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Home / Columns / Advisers, not courtiers

Advisers, not courtiers

Grey is a nowhere colour. Eminence is a no-win status. Yet Karan Singh and MS Swaminathan have both managed to be great examples of eminence grise. Gopalkrishna Gandhi writes.

columns Updated: Sep 07, 2013 01:34 IST

Karan Singh and MS Swaminathan are unusual.

‘Why, what is so unusual about them?’, I can hear some readers ask. ‘And what do they have in common?’

The obvious is often profound.

I was sharing a podium with them the other day in Delhi when Karan Singh said something about the two of them that was obvious to the point of being trite: “Both of us are wearing grey safari suits”. That was right but helped me reflect on the subject. By which I do not mean the two venerables but grey. Yes, grey. The raja-turned-pandit and the pandit-turned-kisan are rarely seen in attire other than grey or grey-blue safari suits.

The occasion was the launch of a very readable little book of conversations with Dr Swaminathan by his scholar-daughter Nitya Rao. Most persons on the stage and in the audience with fine heads of salt and pepper, looked wise and eminent. And made me think — aloud, needless to say — on the French phrase ‘eminence grise’, or grey eminence.

Why should eminence be described in that most boring of all colours? Why, leaving all the vivid colours of the rainbow, should grey, that drab shade of black resisting white, be joined to eminence? Or, to be very literal, is the phrase about salt hair, trying in vain, to look salt-and- pepper, on the eminent head? Or to the larger fact that as eminence ages or age turns eminent, it inclines it to grey rather than brightly coloured clothes, grey woollens, grey gloves, grey scarves and, if only they existed, to grey footwear? Perhaps.

But I think there is another, more subtle reason for the coupling of grey to eminence: Grey is a nowhere colour. Eminence is a no-win status.

Grey in fact is not a colour as much as the shadow of colours in a nervous mix. But if one were to call it a colour and invest ‘meaning’ in it, grey would be the colour of hope in retreat, of aspiration in decline, of wry experience being superseded by spry expertise.

Grey is the colour of ash. And ash is about what was.

Grey is the colour of smoke. And smoke is about what is no more.

Grey is the colour of aspiration dusted over by the rebuff of neglect.

Pride in experience turns ashen before the hubris of cock-sureness. It turns smokey before myopia.

Grey eminence is more grey than eminent — not so weak as to have to sit down when exhausted, not so strong as to be able to jump to attention at the sound of power’s bugles. Grey eminence is as worried as it is wise but such is its two-colour tone culture of self-restraint, that it is happier to suggest than to prescribe, to wish, to hope, to urge and even, at times, to lend its signature to the idiom of protest. Grey eminence can have the impulse to mail its fist, but is curbed by obligations to stay its hand. It is thoughtful in a world of calculations, knowledgeable in times of self-willed ignorance. Grey eminence is respected but it knows and rues the fact that if eminence is respected, prominence is applauded.

Eminence is owned. Prominence is borrowed.

Eminence is co-extensive with life. Prominence is co-terminous with influence.

There have been times, though, when the seemingly impossible has happened — eminence has managed to get and keep some prominence and prominence has actually looked eminent. And that is what has happened with Karan Singh and Swaminathan. They have managed, almost as if by a miracle, to be both eminent and prominent.

But while their eminence is theirs for all time, their prominence loves truancy. When Karan Singh or Swaminathan join, as nominees of the President of India, the council of the states, the Rajya Sabha, more than another MP takes his seat in that august hall. A social philosopher and a wise man comes to its deliberations. But as Karan Singh said of Swaminathan at that book event, Swaminathan’s voice is washed way in the torrents that flood Parliament’s time away.

Eminence counsels, prominence prescribes.

Eminence draws disciples. Prominence acquires courtiers.

Counsel can combine the features of an exhortation which is persuasive, an expostulation which is dissuasive, and a warning that can be an admonitory, making the person giving it an amalgam of adviser, prompter, monitor, mentor, critic, guide, teacher. But, above all, a counsellor.

Every age has seen counsellors heard, respected, placed on a side. Every age has seen courtiers hold smiles like garlands, bowing pick-thanks, rise to a brief nod by power.

Counsellors are not the most convenient persons to have around, but they are needed. Courtiers are not needed, they are convenient to have around.

Unjust and unwise wars have been fought against ‘grey’ counsel. Dishonourable treaties of peace have been secured by ‘coloured’ counsel.

Famines have been brought upon hapless people by the ignoring of ‘grey’ counsel and, equally, droughts have been fought with the help of timely counsel given by ‘grey’ sagacities.

Counsellors of the State have minds; they also have consciences. That is their strength, their signature.

Do States have a mind?

They do; but they also have compulsions.

States need to balance things — the necessary with the expedient, the desirable with the prudent, the short-term with the mid-term and both with the long-term.

Counsellors do not need to balance anything, for they are themselves, like the colour grey, balanced already between agelessness and ageing, inevitability and volition, disappointment and contentment, hope and resignation.

Nitya Rao’s publication on her father ends with a brief note on the qualities of a leader. It is insightful. Grey does not figure in it but it shows how convictions, bravely held and powerfully expressed, can turn grey from a colour to be lived with to a tone to be lived by.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor
The views expressed by the author are personal

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