What is politics?

In its narrowest sense, politics is what governments “do” or “not do” and in its widest, it covers the exercise of power by people in social relationships be it domestic, kinship, occupational cultural, or religious. It, therefore, becomes relevant to everyone’s everyday experience and affects us day by day and hour-by-hour.

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Consider Russia’s conflict with Ukraine, the latter being one of the biggest suppliers of wheat in the world market. It has halted its exports of the commodity leading to scarcity in the international market resulting in food insecurity staring at the face of numerous citizens of countries that are dependent on imports of this basic commodity. The situation was contained considerably with the entry of India in filling up the vacuum, however, it too restricted its exports following the heat wave that spread across the sub-continent thereby limiting its production and managing its accompanied domestic inflation in food prices. Russia, on its part, is facing sanctions from the west, and in retaliation, has blocked gas supplies to Europe which is solely dependent on Russia for much of the supplies. The European citizens, thus look forward to a “grim winter” in absence of power that keeps them warm. It is therefore not the world leaders, safely ensconced, in their mansions and state-of-the-art offices who are bearing the brunt but the ordinary citizens and, who are gaining from these wars. The arms dealers of the west.

Similarly, consider the expansionist policy of China whose aggressive posture in the entire indo-pacific is threatening the existence of Taiwan, which China considers to be its territory, and has started to encircle Taiwan with its military built up and displaying its might close to the latter’s frontiers. Its standoff with India in the Dokolam and Ladakh region and disputes over territories with many of the countries of South East Asia along with Japan and Australia serve as other examples.

Whether it’s Turkey whose president seeks to revive the erstwhile lost Turkish empire or the Saudi prince making inroads for democratic values into the country which till now was seen as the Head of the conservative Islamic states, whether it’s the US hunting down the dreaded leader Al Zawahiri, the second to Bin Laden and a mastermind of 9/11 attacks, in Afghanistan or the recent Israel bombing of Gaza, taking out the leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, one of the main terrorist group operating in Gaza the other top group being Hamas, whether its torment of Northern and eastern Africa by the terrorist groups such as Boko Haram and Al Shabab or the former takeover of Iraq by the much notorious terrorist group ISIS.

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In every case, the state or the powerful social groups, in whatever sense they deem justified, have tried and been trying to exert their power or dominance over the other group(s).

Let’s bring it to the household level, the basic unit of an organization. Here too, politics play its role. Consider parents exercising their power over their children. They try to make them toe the line, again, intentions here too will differ however the conceptual understanding holds that a husband expects his wife to abide by his self-proclaimed authority over her actions and ambitions. Though the picture is fast changing with women taking a stand against this traditional mindset, yet remains true for a large number of households. When such fault lines appear, in most cases, they lead either to divorce or domestic violence. The physically powerful tend to take over the weak through the exercise of brutal force. The result is the fragmentation of households and at a larger level, of society. It paves the way for the emergence of new world order at an international level and new societal norms and values at the domestic level. Such restructuring, however, comes at a price, paid by the very people and generation who get caught up and slain in the process.

A score of such examples either on international or domestic chess board, both in current and past history reflects the principles of politics, first, the Powerful taking over the weak, second, utilizing the opportunity to fill in the vacuum created due to disruptive forces, with intentions differing by different countries and third using the opportunity to create profits such as by the arms dealers, especially of the west. Conflict breeds struggle; struggle creates a vacuum and a vacuum is used by opportunists.

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Thus, in a loose sense, politics may be defined as a social exercise of power whether such sociability is in the international or domestic context.

Why politics?

The inevitability of conflict and aggression among human beings for dominance has been intrinsic to human nature

Humans, since their beginning, have congregated for common good such as security and livelihood besides being social by nature. A limited population enabled decision-making by incorporating all the members of the community or tribes in whatever form they existed e.g. sabhas and samitis in the Indian context. Progression from being nomads to a settled life with the advent of agriculture and invention of the wheel and discovery of fire, the population started expanding and a multiplicity of wants brought about the division of labor to meet the demand of the ever-expanding population. Such an increase naturally would have made it impossible to make decision-making all inclusive of the individual members existing in a community and also not each viewpoint could be accounted for. Only those that resulted in the highest good for maximum people must have been entertained. Therefore it brought about the system where certain representatives from the entire population would come together for the decision-making while also exercising influence over the people. They were subjected to certain powers and privileges for the enforcement of commonly decided regulations, orders, and policies for the people. Such a body of elected or nominated representatives formed the basis of a democratic and representative form of government that supposedly, took into account majority views through dialogue and peaceful means to avoid any aggression by competing groups.

