Ask the most patriotic ‘Desi’ about Politics and you can see the face sour into an expression of smug disapproval,- 'Kuch nahi honewala'- ‘Nothing is going to change’ is a modern day Middle Class Mantra. And this at a time when the famed Indian entrepreneurial spirit is sweeping across the world, from the Punjabi Dhaba in the remotest corners of Iowa, to the Bengali sweet stall in Bermingham,from Indian curry to Bollywood dance, from the spiritual export of Yoga, to the material acquisition of brand Jaguar, from the multinational steel magnates, to the ‘desi’ IT czars-the surge of Indian enterprise seems to know no bounds, the barons of Indian business heed no boundaries. But step out of the illustrious gallery of the Mittals,Murthy’s,Tata’s and Ambani’s and walk the dusty roads of contemporary Indian politics and you will encounter the life size cut outs of the Modi’s, the gargantuan statues of the Mayawati’s, the huge posters of the Gandhi’s and milling around you will be the disappointed millions their haggard faces, despondent, silent-the faces of a divided and apparently impotent citizenry habituated to choosing ‘the best among the worst’.
What is the cause of this perception of the great Indian failure-the failure of political leadership?
It surely cannot be our Democratic institutions, our Elections Commission and Judiciary are among the best in the world. It cannot be apathy or lethargy on the part of the electorate; people do turn out to vote in substantial numbers. Is Illiteracy, casteism, communalism or some inherent deficiency in the Indian mindset responsible ,partly maybe, entirely certainly not. How could this be when the earliest leaders of India that golden generation of Nehru’s, Patel’s, Azad’s, were elected by a people less literate than their progeny are today and surely no less communally sensitive, vote as they did within five years of a brutally sectarian partition. The blame, if at all it is to be pinned must be placed squarely at the doors that lead onto the corridors of power. If India's politics has failed to live up to its halcyon promise, if the 21st century hasn’t produced its Nehru, Azad or Patel ,the fault lies not so much in the Indian electorate as in the Indian Politician. But surely this is old stuff, to blame the Neta for his shameless venality or bungling incompetence is nothing new!
It is not this generally acknowledged failure of the ‘Political’ class that I would like to dwell on but a far more sinister and crucial shortcoming, a failure that to my mind is the gravest sin against the unparalleled idealism that made India possible, namely the failure to imagine ,the failure to dream!
But before we expatiate on what this failure to dream has entailed, and what its possible causes may be, let us examine India’s political blunder-land, by heeding the kings advice to the white rabbit in Wonderland-“begin at the beginning …”-Let us begin, then by describing the average contemporary Indian politician.
The average successful politician i.e. one elected to parliament is 52.8yrs old. While the median age of the electorate that put him/her in parliament is less than half that age. The ‘he's’ predominate over the ‘she's’ in parliament overwhelmingly, only 10.8% of the present parliamentarians are women and shockingly a whopping 69.5% of these women are from families with political connections Most of the parliamentarians are elected from constituencies in which their community or caste dominates or at least forms a large proportion of the electorate. 162 MP’s have criminal charges pending against them. Among the few non familial politicians who manage to get elected the vast majority enjoy some form of support from the established families, are handpicked by them or emerge from extremist right-wing or left wing groups. Some have even given up illustrious careers as gangsters or ‘rowdy sheeters’ in order to serve the nation by representing their constituents in Parliament.
It is to this body politic that the political problems of India have to be fundamentally traced. While the electorate cannot evade blame for electing such candidates in the first place the clichéd excuse that there is no better choice sadly holds true at least in most cases. So, after the national whipping and churning of India’s 740 million strong electorate (as of 2009) through 15 general elections, numerous state elections and innumerable local elections , what was meant to send the crème de la crème of India to parliament has thrown up ,at least in the general perception, the scum de la scum of India. But such generalizations notwithstanding, this mass perception that the politician is responsible for all of India’s political woes deserves serious consideration. Can most of the evils that plague the contemporary political scenario in India be justifiably traced back to its leaders?
Let us put this hypothesis to test in the most general terms.
Our elected representatives are much older than our electorate. Countries like Spain, France, the U.K, U.S.A, Russia, with populations much older than India’s have heads of state ranging in age from 45 to 55. Most of India’s cabinet is over 60 the prime minister is over 70 and this, it bears repeating, in one of the the youngest nations in the world. Can it be that the youth has lost interest in politics, or is it that the present structure of the political system makes it impossible for young talented citizens who would otherwise have successful careers as doctors, engineers or corporates by their mid-thirties to enter politics and replicate their early success in politics too? Is this why the Indian youth have turned away from idolizing or even admiring mainstream politicians, preferring instead the hyperbolic Anti-political symbolism of a father figure from Ralegaon or the shrill messianic fervor of right wing groups. Youth certainly has a lot to do with charisma, and charisma in turn fosters passion and inspires loyalty, in this case to the parliamentary system. The Indian parliament unfortunately possesses few members with any youth appeal. The parliament sessions include instead long winded, dull, dreary speeches by old croaking raspy voiced white clad parliamentarians who break out in periodic fits of yelling at each other or simply walk out. Is it the electorates fault if it looks to the antics of self-proclaimed civil society in Ramlila maidan for inspiration? But yes, there is still hope. There must be at least a few 'young Turks' in parliament who could rediscover the high idealism that suffused India’s freedom struggle, young parliamentarians who could articulate the angst and frustration of the youth. The present Indian parliament it turns out has 66MP’s aged under 40. But even behind this promising figure lies a hard reality-the sordid saga of family Raj.
Patrick French’s painstaking research has revealed several shocking facts about these young politicians. “Two-thirds of Indian MPs under the age of 40 are from political families” it turns out. Moreover all the Map's aged under 30 without exception have family connections to politics. As these young MP's age, more and more of India’s parliament will come to be occupied by people who have politics in their blood, so to speak. Blood lines of the privileged will wield the power not only to shape India’s future but more importantly the prestige and privilege of political patronage. Once having stamped a firm familial foot print in the sands of power this dynastic trend threatens to paralyze youthful dynamism and destroy any hope among the middle class youth of replicating the career of a Sardar Patel, Azad or Ambedkar. The engine that drives the entrepreneurial spirit is the desire for upward mobility, social, economic and even political. In a population raging with youth but deprived of this incentive, insensitivity towards the democratic method is only to be expected. The Left wing Maoists may be the harbingers of this trend and who knows the right wing may be its ultimate beneficiary. The trends are already clear and justify a sense of foreboding in anyone who cares for India’s democratic, secular, plural nature. The Anna movement brought to fore the power of the middle class youth, not only in the virtual world of the blog, tweet and troll but in the all too real world of dharma’s , fasts and ‘revolution’. It was clear from the beginning that the principal motive force driving the movement was a strong distaste of the Indian ‘political class’. That the Government and the Opposition was perceived to be led by a coterie of sycophantic loyalists did not help. This dynastic trend only reinforces the image of a political ‘class’, bound together by clannish family loyalties rather than a common national vision. The exasperation and middle class outrage that the Anna movement embodied and gave vent to can be seen as the direct result of the virtual exile of the middle class from the political landscape. It must be noted that even though the movement was predominantly against national scams involving a Corporate- Politician nexus it was the Neta and not the corporate that would bear the brunt of the assault. The reason why corporates weren’t targeted as fiercely as the netas is because the middle classes see businessmen as embodying their aspirations.
Politicians, because they have turned into a ‘political class’ fail to appear to be aspirational figures. Which ordinary Indian can aspire to the prestige of a Gandhi, Thackeray or Abdullah? While a Tata, Ambani or Birla,even though they owe their wealth to business dynasties are nevertheless seen as being only an M.B.A away. The corporate ladder is open to all with good brains, but the political doors, like Ali Baba’s cave open only to the particular shibboleths of famous family names, to ties of blood not the trial of brains. A recent episode serves to exemplify this complete disillusionment, distrust and hatred felt by most Indians to anything even remotely ‘political’. The outrage with which the news of Sachin Tendulkar’s nomination to the Rajya Sabha was met with was as astounding as the news itself. Some sober minds raised legitimate questions of a general nature such as-whether the cricketing icon was fit for the position, whether a Rajya Sabha nomination could be conferred more as an honor rather than as a duty-others, still sober raised legitimate questions about the politics that may be behind the nomination. But a more dramatic and disturbing reaction ensued. The hashtag “#unfollowsachin’ began to trend on twitter, right wing sympathizers condemned him, presumably as a political reaction, but ostensibly (and this is important) on the grounds that by accepting the nomination of a corrupt government Sachin had opened himself to the charge of being corrupt. Motives were quickly ascribed perhaps he has skeletons in his closet that the government has promised to keep from tumbling out, some even suggested that the richest sportsman in Indian history had been bribed, the more charitable ones chose to seek refuge in the statement ‘he is being used by those politicians’ thereby at least absolving him of direct guilt. What was striking about this episode was the sheer anger that any association, however tenuous,with 'politics' can provoke. “Politics is too dirty for good people, even the best are ruined by politics” seems to be the underlying feeling. That even a veritable player like Sachin Tendulkar can be brought down by a mere association with Parliament, shows how strong the Anti-politics politics is to the ideas of social organization is in contemporary India. The natural consequence of this dangerous disillusionment with parliamentary democracy is desperation. And desperate times, as we all know, call for desperate measures, and desperate measures history amply demonstrates are extreme measures and extremism whether of the left or right wing will only grow as this desperation grows and this poses Indian democracy an existential threat.
The number of criminals in Indian politics is also increasing. This ‘criminalization of Indian politics’ ought actually to be called the ‘politicization of India’s criminals’. As power and clout begin to accumulate around the privileged class of politicians, a body of willing enforcers whose job is to perpetuate and protect the politician become necessary. These muscle men are becoming an integral part of local level politics and this nexus between goon and godfather soon becomes more than just a symbiotic relationship. The recruitment of muscle men (and women) into the rank and file of political parties has evolved into an indispensable part of the political dispensation. It was only natural for the criminals to themselves power their way into the political class under their patron’s eye. This open trend has further disillusioned the law abiding citizen and served to alienate him from the Netas.
Possibly, the gravest charge of which present day Indian politicians are guilty is that of blatantly promoting caste and communal polarization with a view to harnessing the power of identity politics. This shameless caste and communal maneuvering is in many ways the result and also in some ways the cause of the aforementioned ills plaguing the Indian political scene. When identity-religious, caste based, or regional becomes the major or sole criteria for electing representatives all other aspects of the candidate’s public life become irrelevant. Indeed even the candidate him/herself becomes irrelevant. Only the party counts and the parties stand on polarizing issues counts.This inflames polarization and further stokes the fire of extremist politics. The shrill voices of hatred and prejudice occupy the center stage and leaders who would otherwise represent the fringe of a fringe come to flow in the mainstream, vitiating public discourse with vile and hateful propaganda.
In all this what is lost and relegated to civics textbooks and history classes is the dream that was independent India. On August 15th 1947, India’s founders, a group of extremely intelligent and farsighted, if unduly idealistic individuals, led their country to nationhood. A country that was, to Churchill’s mind ‘no more a nation than the equator’ was brought together to form a modern democracy. Even the most ardent claimant for India’s nationhood, however, had to acknowledge that India wasn’t a nation in the strict European sense of the word. There simply was no single basis upon which an argument for its underlying unity could be made. It did not have a common language let alone a common culture. Religion in post partition polarized environment could hardly serve as the driving force behind a democracy and we owe our founding fathers an eternal debt of gratitude for having recognized this (something the Pakistani leadership failed to grasp with disastrous consequences). After the unlikely Gandhian dream of peaceful independence had been shattered by a violent partition Religion threatened to tear the subcontinent apart. A more all-embracing power had to be summoned to invoke nationhood. It is a credit to the incredible genius and indefatigable Idealism of the first generation of independent India’s leaders that they sought and found this power in a common vision, a common dream-the Idea of a Democratic, Secular, Republic.
It is this invention, this remolding of India, this deliberate refashioning of the nation’s ethos to incorporate elements of the Indian identity which empowered a democratic impulse and this conscious suppression of forces that might rend this vision that was the greatest contribution of India’s first politicians.
Fast forward to today’s politics-How many politicians articulate this glorious vision and stand by its core values?
In the sludge of communal identity politics, caste combinatorics and winnability permutations this dream has all but faded from the eyes of the nation. Their seems to be no contemporary politician who can even pretend to match the idealism of a Nehru proclaiming the redemption of India’s pledge, a Maulana Azad ascending the steps of the Jama Masjid to urge his compatriots not to leave their homeland or a Sardar Patel whose Iron-will forged a Union from the crucible of communal fervor and princely recalcitrance.
So, is contemporary cynicism about India’s politicians absolutely justified? Is there no redeeming feature, one promising prospect in this political muck?
A few years back most young Indians would be tempted to answer in the affirmative. Indeed the majority still do. But in the last few years a slight sliver of light has emerged on the dark horizons of our political class. A single ray of hope has given some among the youth hope that a liberal, democratic, plural nation is not just a forgotten dream but our common inheritance.
Dr.Shashi Tharoor won the Thiruvananthapuram Lok Sabha constituency seat by a landslide in March 2009. The distinguished diplomat who almost made it to the highest office of the U.N he had predictably been written off as an ‘outsider’ by the ‘political class’. But this ‘outsider’ baggage was and continues to be his biggest asset and is what makes him such an exciting new voice in India. One of the few successful professionals in the Parliament, his life story defies each of the points we have marked as the stereotypes that distinguish India’s political class.
1.He does not come from a family of any political influence and is free from the taint of hereditary political inheritance.The first Indian politician to adopt twitter as a platform to communicate with the people, it was this openness that led to his first run in with Indian hypocrisy.
2.He is highly educated and a distinguished writer. Above all he is a remarkable speaker and his extraordinary eloquence is and always has been directed not at bombastic demagoguery or instigation but at articulating the inspiring vision of Modern India to a whole new generation.
3.His civility (in a parliament which, only too often echoes with the most unparliamentary language not to forget fist fights, Hulk like seat uprooting’s, walk outs etc.),rational mode of argument, immense scholarship seem almost out of place in the cruel cacophony of our 'Netagiri'.
The same media that often calls for transparency and openness from our politicians became (to the glee of the opposition and even some of his colleagues no doubt) a serial Tharoor baiter. His crime-using clever English idiom and unusually subtle vocabulary (if -‘interlocutor’-one who takes part in dialogue or conversation-Marriam Webster dictionary-can be called that), unusually subtle that is for a country and a media used to decades of mulling over the intricacies of the latest 'Laluism', or grasping at the crudities of the latest right wing hate speech and inured to the uncompromising ambivalence and aggressive insolence of the major party spokespersons. With such an environment of crudity, rudeness and rough rustic humor it is small wonder that Dr.Tharoor's polite humor, subtlety and sophistication came across as shocking. Of course he ‘was unaware of Indian sensibilities’ why else would he be ill-advisedly idiomatic in his humor and lavish in his vocabulary. All the holy cows of Indian politics were offended at his holy cow remark and in a moment (not a few of them from his own party) became wolves baying for this ‘outsiders’ blood. They got their revenge soon enough after a media managed crucifixion led to Dr.Shashi Tharoor’s resignation as minister of state for external affairs.
Was there truly was no hope for a hardworking, self-made professional in India’s politics?
If all the sleaze and self righteous furor that surrounded Dr.Tharoor's resignation is any indication then one would be led to conclude in the negative. So, what is it then that makes the pluralistic, non-confrontational, professional style that make marks Shashi Tharoor's politics important, in spite of the fact that Dr.Tharoor himself had to resign when faced with conventional style politics. The answer can be encapsulated in one single word- 'Vision'.
In a nation reeling with 'a scam a day' the average Indian seems to be tending dangerously close to being ashamed rather than proud of 'democray' in India.In such a situation an articulate politician who once again brings out that great tradition of Idealistic statesmanship that the Indian founding fathers upheld and celebrated is indeed God sent.
How rare is a politician who in the midst of blatant caste and communal, regional and linguistic vote bank politics reminds us of the majesty of the Idea of India- "In India we celebrate the commonality of major differences; we are a land of belonging rather than of blood." -“The only possible idea of India is that of a nation greater than the sum of its parts.” And even rarer is a politician who breaks ranks with his party men or places his conscience higher than his 'high command' as Dr.Tharoor has done on various issues (most recently on the strike called by the UDF in Kerala as a protest against the killing of a former member of CPI-M). Dr.Tharoor is virtually the only politician who has consistently maintained a high standard of discourse even when his opponenets have resorted to scurrilous slander. It is these traits that mark Dr.Tharoor out as a new and powerful voice for a new India and it is a great credit to his ability that he seeks to do this not from the platform of the rumbunctious activist or the T.V studio of a high brow pundit (both of which he could have easily become) but as an elected representative of his people. I am sure that inspite of being 'controversy's favorite child' for the Indian media and inspite of what may be pereived as his elitism when all is said and done history will judge him with the same courtesy that George Orwell extended to Gandhi in his famous 'Reflections on Gandhi' - "regarded simply as a politician, and compared with the other leading political figures of our time, how clean a smell he has managed to leave behind."
May his tribe increase and for this to happen 'Tharoorians' must increase. It is this dynamic group of 'Tharoorians' who are prepared to set their narrow identities, prejudices and old habits aside and elect many more Tharoors to Parliament are important . 'Tharoorians' can, it is my belief, help reclaim the Indian dream.
@syedfaizan87 on Twitter
The Writer is a medical graduate and hopes to specialize in Psychiatry. He is deeply interested in politics, creative writing and history.
Syed Faizan's series of Sonnets 'Indian Sonnets' can be downloaded as a free e-book at http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/142611