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Connection failures

Last week at a bar in central Delhi’s Khan Market, 10 stand-up comics were fighting it out to win the audience’s approval. One thing common to all of them was that, regardless of the quality of their jokes, every one was getting the laughs. Chanakya writes.

india Updated: Sep 24, 2011 22:55 IST
Chanakya

Last week at a bar in central Delhi’s Khan Market, 10 stand-up comics were fighting it out to win the audience’s approval. One thing common to all of them was that, regardless of the quality of their jokes, every one was getting the laughs. Stand-up comedy, unlike any other profession, comes with real-time feedback. You get the audience laughing, you know you’re doing a good job. You hear coughs in between silence, and you know you’re doomed even as you’re on the stage.

Politicians in India could do well to have a similar feedback mechanism. Take the case of BJP stalwart LK Advani’s decision to go on a nationwide rath yatra to highlight the bane of corruption in the country. You don’t have to be Arun Jaitley to realise that the 83-year-old ‘lauh purush’ is all set to pick up weapons that have gone to rust in 2011 India. The discomfort within the party is as palpable as Advani’s desire to take one last shot at the prime ministerial post. While the former three-time BJP president may be thinking that what worked 20 years ago to catapult a party with two Lok Sabha seats to the political centrestage may work again, the disconnect between his ‘latest’ method of performance politics and what the nation’s electorate is interested in is as visible as that between 1991 India and 2011 India.

And it’s not only the BJP that’s caught in a time warp. The Congress, with all its technocratic sheen, has managed to come across as a not-so-grand old party still treating itself as a patron-in-chief to the masses, while the masses themselves have very different demands in mind. In essence, the UPA’s problem has been a problem of supply-demand. It continues to supply what is increasingly not in demand.

The unfinished Anna Hazare episode highlighted this gap. While the UPA ministers were genuinely puzzled at why there was such a popular surge of support for an entity that wasn’t the mai-baap State, they failed to register the fact that this government was not as socially networked as it had reckoned. The universe occupied by those thronging to various rallies in support of Hazare had little in common with that occupied by those in Parliament.

Being connected to the people is a prime requisite of parliamentary democracy. This is not a homily; this is result-oriented common sense. It is up to politicians to engage with those, say, opposing the setting up of nuclear facilities at Jaitapur and Kudankulam, or the anti-Posco agitators at Govindpur in Orissa, and convince them of a policy. If they aren’t very good at their powers of convincing them — or very bothered about the need to convince — well, there will be blowback. The old days of doling out policy or schemes and expecting to be pranaam-ed for it are gone. The useful dependency on the loyalty of ‘Real India’ is also no longer secure, as regular barriers put up against government land acquisition plans are proving.

Earlier, it was the electorate that was the furry pet to be fed, relatively happy to be served whatever was being served up by politicians. Now, it’s the politicians who are cooped up and failing to read what a mature electoral ‘market’ is demanding from them, even as the latter keeps sending back servings that it no longer cares for to the kitchen .

In all this, where is the dynamic young blood whose prime USP is the ability — nay, sheer chutzpah — to go in where no veteran politician would care to go? Rahul Gandhi’s frequent forays were supposed to be the spearhead for a humming Congress connection with New India, rather than being isolated high-profile reconnaissance missions. There is certainly a battery of young leaders in both the Congress and the BJP who can roll up their kurta sleeves and do the needful. It’s time to let them loose.

With social media such as Facebook and Twitter as well as an evolving ‘traditional’ media changing the terrain and terms of interaction between politicians and the people, to survive, the political class simply has to connect itself to the ‘out there’ at a truly interactive level. Effectively, it has to be part of the very real and voluble Social Network.

At the stand-up comedy evening at Khan Market, I noticed that most of those cheering and guffawing were friends of the performers. My advice to those serious about stand-up comedy: having friends and supporters provide the desired response can make you believe that you’re ‘connecting’. A surer way of knowing whether you’re doing your job well or not is to perform before strangers who will be more honest. The same holds true for those serious about stand-up politics. Unless they have a great strategy that involves changing the people of 2011 India wholesale.