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Putting politics in its place

Just because a person is a member of the BJP or the CPI, or votes for these parties doesn’t mean he subscribes to everything they stand for, writes Karan Thapar.

india Updated: May 27, 2007 04:36 IST

You might find this strange, but I’ve never believed that politics defines a person. No doubt, it’s important and it conveys a lot, but so do many other qualities. Most of them, individually and certainly collectively, count for more. So, I refuse to judge a person primarily by the fact that he or she is from the BJP or the Communist Party, to pick the two extremes on our spectrum. As far as I’m concerned that is a part of their personality, but only one of many. In most cases, it’s no more significant than the individual’s favourite colour, choice of music or possible preference for pastries over paranthas.

Now, of course, this won’t apply to Hitler or Stalin. Their political beliefs were so horrific, so devoid of moral content, so repugnant and repellant, that you could only judge them by it. The argument that Adolf was a generous host or Joseph a gifted raconteur and therefore should be remembered as much for that, as for his politics, cuts no ice. But Hitler or Stalin were a class by themselves. Ordinary human beings are very different. And just as Communism is not defiled by the fact that Stalin claimed to act in its name, so too individuals should not be branded primarily by their political beliefs.

Let me add one other thing: just because a person is a member of the BJP or the CPI, or votes for these parties, doesn’t mean he subscribes to everything they stand for, leave aside swears by the most tendentious bits of their political ideology. In most cases, the affiliation or the vote is a reflection of the fact that the party, at a particular moment in time, is the closest to the individual’s thinking. That’s all. And it could change. Certainly, every communist voter doesn’t accept the communist ideology’s subordination of the individual to the collective, just as every BJP supporter is not an Hindutva advocate.

To my dismay, I find journalists and, more surprisingly, politicians have started to brand people by their politics. This is either dreadful prejudice or intellectual laziness. Let me give you a twin example. The only reason why the Left won’t vote for Bhairon Singh Shekhawat as president is because he’s a life long member of the BJP. Similarly, the only grounds on which the BJP cannot accept Somnath Chatterjee is because he’s a communist. Neither side has considered the actual qualifications or virtues of either candidate. The fact that they are men of learning, of experience, of judgment and of enormous individual charm simply does not count.

Yet, are the politics of either man so important, so defining, that they should be judged principally by them? Certainly not. What’s worse is the suspicion that we are cancell ing out two of the best candidates for the job because the demands of a spurious political correctness requires that anyone associated with the arch enemy is damned from the start.

Clearly, the majority of the people of India don’t think this way. They feel no compunction switching from BJP to Congress to Communist and back again; depending upon what they feel is better for the moment. Indeed, even within individual families, wives can vote BJP and husbands Congress or vice-versa without either side losing respect for the other. They know there’s more to a person than his or her politics.

The irony is that today the clash of ideology is not just limited by the circumstances we live in, but it’s also made irrelevant by them. For instance, is there a real Communist government anywhere in the world? Not for a moment could you call Buddhadeb’s boys in Calcutta, commies. Similarly, despite its rhetoric, was the BJP a Hindu party in office? In fact, it was indistinguishable from Congress, including Gujarat 2002 which echoed and repeated Delhi 1984. Yet, as the role of ideology in actual politics shrinks and disappears, the use of ideological labels to pillory and ostracize has grown.

Politics is important but it’s not everything. The paradox is that it’s only when you appreciate its limitations that you understand its importance. The opposite is also true. Exaggerate its role and you will find that you have minimized its significance. If everyone and everything is to be judged by politics, then you are not really evaluating them at all. You are either excusing them or you’re accusing them. In the process — and this is the twist — you’re also diminishing yourself.