The Hindi for 'leader' is neta. Except when recalling Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, the word is used today as an abuse. It evokes pretension, swagger, hypocrisy.
Cartoonists have reflected the word's debasement. In the Nehru era, cartoonists portrayed political leaders witheringly, even savagely. But not despairingly. When Shankar showed Nehru wan, feckless or immobile, he showed him to be the victim of the many circumstances he had unwittingly created and of which he had become a prisoner. When Laxman drew Nehru capless and worn, he was being shown up for what he often was — hapless and torn. And when in a mood swing, he showed Nehru smiling, chest puffed out, admiring the rose in his own buttonhole, he showed our first Prime Minister to be the childlike optimist that he was.
Cartoonists use the invisible ink of reproach. The politics they lampoon is capable of redemption.
But malice, wickedness and venality need a searing satirist, not a caricaturist. They invite the excoriating acid of scorn.
Like 'neta', the word 'politics' too is in deep trouble. It no longer denotes a profession of public service or a commitment beyond oneself to a set of ideas or values. A 'politician' is seen as desperate, generally cunning and often ruthless. He gambles with a die so rough-used that none of the pips on its six faces can be read. He wagers to win. But win what ?
He probably does not know himself. Because he does not know his own self. His essential nature is now so overlaid with the varnish of attitude and the grime of double-talk that he is more like a poster, a hoarding or a 'cut-out' of himself, rather than himself. Caricatures used to resemble their subjects. Politicians now resemble their caricatures.
And politics itself is now a game that has no fixed rules, only fixed goals. And these goals are not about winning people to points of view or winning hearts and minds through arguments bravely advanced or gracefully conceded, but about other kinds of 'winnings'.
A politician, in order to be anything like a political leader of howsoever small or large a territory, has to be a winner, a political winner. And to be a political winner he has to go through a mill that makes him, first, an abject loser before he can even begin to think of being a winner. What does he have to lose? Basically, autonomy.
It is by first losing the right, the scope, the opportunity to take rational, un-coerced decisions that he has to try winning. He does this by winning Boss Number One's favour (if shown by no more than a fractional nod of recognition), winning Number Two's patronage and Number Three's preferment, winning territorial writs over a block here or a zilla there, winning races for posts within the party's hierarchy of cabals and committees, winning the protection of the money-strong and the bicep-strong and from that vantage winning selections to pre-election processes, and then winning elections themselves.
On a field ploughed by flattery, seeded by intrigue and watered by ambition grows a harvest of smirking pickthanks and sniveling malcontents. And it is from among that dubious 'winning field' that the 'neta' emerges, self-respect battered but self-advancement assured.
What can be expected of such a 'political leader'?
He is already compromised. To all that and to all those before whom he has surrendered autonomy. And to interests so vested, so entrenched in their self-perpetuations. The political leader has, for the rest of his innings, to remain an agent.
Can such a political leader be expected to 'try' anything, anything at all, in the larger fields of nation-building? Or where he has to take decisions that must, hurt those vested interests, those entrenched stakes ?
And yet it is from the same sludge that a new leadership must emerge.
It is from the same landfill of political ambition that its own exceptions must rise, with the guts to speak bitter truths, not honeyed words, when we need to forget the emotive, forgive the hurtful and forego the coveted in the nation's larger interest.
And dredge the quag of mire.
The moribund now awaits the dynamic; the discredited norm, its redemptive exception.
(Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor)