What do Shashi Tharoor and Jairam Ramesh have in common? Both are incredibly bright, articulate men with impressive resumes: Jairam is a mechanical engineer with degrees from IIT and Massachusetts Institute of Technology while Tharoor is a PhD from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and has the distinction of getting a doctorate at 22, the youngest in the history of the prestigious institute. In a sense they represent the best traditions of Macaulay’s children, “A class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.” And yet, both these fine representatives of India’s liberal and cosmopolitan traditions find themselves under siege in a political milieu that appears to share an uneasy relationship with the English-speaking professional-turned-politician.
Tharoor was undone by the seeming impropriety of having acquired sweat equity for his sweetheart without informing the world. Ramesh is being pilloried for having questioned the home ministry’s policies towards China. Both are perhaps guilty of forgetting their constitutional responsibilities as Union ministers. Tharoor paid for it by being banished from a ministry which could have benefited from his wide experience as a global diplomat. Ramesh may yet pay the price for his indiscretion by being switched from an environment ministry that has acquired a renewed energy and a forward-looking profile under his leadership.
The irony is that the charges against the duo appear trifling when compared with the monumental scandal and corruption that besets the political class. An A. Raja gets away with it despite the clamour for his resignation over the spectrum scam because as his leader, M. Karunanidhi brazenly told the UPA leadership, “Mr Raja is a Dalit”. A sweat equity worth a few crores appears loose change when compared with the fact that the public exchequer lost a few thousand crores because of a minister’s dishonesty. Again, while Ramesh may have overstepped his brief when commenting on the home ministry’s China policy, how do his statements compare with the unabashed criticism of fellow UPA ministers by Mamata Banerjee? While Ramesh has to apologise, Banerjee remains unrestrained.
Which brings me to raise the larger question: are English-speaking, upper class, highly educated professionals soft targets in public life? An A. Raja gets the benefit of doubt because no political party can be seen to be anti-Dalit even if it means winking at corruption. A Mamata Banerjee enjoys the protection conferred on her by virtue of being a regional ally and a mass leader.
The problem is that both Tharoor and Ramesh are upper caste politicians with no mass base. Tharoor is a Nair, Ramesh a Mysore Brahmin. Tharoor was parachuted into the Lok Sabha from Thiruvananthapuram because of his proximity to the Congress leadership. Ramesh was made a Rajya Sabha member from Andhra Pradesh, again because he had a special relationship with the party’s high command. Removing Tharoor as minister was an easy option because while it may have affected the twitterati, it will not affect the existing power equations in Kerala. Ramesh is also a politician who counts his numbers on a laptop, not in a public rally. In other words, both are seen to be easily dispensable netas.
The truth though is that Indian politics needs more of the likes of Tharoor and Ramesh, lateral entrants from the professional world who can add to the quality and intellect of public life. Just contrast a Tharoor as minister of state in South Block with some of his contemporaries. As diplomats from African and Latin American countries have admitted, Tharoor’s experience in the United Nations and linguistic skills made him an impressive ‘interlocutor’ (ah! that dreaded word again) in their engagement with India. Contrast also Ramesh with his predecessors as environment minister, many of whom reduced Paryavaran Bhavan to a cash-and-carry ministry. Would you rather have a learned minister representing the country at climate change summits or a bumbling politician who has never heard of greenhouse gas emissions?
Across the western world, there are increasing examples of top-level professionals making a successful switch from the private sector to government. Unfortunately, in India, many of the individuals who aim to make this transition are typecast as English-speaking elitists who are disconnected with ‘real India’. The charge of elitism partly stems from envy of the successful upper class Indian, partly from a certain condescension, even hubris, shown by the anglicised Indian towards his ‘vernacular’ counterparts.
For the traditional, feudal Indian politician, who survives on caste and family loyalties, Tharoor and Ramesh are gatecrashers into a closed system. The duo are a threat to the prevailing political order because they challenge the status quo: neither are they dynasts who are the beneficiaries of being the sons and daughters of politicians nor are they caste chieftains who will nurture their votebanks. They are instead, like millions of others, children of middle-class Indians who have become upwardly mobile through scholarship and hard work. Indeed, if politics is to prove aspirational and attract the best talent, then it is important that the likes of Tharoor and Ramesh succeed. Which is also why professionals like them need to be extra careful in their public dealings because the rules for their conduct will always be measured by higher standards than those imposed on the rest of the system.
Post-script: If Tharoor and Ramesh are looking for a role model, maybe they should take a lesson from Nandan Nilekani. The former Infosys chief executive is now shuffling through data in a government office, with the singular focus of providing the country’s citizens with a unique identification card. No twitter accounts, no Page 3 parties, no glib talks, no dramatic statements, it sometimes pays in public life to be a low-profile worker ant.
Rajdeep Sardesai is Editor-in-Chief , IBN Network
The views expressed by the author are personal