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The Raj strikes back

An ‘English-medium education’ is a tremendous aspiration across the country. Politicians of all linguistic colours from Hindi chauvinists to Marathi warriors all send their children to the best English medium schools, writes Sagarika Ghose.

india Updated: Dec 08, 2009 22:57 IST

Environment and Forests Minister Jairam Ramesh is India’s new king of climate, leading our country’s charge against the West who are forcing India to accept carbon emission cuts. The IIT-educated Ramesh is an unlikely nationalist folk hero, and in spite of being targeted by the Opposition on his alleged sell out to the West, it is he who now embodies India’s national interest at Copenhagen.

Even before Ramesh became Mr Green India, the Harvard Business School-educated Home Minister P. Chidambaram has already been consolidating his image as Mr Strong India. Chidambaram’s speeches have charted a bold new position of defending the ‘Idea Of India’ from ‘Islamic terrorism’, ‘Hindu extremism’ and ‘ideologically-driven violence’.

Then there is the St Stephen’s College-educated Mr Educate India, Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal who has also taken a daring first step in attempting to transform India’s mind-numbing examination system. Last but not the least, there is the Oxford-educated Mr United India, Minority Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid who bravely declared recently that Muslim vote or no Muslim vote, Muslims should have no qualms about singing Vande Mataram.

The UPA not only has some very well intentioned bright ministers, but all these ministers also represent important political positions. Now haven’t we always assumed that Stephanians, Oxonians, IITians and Harvard-educated individuals are totally irrelevant in today’s politics? Perhaps not.

After all what do Chidambaram, Sibal, Ramesh and Khurshid have in common? All hail from the educated English-speaking elite, all have attended Western educational institutions, all are extremely good talkers for the mass media and all are regarded, from the point of view of conventional ‘Mandalised’ politics as political ‘lightweights’, compared to doughty people’s messiahs like Lalu, Mulayam and Mayawati. Yet, a liberalising society with an international interface demands talent and education, and the Hindi lobby’s snobbery about the English-speaking class’ political irrelevance may be a little outdated.

An ‘English-medium education’ is a tremendous aspiration across the country. Politicians of all linguistic colours from Hindi chauvinists to Marathi warriors all send their children to the best English medium schools. And now there is a creeping realisation that being able to communicate in good English provides a cutting edge in politics too.

Even last year it would have been impossible to believe that Ramesh would have become a mascot of the UPA government. Until five years ago, he was considered a political non-entity who had no political constituency, and had to be brought into Parliament by the backdoor as a Rajya Sabha MP from Andhra Pradesh. But last week, as Parliament debated climate change, Ramesh was transformed into India’s voice ahead of the Copenhagen summit.

In fact, the climate change debate was a good example of how in a younger, more knowledgeable India debates are becoming more meaningful than simply loud statements of ideology. Young MPs cutting across party lines — Stephanian Sandeep Dikshit, London School of Economics-educated Jayant Chaudhary, doctor Jyoti Mirdha — spoke with an intelligence that would make an impact on a voter of 21st century India.

Chidambaram is a far more seasoned politician than Ramesh, and has won elections repeatedly from Sivaganga, Tamil Nadu. Yet Chidambaram, fast emerging as a tough and perspicacious home minister is hardly a mass Tamil leader or a mela-ground rallyist or a caste chieftain. Brain power rather than political power, intellectual talent rather than a talent for mass politics are the hallmarks of politicians like Chidambaram.

Sibal and Khurshid are not mass leaders either. Yet their ability to communicate policy and appeal to the growing numbers of an aspiring upwardly mobile voting public, indeed their saliency within the UPA, is a sign that the English-speaking educated politician has made a comeback in Indian politics. Let’s not forget that it was this educated class that was in the vanguard of the freedom movement: 35.6 per cent of our first Lok Sabha was made up of lawyers.

Yet, elitism is not a virtue in politics. A democracy’s life blood is provided by grassroots leaders like the Lalu, Mulayam and Karunanidhi and the new educated politicians have a great deal to learn from them. But the elitism of merit and education is distinct from the elitism of birth and family. Today’s young MPs are all beneficiaries of family connections, yet at the same time — because of their education and articulation — they are able to dominate debates on contemporary issues such as trade and climate in a way that old-style netajis perhaps cannot.

Television is perhaps an important reason why the English-speaking politician has returned to saliency. Television shapes middle class perceptions of politics and TV brings a brilliant minister into voters’ drawing rooms as no Ram Lila ground speech can. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s public appeal has a lot to do with the power of TV: soft spoken policy initiatives, which would be lost in mass rally, can be heard first hand on TV. Articulate English-speaking party spokespersons like Manish Tiwari or Ravi Shankar Prasad rise much faster than their colleagues who may not be as au fait with issues. An Arun Jaitley may not have contested an election, but has become the BJP’s Opposition leader in the Rajya Sabha purely on his uniquely bilingual oratorial talents.

Sagarika Ghose is Senior Editor, CNN-IBN


The views expressed by the author are personal.