Zoom it out and fast forward it to modern times and what we have are the nation states, the largest form of organization known to mankind comprising of different smaller states, a variety of communities differing in language, religion, customs, culture, food habits, and a plethora of such variables, yet enjoined by a common territory. Governance of such large territories requires consensus building among various stakeholders and as such, is a fertile ground for the development of the conflict.

As already mentioned that since earliest times till the current period the element of conflict has been innate in any decision-making. It’s in the resolution of any such conflict is where the essence of politics lies.

Drivers of politics

  • Quest for power
    What’s true for fame is also true for power; both are akin to seawater, the more one has it the more thirsty one gets. Acquiring unlimited and exercising unbridled power has what drove people crazy for its acquisition across ages and cultures. From Persians to the British, all had it at different times in the history of the world.
    World resources are scarce in comparison to the insatiable appetite of humans. This makes competition for power acquisition a “Zero-sum” game in which one party’s gains come at the expense of the other. Thus, some sections of classes, races, Individuals, and nations tend to lose even the bare minimum in comparison to others and the result is widespread poverty and diminished standards of living across most parts of the world. Try comparing the prosperous “First world” against the striving “Third world” countries in their historical and present context; sub-Saharan Africa with the Scandinavian ones and the truth stands bare in front of us. The difference is evident. Such disparities exist not just across nation-states but within the nation-states as well. E.g. India, which is among the most unequal countries in the world where the top 10% of the population earns 57% of the national income; the top 1% earns 22% of the national income, and the bottom 50% earns 13% of the national income. The picture reflects the grim reality of the politics in which the global North dominates over the global South and the resulting aftermath in poor and middle-income countries.
  • Political Identity
    Human beings at a psychological level are social animals loyal to the “in” groups and suspicious of, or hostile to, the “out” groups. In building a positive sense of social identity the in-groups often resort to “stereotyping” the out-groups. That is to say, all members of the out-group are perceived as having a standard set of inferior qualities to one’s own. Consider the Holocaust in the first half of the 19th century where Jews were classified as a community responsible for the decline, ruin, and humiliation of Germany post-WWI. Regarded as an inferior race that needed to be wiped out along with the sick, the deformed, the Gypsies, and others of the like, to pave way for the “pure-blooded” Aryans, by Hitler.
    People identify themselves in different ways due to the political experiences that have molded them; in short, they have learned who they are. Home, friends, social and mass media play a much more important role in developing and nurturing behavior and attitudes in comparison to formal learning. The other crucial factor is the influences in early adulthood when voting habits or other forms of political participation are established such as influences from co-workers and key political events that unfold during the time. An apt example here would be the demolition of the Babri mosque in 1992 when the Hindu leaders rallied around the issue of “Ram Janam Bhoomi” and mobilized thousands of followers to Ayodhya in the state of Uttar Pradesh in India. In short; people tend to absorb the political values and ideas of the primary face-to-face social groups to which they belong.
  • Localism, Nationalism, Religion, and Ethnicity
    A primary reason why people bond is due to their common interests. Other things being equal, the nearer people live to each other, the better the communication and more economic and social intercourse. Dependencies are created and they are likely to perceive themselves as sharing a common interest. The ASEAN; is a political and economic union of 10 member states in South East Asia, modeled on the lines of the EU. Its primary objective, though, is to accelerate the economy. It is however to be noticed that geographical proximity is also influenced by a host of other factors which may affect the strength of local or regional loyalties. E.g. political ideologies that are pursued by the communities. Compare China’s trade with Taiwan where the latter’s export touched close to 200 billion dollars in 2021. China is Taiwan’s biggest trade partner with a distance of only 100 miles separating both countries yet the present tussle between Communist China and Democratic Taiwan has brought both to a flashpoint that could trigger an armed conflict at any time. While the former considers the latter to be a part of its territory and seeks to gobble it up as a part of its One China policy, the latter asserts its democratic, independent status and autonomy aggressively.
    Religious and linguistic differences serve to heighten awareness of local loyalties, and, indeed, lead to different perceptions of national identity. Thus in Kashmir, the majority Muslim population sees itself as inhabitants of the locality within a constituted state of India. Many conflicts that appear to be religious have little to do with theological considerations. Divisions between Palestinians and Israelis may be seen as Jewish/Islamic conflict, but more realistically, is a conflict between rival nationalist groups for land and resources.
  • Globalization
    The new world order witnessed after WWII saw the emergence of international financial and trade institutions led by the US. The country, which, to much extent, was immune from the widespread destruction caused by the war. Its economic might, due to its early advent to Industrialization, combined with its scientific and military prowess which it showcased through its atomic attack on Japan in August 1945. All this made it the self-proclaimed leader of the world, the champion of democracy, and the chief policy maker that determined the path to the supposed development of the new world order. These financial institutions, through short-term stabilization measures and structural adjustment policies, goaded developing nations to structure their economies to suit the agenda of the developed world in return for the financial aid they extended. In short, the developing countries again became economic colonies for resource extraction and a large market for the end products, of their erstwhile colonial masters. Only this time colonialism was practiced subtly, through supposedly democratic and institutional measures rather than overtly as history had witnessed it in its crude form. The chief instrument that was used to practice this economic colonization were and are the multinational/Transnational corporations that use their economic strength to undermine the sovereignty of the host countries under the clout of the free market that demands minimal intervention by the state and reduction in public expenditure so that the freed up space by the state can be used to make and garner profits. These profits are not shared for the benefit of the population, however, are repatriated to the home countries leaving the population of the host countries vulnerable to insecurities of unemployment, reduced labor rights, health, and education. All this is achieved by arm-twisting, bribery, and fear of sanctions or economic incentives to the political leadership of the host nation. The political leadership, in turn, develops their political agenda and narratives and sells it to the public under the garb of modernization, employment generation, economic development, and rise in the overall standard of living and boasting of the same in their election manifestos. Who stands to benefit the most from these reforms is a no-brainer. The Green revolution in India, in the 1960s brought about self-sufficiency in food production in India was a welcomed step. It was however the rich farmers of the country who had the capital to invest and reap the profits arising out of the reforms introduced and the reason why the revolution had limited reach in the country.
    It is a common understanding, especially in these times, that opposing narratives are created in politics that inspire pseudo-nationalism while conveniently placing the imminent problems of unemployment, inequality, worker’s rights, inflation, and climate change that are being faced by the common people the world over, in the backburner.
  • Technology
    A tool that can be a game changer in the political arena whether at an international level or domestic front.
    Consider a scenario where you wish to build an asset. You hire a contractor to do the job for you because such contractors have the expertise, experience, and established relationships with the suppliers of materials and resources required for the job. Besides, it saves you time, money, and the headache of running around for different resources required for the job. Such an arrangement also creates resilient supply chains and streamlines processes and people involved in it. Benefits to Individuals, organizations, and economies seem evident.
    Try comparing this same arrangement in the context of the biggest organization that anyone knows! The nation-state! The asset is the political triumph; the contractor, a data mining company; the supplier, a technological giant e.g. Facebook that withholds data of millions on its servers; and the client is the political parties/Individuals.
    During the fag end of the last decade, personal data of millions of Facebook users was collected without their knowledge by a British consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, primarily for political advertising. The data was collected using an app “This is your digital life” developed by Global science research in 2013. It consisted of questions that enabled building up psychological profiles on users and collected data of the user's Facebook friends via Facebook’s Open Graph Platform. The app harvested data from approximately 90 million profiles. Cambridge Analytica was accused of interfering with the Brexit referendum and also assisting Donald Trump during his presidential campaigns. It was even accused of meddling in the 2014 elections in India. It is without a speck of doubt that such technologies will be rendered obsolete given the edge they provide to political parties. What perhaps is most dangerous is that such technologies have the power to influence the psychologies of numerous individuals through targeted advertising that may result in the subversion of democratic values and Institutions. The highest bidder will have its say and the citizens will be led to their doom just the way the Piper lead the mice to theirs. The assumption might be far-fetched yet cannot altogether be dismissed.
    Social media, Facebook, Whatsapp, Instagram, Twitter, and the like, has transcended the problem of illiteracy through the proliferation of digital online content such as graphics and videos. Fake news, hate speeches, and videos are manipulated to spread popular discontent between and among religious communities to further vested political agendas. Such content can have transnational effects with a single incidence taking place in one part of the country that has the potential to excite intra-national or international condemnation or excite animosity among different cultural and religious groups. Such tactics can be resorted to, to gain political mileage and subvert political regimes currently in power by social groups seeking to have their way. The hoisting of a religious flag at Red Fort during the farmer’s protests or the beheading of an innocent man in Udaipur, just because he supported a popular belief of a political leader, by fanatics of the second largest religious group in India, are living manifestations of this reality.


If politics is a game, the election is its instrument.

Our first Prime Minister, in his Autobiography, said that democracy and capitalism are incompatible, but the expensive and complex administrative and political machinery which he imposed on a poor and largely illiterate nation has only succeeded in consummating this misalliance.

