He is amiable, he is a bit of a bumbler, he’s got the gift of the gaffe, he is loyal to those who gave him his position, he is unperturbed by the effect his words have on people.
Before you think I am about to introduce some Wodehousian character before you, let me hasten to assure you that I am speaking of none other than our home minister Sushilkumar Shinde. We can always rely on Shinde to inject a certain perspective into all situations howsoever grim.
So as the country seethed in rage at the rape of a hapless five-year-old child, our man in charge of home affairs blithely told us that such incidents are reported from other parts of the country too.
Phew. That makes us feel a lot better. I am sure I speak for a whole lot of us when I say that it is positively bone-chilling to think that this Alice in Blunderland is our home minister, presiding over a vast ministry which is supposed to ensure that we can sleep soundly in our beds at night.
He seems to have little or no knowledge about his ministry and mind you, he has had some pretty plum posts in his time. He does not seem terribly interested in learning the complexities of his portfolio; indeed, he seems to revel in his ignorance and his ability to put his foot in his mouth.
“Too often we… enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought” John F Kennedy once said. How very true of so many of our ministers today and many before them. I won’t try and speak of the political class in its entirety because then I may have to write a tome the size of War and Peace. Shinde can take comfort from the fact that he is not alone.
Not too long ago, we had the redoubtable Union minister for fertilisers and chemicals MK Alagiri, who spoke neither Hindi nor English, and was severely averse to attending office. Why was he made a minister? Coalition compulsions no doubt, but surely he was a disgrace even to his own party presided over by his loving father M Karunanidhi.
We have had ministers who have been openly disinterested in their portfolios since they felt that they were better suited to something more high profile.
But having been given a position in the Union Cabinet, not something that comes everyone’s way, it is incumbent upon the minister to learn the ropes lickety-split and master the subject. Once in office, you simply cannot rely on your dubious qualities like loyalty and sycophancy to get by.
We have had ministers like SM Krishna who was an international embarrassment. He read from the Portuguese foreign minister’s speech at the UN before his officers realised the error.
Shinde, yes him again, blithely named three child victims of rape in a statement without realising that he had actually broken the law in doing so. The prime minister who is a professional economist and who excels in his subject should not tolerate such slipshod work from his ministers.
If the government were a corporation, then half the ministers would either get no increments or would be given three months to find a new job. Of course, there are a slew of bureaucrats to help a minister along. But ultimately, he or she has to understand the subject enough to make an informed decision. In the age of the electronic media, there is no place to hide your ignorance.
And here, I have to commend our younger ministers. While they may have to live in the shadow of their elders, I have been really impressed every time I have seen them on television. Ministers like Jyotiraditya Scindia, Sachin Pilot, Milind Deora to name a few clearly do their homework and are to the point.
They don’t waffle about like many of their seniors and they are quick on their feet when unexpected questions are asked. Most of all, they don’t seem to proffer gratuitous words of wisdom as many like Shinde do. The art of knowing when not to say anything is a much underrated virtue in our politics.
Many of our ministers have taken refuge in wit and earthy humour to cover up for their lack of knowledge and I have to confess that we in the media have been all too eager to lap up their jokes quite unmindful of the fact that they control ministries which profoundly affect millions of people.
We have had chief ministers like Rabri Devi about whom an entire profile was written in a popular magazine in which her outstanding talent was to chop an entire cabbage in a matter of minutes.
Now that might have won her a place on Masterchef India but it seems to me that you require vastly different skills to run a huge, backward state like Bihar. The pursuit of power and its attainment seem to be ends in themselves.
While politicians in other civilised countries dare not appear in public babbling nonsense, our ministers seem to have no qualms about doing so. It would seem that it is us, the people, who are embarrassed. So once again, we blush for Shinde as we have done so often before.