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Time for politicians to get new clothes

‘Politician’ is a dirty word in India and has become a symbol of corruption and criminal might. But things will get better only when the people begin to discard the scum, writes Sujata Anandan.

india Updated: Apr 25, 2007 04:10 IST

When I first met my good friend Sudarshan Loyalka, a businessman-cum-politician, he was in his socialist avtaar. Which meant I only saw him in white — khadi or otherwise — but always crisply turned out in kurta-pyjamas, of which he seemed to have an entire wardrobe.

So I was startled one afternoon when he invited me over to lunch and found him in jeans and a designer shirt. I thought that attire was entirely unsuitable for both his political meetings and his business lunches. “You better get used to seeing me in these clothes,’’ he snapped. “I do not want to be lynched!’’

That had me really flummoxed — until he explained. That weekend as he had tried to intervene in a quarrel between a motorist and a pedestrian and sort out the problem, both parties turned on him. “Maro, maro! Saala, neta hai! Netagiri karne aaya hai!’’ both the motorist and the pedestrian and their respective supporters screamed, quite forgetting their own contretemps. “I ran for my life and only just made it to my car before the blows began to rain on me in right earnest,’’ Loyalka told me. “Take it from me, it will not be long before the people in this country begin to lynch politicians simply for being what they are. It will not matter whether they are bad or out to do good, like I was.’’

That, though, was merely the trigger for Loyalka to get out of his politician’s garb. “For long, absolute strangers in lifts used to subject me to a lot of abuse for my clothes,” he said. “They wouldn’t look me in the eye but, presuming I was a politician, they would abuse my ‘tribe’ in the foulest of terms and say we were responsible for everything going wrong anywhere in the country — from dam bursts to even 60-year-old Sheikhs marrying 16-year-old girls in Hyderabad! I thought it was time I got back to business and a new set of clothes.’’

Being a political correspondent, I knew what Loyalka meant. I was working for Outlook those days and in all my time there, apart from stories on subjects like Bombay’s underworld or the match-fixing scam (which were little to do with politics), I got only two covers — both were on Bal Thackeray.

Other good stories (including on Sharad Pawar and Vilasrao Deshmukh) only made windows, which were small pictures on top-right of the cover, the actual cover story being the popularity of Thai food in India or something equally frothy. I know I should have been outraged but then the sales staff told me the covers that sold the least on the stands were on politicians or political issues. We tried again and again but the only politician who ever sold was Bal Thackeray, I was told, and how many times could we put him on the cover?

Even today, it is only the Sena tiger who makes the headlines on the front pages, whenever he chooses to roar as of yore. We all know why he has so much resale value, ageing and frail though he may be with frequent and long pauses between one roar and the next. Sharad Pawar is doing great things in the Union Ministry of Agriculture but no one is interested and the only time when Vilasrao Deshmukh and R R Patil make the headlines, it is on account of perceived failures and none of their successes are taken note of.

So I was not surprised when last week a nationwide television poll by NDTV on who should be the next President of India overwhelmingly returned only two names: Narayana Murthy and Amartya Sen. Both great men in their own fields who might contribute a good deal to nation-building but I, personally, do not believe non-politicians are equal to the job.

However, if a whole nation believes that its politicians have reached their sell-by date and that we now need to look to achievers from other fields to occupy such high offices, then I think it is time for every one of them to worry that they might be lynched simply for being politicians, good or bad. And to get themselves a new set of clothes.

I do not know if this is a thing of the times or if the early years of Independence were more idealistic and romantic but during one such discussion a bureaucrat of my father’s vintage said something that has stayed with me. “Even Mahatma Gandhi used to keep one hand in the pockets of our industrialists,’’ he said.

“But all that money used to go for good work — the freedom struggle, then hospitals, schools, tube wells, roads wherever his ashrams were set up. The early politicians followed that example — in exchange for licences, they had the industrialists build these things, which would otherwise never have got going.”

“But now,” he rued, “the money goes straight into the politicians’ pockets, and the villagers wait for their roads and tube-wells for generations together.’’

But in addition to corrupt politicians, we now also have certified criminals contesting and winning elections (look at the UP example, the word ‘bahubali’ is now an indelible part of the Indian political lexicon, and there are such criminals in Maharashtra’s politics, too) — no wonder ‘politician’ is becoming a dirty word in this country. Apart from such criminals entering politics for reasons known well to the people, the only non-politicians today who actively seek political office are businessmen of all kinds — so that their proximity to the powers-that-be keeps their businesses running smoothly.

That, of course, I do not think is anything to carp about because every citizen in this country has the right to look out for his own interests. But when people like Pappu Kalani, who equate their business interests with criminal intimidation dressed up as political power, are let loose on the polity, it is no wonder that businessmen like Loyalka, with a fellow feeling for the underprivileged and wanting to do good, get nearly lynched by enraged mobs and are forced out of their humble homespun Indian khadi and into jeans as Western as they come. A sad commentary but true, nonetheless.

However, I notice that even the almighty Pappu Kalani is now facing the people’s wrath, though they are not yet lynching the man. This year he suffered massive defeats in the Ulhasnagar municipal elections — a few years ago such a defeat would have been unthinkable, given that he was virtually a bahubali in the region and someone even Sharad Pawar found very hard to ignore for that very reason.

Pawar forced the Congress hand in the 1990s to give Kalani a ticket to the Assembly; when both Pawar and Kalani found themselves out of the Congress, the Maratha strongman came to his own arrangement with this muscleman. Now if the people themselves begin to disregard the bahubali, it could be just a matter of time before Pawar drops him like a hot potato, lest he himself become one vis-à-vis the general masses.

Although I disagree about the role of a non-politician in the office of the President of India, I think the people may not be far wrong in wanting high-brow intellectuals like Murthy and Sen to now take to politics. But if we look hard enough, I believe we could find some good men (like Karan Singh or P.C. Alexander, for example) who would bring intellectualism, honesty, integrity and a clean political image to that office.

And if we looked even harder, I am sure we could find many good politicians (the do-gooders as against the criminal intimidators) hiding in the woodwork or simply pushed to the sidelines. People with the propensity to do good, I find, often do not have the ability to take on things like criminal intimidation and, like Loyalka, choose to bow out of the race rather than invite more damage to limb and property.

So I would go against my better instincts to root, alongside other people, for either Murthy or Sen, if we cannot have Singh or Alexander in that high office this time around. For, I believe there is no greater power than people’s power. And only when the people begin to boot out the politicians, will the scum among them surface to the top to be, then, easily skimmed off. And, then, even if the best, like John Milton said, come in the last, they will begin to come in at last!