the mirror first.