For an emotional people who seek tactile validation from all other parts of our lives, have you ever wondered how we seem to end up electing politicians who are — for the most part — aloof and distant, irrespective of party affiliations? This quintessentially Indian gap between the voter and the voted is poignantly captured in the classic photo-image of every political rally. A sea of outstretched hands desperately trying to reach across a neck-high barricade, using the tiny open spaces to thrust their way in and somehow talk to — or maybe just even touch the leader-in-a-hurry on the other side. And this is when it is election season. Or maybe, in the aftermath of a natural disaster. For the rest of the year most politicians appear to be desk-bound administrators who inhabit a world that remains opaque and inaccessible to those who placed them there.
Indeed, they may work 16-hour days, firefight against a daily crisis and have jobs that are tougher than most of us appreciate. But the fact is that even the best-intentioned of them, appear essentially non-existent to their constituents. And decency cannot be a substitute for invisibility. In a world where online technology is forcing egalitarianism and empowering people into direct conversations with the world's most powerful, it is ironic that in India we are still to evolve a politics of mass contact and visible empathy. If anything — because Independent India was built on a Gandhian people's movement — this country's first generation netas were much more at ease among their own people.
Since then — and here's the irony — while politics has become much more representative in terms of caste, religion and gender, it has simultaneously become much more elitist, if measured in terms of how many of us are ever able to meet and directly connect with those we elect.
The haze of inaccessibility is even more deeply reinforced by the fact that at the top echelons of power, there appears to be a deep suspicion of or — at the very least — discomfort with the media and the platforms it could offer to serve as a bridge of communication. In informal interactions, I have never known Manmohan Singh to shy away from answering a question, no matter how awkward it may be. To the dismay of his minders, his answers are usually defined by a refreshing, no-frills bluntness. Yet, after six years in office, he is yet to give an interview to an Indian journalist. His interventions in Parliament are rare, and usually in response to an adamant demand for a prime ministerial clarification. And his press conferences in the capital attract headlines just for the fact that they are being held.
His predecessor, A.B. Vajpayee was not that much more forthcoming either and had converted his ambiguous pauses into a virtual political strategy. And while the BJP may legitimately raise questions today over what it calls the "silence" of Manmohan Singh, even its own leaders would not be willing to be part of an American-style presidential debate during elections.
By contrast, when you see Barack Obama sitting down to guffaw with five women on The View or David Cameron rolling up his sleeves and letting
his hair down at a university campus, our own political culture seems so stodgy and yesteryear. Sure, I don't think when we say openness; we mean the vaguely orchestrated chummy energy of the
Obamas on vacation, or an abiding interest in whether Sasha gets a pet dog. But between the Hallmark version of the politician-as-showman and the Indian extreme of the politician-as-introvert, surely there is space for a real, communicative, accessible form of connecting with people?
While this may read as the frustrated lament of a journalist, this is a debate that actually has precious little to do with the media. Politicians may even be correct in their contempt for the minuscule reach of the English language media in a country as vast as India. But can they afford to be as indifferent to the perceptions of the people? And doesn't silence and the absence of a tangible political narrative only exacerbate and worsen things for any government?
Every area of friction and flashpoint today has suffered precisely from this missing expression of empathy and articulation. In Kashmir, for example, with 61 civilian deaths, many of them teenagers, even children — the youngest victim is an 8-year-old — how can Indian politicians justify their silence and their emotional disconnect? Whether it's the chief minister — who made a trip to the hospital only after the deaths and injuries started mounting, or the prime minister himself who did eventually break his silence, but two months into the crisis — there is a sense of deep disappointment at the absence of immediate intervention.
Worse still, sometimes when politicians do speak, they speak in multiple voices and mostly to snipe at each other. So there is a lot of noise, but very little cogency. Nothing illustrates this better than the cacophonous disagreement within the UPA over the government's anti-Naxal strategy. As Mani Shankar Aiyar and Digvijay Singh express open dissent and key ally, Mamata Banerjee directly contradicts the home ministry's formulations, you can't help but feel that it is the absence of clear articulation at the very top that has amplified the confusion within.
Our choice as voters cannot be between the extremes of noise and silence, or aloofness and rehearsed friendliness. In the end, politics is about people and it should have no space for misanthropic inwardness. Effective politics belongs to those who have the common touch.
Social scientists who study human behaviour have long observed that IQ without EQ (emotional quotient) makes for stunted relationships. That may be a lesson that our political class needs to internalise. Or else, to borrow a line from the cult Paul Simon song, Sounds of Silence, in "restless dreams they will walk alone".
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV
The views expressed by the author are personal