Politicians are notoriously schizophrenic: I have met any number of netas who can be wonderfully warm and polite when they are off camera but turn into rabble-rousing venomous public figures the moment the camera is switched on. A Raj Thackeray, for example, is very generous with his hospitality when there is no camera in the vicinity. But the moment he is on air, he transforms into a different political animal: He can be rude and abusive, almost as if he is compelled to perform before a wider world. Mani Shankar Aiyar is another. He will make personal attacks in a television debate and then next morning, almost mysteriously, transform into a genteel man of the world.
But when it comes to political schizophrenia, Imran Khan takes pride of place. The private Imran is a quiet, dignified gent who will talk passionately about cricket and life. But the moment the legendary Pakistani cricketer wears the garb of the leader of the Tehreek-e-Insaaf, then you are confronted with an entirely different persona: This is Imran the demagogue urging his people to “revolutionise” the country and usher in a “Naya Pakistan”. It is almost as if his politics is driven by a manic zeal, a desire to conquer parliament and his political opponents much in the manner as on the cricket field when he would try and bounce out the batsmen.
The Imran that I have watched on the television screens leading protestors in Islamabad in the last week bears little or no resemblance to the Imran I first met during the 1992 World Cup. That was perhaps his finest cricket moment, and so carried away was he by the adulation that after Pakistan won the tournament he even forgot to thank or mention his team-mates in his speech while receiving the trophy. I remember asking him about it years later: “Yes, I agree I made a mistake,” he told me with a typically shy smile, one that has bowled over many women over the years.
It wasn’t easy for Imran to accept that he had got it wrong. There is a point in a person’s life when intense self-belief can become almost delusionary self-obsession. Imran has dangerously flirted and, at times, crossed the line. His near-messianic belief in himself has meant that there is little space for self-doubt in his worldview. On the cricket field, it made him a remarkably fierce competitor. In politics, on the other hand, it can become self-defeating and has reduced Imran to the status of a permanent rebel, often without a cause. I am still not sure, for example, just why he is insisting on creating a situation in Pakistan which could see the country hurtling yet again towards a potential military takeover. Unless, as is being suggested in some quarters, Imran is actually in cahoots with the army to topple the Nawaz Sharif government.
Which brings me back to my central question: Why are so many politicians so intent on living a double life? Is it, as in the case of Raj Thackeray, the pressure to live up to a certain image that forces a politician to take public stances that even they don’t really believe in? Is it, as possibly in the case of a Mani Shankar Aiyar, a certain sense of resentment at not having got their due in politics, that makes them angry and bitter in their public interaction? Or is it, as with Imran, a conviction that he is destined to be prime minister of Pakistan one day that leads him to tilt at windmills?
I don’t think anyone has a definitive answer, but my sense is that blinding political ambition is a double-edged sword. It drives perfectly fine individuals to take unreasonable positions, only because they feel it will get them political benefit. Take Uma Bharti, for example. I met the BJP leader during the 1990 rath yatra for the first time. When you spoke to her in private, she would speak eloquently on Hindu philosophy and the importance of sarva dharma samabhava. But the same evening in a speech before a frenzied audience, she would return to the rhetoric of shrill Hindutva politics. I asked her once about why she looked and sounded so different once she took the stage. She just smiled and simply said, “I am what I am!’
Mamata Banerjee too is no different. In a private meeting, she can be warm, engaging, even humorous. But in her political avatar, Mamata positions herself as a fierce Durga-like leader, ruthless and domineering. Maybe being a woman in a male-dominated patriarchal political system forces a Mamata to radically change her style. It is almost as if her tough as nails exterior is a shield against those whose gender prejudices might lead them to see her as someone who is a pushover.
Remember Indira Gandhi being labelled a “Goongi Gudiya” when she first took over as prime minister? The same quiet, demure lady was transformed by the sheer authority of the prime minister’s office into an autocratic leader who would not tolerate any dissent. Or take the case of a Jayalalithaa, who by all accounts was a shy woman, comfortable in her own bubble of cinema. The same Jayalalithaa is now one of the most feared politicians in the country.
Maybe it isn’t a schizophrenic existence but simply a process of evolution: New challenges make you evolve into a different person. A Naveen Patnaik once enjoyed the high life with the rich and famous; now he shuns the outside world and prefers the confines of sleepy Bhubaneswar. From socialite to earnest chief minister, he has come a long way.
So has Imran. After all, he could well have spent the rest of his life savouring the pleasures of London. That he has chosen to spend it instead on the streets of Pakistan is quite astonishing. I may disagree with his politics, but you can’t help but admire his raw courage.
Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist
The views expressed by the author are personal