I was having a discussion with one of India’s premier liberal think tanks, wherein it was suggested that the think tank founder/s are “equally convinced that the path we have chosen is the best way we can make a difference, given the context of our political system and structures. How easy has it been for you to get traction, or those that we know have thrown their hats into the political ring – JP, or Rajeev Gowda”.
Let me provide, in public, a lightly edited extract from my response:
I guess this boils down in the end to the way we understand the social contract (and hence our role as citizens).
To me the citizen must is obliged by the social contract to raise his voice in the Parliament first – that is the key point – and seek to change the offending laws that cause grief. The Constitution (social contract) provides for this remedy for governance problems. We must use this mechanism.
The press and civil society option – such as think-tanks etc. – are supportive, second order institutions in the social contract. They provide additional scrutiny over and beyond what is embedded in the Constitutional frameworks. These options do not provide governance, merely an audit or critique.
In India's case the educated middle class have ruled themselves out of the reckoning as citizens, and either spectate (99%) or commentate (1%) as external observers, as if someone had given them only an auditorial role in the state. That misconception is widespread, that educated people should stay out of politics: as if we are some kind of auditors or umpires, bereft of the right to play the game, as if we are second class citizens.
The (classical) liberal's primary role as citizen, is, in my view, to provide governance. The other options are an appendage, an embellishment – best left to the academia and press, or those without an over-arching vision for their nation.
To me there can be no citizenship in a free society without direct participation (or direct engagement through political parties) in the parliament. Anyway, this is what I'm working towards. This basic role of a citizen should not be demeaned by calling it "politics", for there is no more fundamental responsibility for our nation than this thing called “politics”. Doing so would be like saying we will never participate in the decisions taken by our parliament but will only criticise from the outside. India's constitution was not designed for hands-off citizenship.
There remains, in addition, a role for mass movements like those of Martin Luther King, but that's not what India's liberal think-tanks are engaged in. They are more like petitioners who ask the corrupt government to reform itself. Why would it?
Anyway, after my disappointing experience of 2004-05 I've moved into the open, public spaces. I believe leaders exist OUTSIDE of the traditional group of "liberals" of India – outside the Indian Liberal Group, outside the think tanks, outside the group of 'liberal' writers who pepper the op-eds in India with their opinions that they ought to have first been raised directly in parliament as speeches. We need great speeches in parliament, not mere editorials in newspapers.
It is these people outside of the traditional 'catchment' areas for liberal leadership that I'm searching for and have found reasonable success. And some of these people are brilliant. Let, therefore, the flame of citizenship that I'm trying to light in India, not be doused by cynicism about such efforts.