The Curse of “Pragmatism” in Politics

When it comes to meeting the socio-economic development targets of any government it is now a cliché to suggest that getting one’s priorities right and focusing on the best way to achieve them is an unavoidable and necessary condition. Why this does not happen, and the fact that political decision-makers remain unfazed when reminded of this simple truth when they are obviously going astray, remains one of the deepest mysteries of our democratic model of governance.

A tentative explanation could be that government decision-making is mimicking the structure of decision-making in the private sector. The mania of short-termism, which has been identified as the root cause of many a crisis in the business world, has contaminated the political decision-making processes as well. Whereas quarterly results and pressure by stock market analysts drive the actions of Boards of Directors of private sector enterprises, it would seem that the daily comments on the digital and press media by more or less articulate individuals or organized pressure groups now have undue influence on the actions of governments.

Structurally, the failure to articulate an “ideology”, which has come to be viewed as a politically incorrect basis for action even among “leftist” parties for whom it used to be the “stock in trade”, has left a total void in the political process. This is now being filled by what is described as “pragmatism” or the oft-used pretence that ‘There Is No Alternative’ (TINA). Little does it seem to worry its supporters that such pragmatism invariably favours the status quo and offers little scope to overhaul the existing structure of power and wealth which is necessary for a new more dynamic, fairer and competitive model to emerge.

The fact is that, at the end of the day, the shyness of leftist or even left-of-centre political parties to clearly define a system of belief and the class interests which they stand for has not led to a magical evaporation of “ideology” from the political landscape. Rather, the interests of the dominant classes have become indistinguishable from a new consensus especially with regard to economic policy making.

Ideology has indeed become the rationalization of such consensus. This is the kind of environment which favours the introduction of measures such as the Flat Tax and the imposition of the New Residential Tax, purportedly to ensure the prevalence of a level-playing field by a government which was voted to power on the rhetoric of “democratization of the economy.”

The absence of a guiding principle and the subsequent lack of consistency in the action of governments have had deleterious effects on the behaviour of the electorate. In the absence of any significant difference in the proposals of the contesting parties at election time, they tend to be primarily animated by anti-incumbency sentiments and hope that things will necessarily improve when the contesting lot is in power. Only to be disappointed after a few years and fall into the same trap.

One serious collateral damage that has been done by the prevalence of such “covert ideology” among our political elites has been the eradication of the notion of planning from the political discourse. The Ministry of Economic Planning and Development which had become a familiar feature of governments formed since Independence in 1968 was suddenly found to be redundant.

With the acquiescence of all other parties, planning has been sacrificed to the new God of free market supremacy and quite tellingly development has been subordinated to Finance in the new Ministry of Finance and Economic Development. Planning of course is associated with an activist government and with the concept of a developmental state, both of which are the antithesis of the new dominant ideology.

Although the recent global financial crisis has contributed to the sad state of the country (low economic growth, youth unemployment, high level of private and public indebtedness), it is justified to ask whether it is not high time for the nation to seriously question the role and responsibility of the policy options taken over the past decade or so in this sorry situation. Inequality in income and the increase in exclusion and poverty, the increases in mortality among delivering women as well as among young children, and the common occurrence of sordid crimes are all shameful symptoms of social regression.

In conclusion it may be worth quoting this extract from philosopher Jonathan Lear’s brilliant book, ‘Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation’. He cites the story told by the great Chief of the Crow Indians just before he died. It very aptly describes what happens when the economy of a society is destroyed and a people’s way of life comes to an end. The Chief said: “When the buffalo went away, the hearts of my people fell to the ground and they could not be lifted up again. After this nothing happened.” What he meant by this, Lear goes on to explain, is that the culture that gave life meaning and purpose died. The whole fabric of their beliefs and standards was destroyed and this loss was irreparable.

Although this may sound rather despairing and pessimistic, it is unfortunately quite close to describing the situation which prevails in our country today. The traumatizing exposure of so many “financial scandals” is throwing light on how this country has been governed by people whose sole motivation seems to have been individual greed, a culture of personal entitlement at the expense of obligation to others, public office being used for the sole benefit of close friends, and relatives and the wealth created by workers being dished out to scions of the “good and the great” to the detriment of the companies under their control.

The causal relation between this toxic social mood and the abandonment of basic principles and values by political parties should be clearly established by any serious political scientist.

The biggest challenge posed by the above-described situation is to the political parties and their leaders. Are they capable of coming up with the kind of transformational change programmes which will rekindle the light of hope, and provide the leadership to boot? Clearly those who have manifestly contributed to the present mess are disqualified…

* Published in print edition on 29 May  2015

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