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Performance bonus

The Indian electorate has matured. They will choose substance over style. Barkha Dutt elaborates.

india Updated: Apr 17, 2009 21:35 IST

The breakdown of civility between Manmohan Singh and LK Advani surprises me. One part of it is the startling role reversal — now it’s the otherwise soft-spoken Prime Minister who is cast in the role of aggressor and the tough-talking Leader of the Opposition who has staked claim to be the hurt victim. But the vitriol is unexpected also because both men are cut from an older cloth of political grooming — one where differences can be ferocious, but personal civility must still remain intact.

So, did the PM simply get fed up of being dubbed “weak” and finally react? Those who know him well — colleague and friend, Montek Singh Ahluwalia among them — make the point that the new edge to Manmohan Singh’s counter-attack on Advani isn’t born from a sudden moment of thin-skinned emotion. The PM himself told the Editors’ Guild that everything he has said about his challenger was entirely “well considered.”

The face-off between the two veterans got me thinking about a larger question, one that goes beyond either individual. How do we measure leadership? And even more interestingly, is charisma a fundamental index?

Traditionally, of course, history’s headline grabbers have all had that intangible “star quality” that belongs to actors and effective politicians — magnificent oratory, a decisive manner, personal charm and a larger-than-life persona.

Yet, in India, flamboyance, at least, is no longer a guarantee of political success. It may draw the crowds, evoke both laughter and applause and yet may not translate into votes. By the same argument, a quiet efficiency can sometimes do wonders at the electoral box-office. The BJP’s principal objection to Manmohan Singh may well be that real authority resides with the Congress president. But it has unwittingly ended up making leadership style the central focus of the
debate. And on that, it only needs to look within its family fold to find some very interesting illustrations.

The three most effective Chief Ministers of the BJP are without doubt, Raman Singh, Shivraj Singh Chauhan and Narendra Modi. Of the three, Modi is the one with the machismo. His in-your-face assertiveness, politically incorrect speeches and muscular style have all kept his hold over Gujarat unwavering. Yet, even with him, his political success has much to do with the robotic efficiency of his administration and his ability to crush wasteful dissent. But, Raman Singh and Shivraj Singh Chauhan have nothing in common with Modi’s style. Both are essentially low-key in style and high profile in deliverables. In Chhattisgarh, the ayurveda doctor-turned- politician’s clean image and his popular rice schemes have propelled him to stardom. In Madhya Pradesh, the singular focus on development won Chauhan a second term.

Perhaps the study in contrasts is nowhere more striking than in Bihar. Lalu Prasad is a politician’s politician. Travelling with him on the campaign trail is like cinema verite. His ready wit, constant affability, shrewd use of humour and earthy charm have made him both a TV delight and a chatterati favourite. And yet, today, he is facing one of the biggest battles of his political life in Bihar because of his erstwhile friend Nitish Kumar. The cliché of chalk and cheese must have been written keeping the two in mind. Bihar’s CM has none of the punch and panache of the Railway Minister. He speaks in soft, measured and sincere tones. At his house in Patna, he told me one of his proudest achievements is the scheme that distributed free bicycles to school-going girls. He said college students were now walking up to him and saying, “Uncle, why have we been left out?” And somehow you can imagine him evoking an avuncular trust. He proudly tells us that ever since he imposed the Arms Act, gun-wielding goondas who were once a staple of Bihar have gone either into hiding or to jail.

Remember the Bihar where kidnappings were once the only headline out of the state? Now all that is a thing of the past.

There is a sense of peace in Patna, at least relatively. He says all this with a matter-of-fact sense of satisfaction. Nitish Kumar will never be the showman that Lalu Prasad Yadav is.

And yet, his development agenda has made him an electoral favourite this time. Even the Congress is desperate to court him, making the original performer — Lalu — more and more bitter and angry. Ironically, the turnaround in Lalu Prasad’s own image came with his sterling performance in the Railway Ministry. The fact that he managed to pull it out of the red made us all see him as so much more than the politician who could always make us laugh.

So, what’s the moral of the story? It’s my sense that decency has sometimes been the most underrated virtue in Indian politics. And it’s finally beginning to get the place and recognition it deserves. The electorate is so fatigued of corruption and non-performance, that it would now choose probity over personality, any time. Much like young girls, who think that good boys are boring, till the years force them to realise what truly counts; the Indian voter is growing up.

Charm, verve, charisma, oratory are all great and enviable qualities. But, if I had to choose between substance and style, I know what I’d pick. What about you?

(Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV)