The Problem with Politics

Politics is increasingly viewed as being prone to corruption, and another opinion I have come across is that ‘rich countries are morally bankrupt and are ruled by power elites’. But why rich countries? Are we, for example, a rich country?

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

A career in politics… Cartoon –

The fundamental problem with politics is that it is not a profession. A profession is based on clear principles, is guided by norms and regulated by a statutory body which is usually a council. All these combined together add up to the professional standards which the practitioner of a given profession must adhere and live up to, and they comprise the technical (specific to the profession) and ethical dimensions (where the latter applies, such as in medicine). Failure to rigorously comply with these standards of practice will be sanctioned by the regulatory body per the provisions of its legal framework.

By these criteria, it will be immediately evident that politics cannot qualify as a profession, although politicians may belong to professions. That has no impact on their behaviour, whether it is policies or actions, which are entirely conditioned by their political ideology if they have any, or their personal agenda even as they mouth goody-goodies to be in line with their parties in the bid to obtain votes. Realpolitik trumps any inclination to even a minimum of regard for the standards of the profession they may belong to, if any. I have had numerous occasions to witness this myself, but will not belabour the point here.

In the noble sense of the term, politics is service to the people. Pujya Swami Sivananda, founder of the Divine Life Society, who was a medical doctor and knew what suffering was all about during his ten years of practice running two hospitals in then Malaya in the 1930s, famously said that ‘Service to man is service to God’. For the millions of lives that he relieved of their suffering and the hundreds of millions of others who live by his divine teachings, he was looked up to as a God, though he never ever himself thought so. All he did was to serve and teach. He possessed nothing – but left an immortal legacy.

Many politicians, in contrast, believe they are God. Idi Amin was one such of the more notorious ones, and claimed he was in direct contact with whatever God he believed in. I recall seeing a cartoon in the British magazine The Spectator which showed a soldier holding out a telephone handset in his hand towards Idi Amin standing a little distance away. The line went up towards space as there was no ceiling, and the caption read ‘I think it’s from God’.

Since God is described as being all-powerful, it is no surprise that politicians, especially political leaders who happen to become prime minister or executive president of their countries, feel that they are God when political power is given to them by the people, or if they snatch it and become autocrats or dictators. A cynical definition of democracy is that it is a system which allows you to elect your dictator. A look at what is happening in some countries around the world where the leaders have been catapulted to their positions through the ballots, genuinely or rigged, will confirm to the readers the truism in this definition. Another way of putting it that I have come across is ‘all the democracy that money can buy’.

There may have been a time when people joined politics with a genuine desire to serve their people and their country. All political aspirants and candidates proclaim that this is indeed their goal, the reason they have decided to jump into the fray. I have no illusion about how strenuous and exhausting campaigning is, but getting elected is also a matter of paying for the myriad expenses that are mandatory. And unless the candidate comes from a political dynasty or from a rich background, this can be very difficult if not impossible for him/her. And whoever has been in power by leveraging these two advantages – dynasty or wealth, which often go together – will do anything to cling to that power for as long as possible. And any means to that end will do, including yielding to the pressures of funding lobbies once one gets the coveted seat and, especially if one becomes primus inter pares.

And thus it is that politics is increasingly viewed as being prone to corruption, and another opinion I have come across is that ‘rich countries are morally bankrupt and are ruled by power elites’. But why rich countries? Are we, for example, a rich country? Are the countries in sub-Saharan Africa rich? Any observer of the scene can identify for himself those countries that are not rich and to which that description fits. What a pity for the people.

Still, there are political leaders who have been truly at the service of their people and their country first and foremost, and could qualify to be elevated to the level of professional rather than be looked upon as career politicians interested only in power for the sake of power, or in politics as business. The three in recent times that come to my mind are Vaclav Havel, Nelson Mandela, and Narendra Modi. The other one was primarily a professional and only secondarily a politician, but he also served the people with his soul – President Abdul Kalam of India, who was his country’s foremost rocket scientist, and whose death anniversary fell on July 27.

Given these exemplars, perhaps we need not despair yet. But increasingly, I am pessimistic…

* Published in print edition on 20 October 2020

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