A handful of the population controls the majority. The disparity is even greater when we take into account the wolf of black money that comes with his privy paw daily eating into whatever is left for the “have-nots”.

The three pillars of democracy are the Legislature, the Executive, and the Judiciary of which I would like to draw a connection between the first two.

Politically, the most doubtful concept for our country, India, was parliamentary democracy based on adult franchise, for two reasons. First, the idea of an adult franchise evolved to its present stage, in Britain, a small and prosperous country, after over five hundred years of gradual practice. Second, Democracy, as it is practiced through the adult franchise, before being a political arrangement, is a mindset. A mindset that is a product of education, information, and the qualitative values of the environment around. A democratic mindset can think independently and rationally. It would have taken any man of common sense only a few minutes to realize that such an expensive experiment in a poor and largely illiterate country then, would bring all political parties under the grip of businessmen and Industrialists, who alone had and till present have the means to finance the enterprise. The benefactors of the past i.e. before independence, who had given ex-gratia donations, now came forward as investors who demanded their pound of flesh. They soon transformed themselves into a new class of entrepreneurs who found that a more profitable but slightly roundabout way lay through the black market. Though the market is black, its pensioners are well known i.e. the political masters, and under their protection, these entrepreneurs could organize “lobbies” which enabled them to exert pressure on the government and make huge profits. Since the executive is drawn from the legislature, therefore, these two pillars of democracy in an uneducated and largely poor country could have been managed safely through investments made by big finances.

As if this was not sufficient when in the ‘70s and ‘80s booth capturing became the new malaise. The political class acquired goons and the underworld, as their muscle power, for poll booth capturing and intimidating voters into submission to a particular political candidate or execution of their political and other opponents. Under the protection of their political masters, these underworld elements grew out of proportion to be controlled by their very own masters. The Vohra- committee report delineated the politico-underworld nexus in detail and even named many politicians for the matter. The report however was conveniently put to oblivion, out of public scrutiny. These goons soon realized that instead of servicing their political masters, should acquire the position of power and thus started the phase of inclusion of such undesirable elements with a criminal record in the Indian political scenario, which, to much extent, continues up till the present day.

The times changed and so did the methods. Though the country has come off age concerning education, health, and standards of living especially the middle class, the election commission, and its robust measures to contain the spread of criminalization of politics and elections, much of what is said still stands true about the politics and elections in India. Brutal force is replaced by the exercise of soft power via technology in molding public opinion; multinationals and private enterprises still lobbying to influence public policies; freebies to gather votes and to divert the attention from the existential socio-economic problems and weaponization of religion, ethnicity, and regionalism for divisive politics.

“Common and intelligent people are inspired by facts, it’s the wise who is inspired by the truth”. The truth lies beyond the visible facts. It is only an informed public opinion divorced from medievalism that has the power to guide the nation and goad its political representatives into an era where the former is the master of its destiny rather than its pawn. Immunizing oneself from the happenings in the society and world around is not an option, it never was. Informed political participation, devoid of biases and embracing values and ideals which benefit humanity as a whole, rather than sectarian beliefs and wants, is the need of the hour. Political outlook should be continuously put to test by comparing and contrasting it with the political events and their outcomes on the nation as a whole. It should not be a hostage to traditional loyalty or allegiance to a particular political party or individual.

Elections, which are a barometer of public opinion, have become a data crunching exercise by the political parties. These parties study these data and seek to compete and arrive at an arrangement that provides each with maximum political mileage and power. Public welfare is hardly on their list of preferences or the mind. As such it is up to the general public to make themselves heard. It requires mobilizing public opinion on imminent issues of major and minor public importance and developing consensus on it through dialogues among different groups. Technology has provided enough means, should one has an intention, for connectivity and dialogue and Internet has provided access to enough information that till late was out of public reach.

To achieve such proficiencies in the public domain and at the political level, India needs what Swami Vivekanand called the “Man making” education. From a labor surplus country, India needs to transform itself into a nation of leaders that lead not just the country but the world. It requires leaders at every level who are educationally sound but more importantly, morally upright. The transformation from a British colony to an Independent country and going forward into a country of leaders require a change in the mindset. Secular education alone had not and will not help in gaining such a mindset. It is only through such “Man making” education can India produce leaders, whether in business or politics, that can lead, the country in particular and the world in general, into an era that was aptly described by the late Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore as;

“Where the mind is without fear
And the head is held high,
Where knowledge is free……
………. Into that heaven of freedom, my father,

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