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Casualties of an accident

The Prime Minister could have been middle-class India’s door to politics. But he may have, tragically, shut the door on himself, writes Sagarika Ghose.
By Sagarika Ghose
UPDATED ON OCT 25, 2007 11:32 PM IST

"I am a politician by accident," the Prime Minister had said at the Hindustan Times Leadership summit earlier this month, “I did not choose a career in politics, but here I am.” The accidental politician was middle-class India’s greatest and possibly last hope. Generally, India’s educated middle-class is notoriously alienated from politics. Although lawyers and academics made up a sizeable proportion of the country’s first parliament, current parliament and assemblies are dominated by agriculturalists. Amid Mayawati, H.D. Deve Gowda, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Narendra Modi, Manmohan Singh stood out as the educated middle-class professional who was not a politician, instead he was a technocrat.

Yet today, the PM seems isolated, on the nuclear deal as well as economic reforms. The isolation of the pm contains broader lessons on the isolation of India’s professional middle-class. Expecting to be rewarded in public life for being talented and decent is no longer feasible. A democratic India today thirsts for the bridge builders who are able to wear a safari suit as comfortably as they may don a dhoti. “I have never seen him look so troubled,” a senior aide to the PM said recently. “He feels betrayed and let down by his own party colleagues.” Why is the PM so isolated? The reason is that unfortunately, he sees politics and politicians as a ‘necessary evil’, things he needs to tolerate and put up with rather than engage in wholeheartedly. He’s too stand-offish about politics, too scornful perhaps of the political process. There lies the reason for his isolation.

The PM’s disgust of politicians finds a ready echo in many. ‘Sab neta chor hain’, is the refrain that runs in the gymkhanas, rotary clubs, lions clubs from Bhopal to Chennai to Aurangabad. A self-evident truth, and one that is constantly repeated is that ‘good people don’t join politics’. Politics is seen as the preoccupation of those hungry for power or their own sectional ambitions, the last resort of those who do not think of the greater good of the public. The PM’s greatest failure is that he could have opened a new era in the involvement of ‘good people’ in politics. He could have been a trendsetter in showing how the middle-classes can get involved in politics. Instead, all he has managed to show is just how distanced he and the entire educated middle-class is from the netas.

There is no doubting the PM’s utter decency, his humility, his goodness, all those attributes that could have made him a darling of the middle-class. Not a breath of scandal is attached to him. From the nuclear deal to the reforms programme, there is the conviction that he’s acting according to what he believes are the best interests of the nation.

Yet Singh’s failure to become political, his failure to engage other politicians in order to try and cleanse and purify the political process, has not only left him isolated but has been a great missed opportunity. A finance minister can afford to ignore politicians, an economic advisor can afford to turn up his nose at MLAs who don’t know their fission from their fusion, but a PM? A PM is a leader of the people, he is the symbol of an elected government and he must, above all, be a large-hearted ‘big’ persona. Above all, a PM must believe in politics, as political processes are the lifeblood of democracy.

Political organisation, political competitiveness, the big political gesture — all these are integral to democracy. The PMs must come across as lovers and leaders of people. Sadly, Singh, and the educated middle-class in India, are too squeamish about people of India. The division of labour with Congress President Sonia Gandhi of ‘Madam-you-do-the-politics-and-I’ll-do-the-governance’, has not been a happy arrangement for Singh or the Congress. Today, the Congress is benefiting from having Singh at the helm, but the PM is hardly benefiting from the Congress.

Glance at the manner in which the top Congress leaders have treated Singh. Have any of the Big Three — whether a Pranab Mukherjee, an Arjun Singh or a Shivraj Patil — come out all guns blazing in support of the nuclear deal? Apart from the eloquent Kapil Sibal and P. Chidambaram who have defended the deal in the press, has the Congress really rallied behind the PM and created a big political initiative to manage the coalition on the deal? Not really. What an incredible indictment of the UPA coalition, that no senior minister or ally, with the exception of the gallant Lalu Prasad, have stepped up by the PM’s side to form a line of attack against the Left. How very shocking for a ruling coalition that on the PM’s biggest initiative, it has not stood by him.

In contrast to the famously silent P.V. Narasimha Rao, who managed to push economic reforms despite the fact that he headed a minority government, the political constituency for economic reforms is now missing. The biggest difference between Singh and Rao — and even A.B. Vajpayee — is that Rao and Vajpayee believed in and practised politics, whether by artful silences or by poetic ambivalence. Singh, by contrast, like any educated person, threw up his hands at the Left for blocking the nuclear deal. It was an understandable reaction, but not a political one.

In a number of instances of his tenure the PM has confessed to an apolitical unknowing. He did not know about Natwar Singh’s involvement in the Volcker ‘scam’. He did not know about the defreezing of the Quattrocchi account. He was unaware that Arjun Singh was about to float the OBC quota balloon. Or that Anbumani Ramadoss is running the Health Ministry as his own fiefdom. By contrast, the intensely political Pranab Mukherjee, who when not being the Congress’s troubleshooter with the Left is engaging in backdoor ‘diplomacy’ with a number of other troublesome UPA allies. Singh, like other ‘non-political’ politicians like Kapil Sibal or Arun Jaitley or even a Mani Shankar Aiyar finds himself outmanoeuvred by the professional politicians like the Rajnath Singhs or the Suresh Kalmadis. These English-speaking lawyers and bureaucrats are talented eloquent speakers who are superb in TV debates, yet they appear ineffective as coalition managers.

“Why don’t you all join politics?” Sonia Gandhi asked the genteel and educated audience at the HT Leadership Summit. “Politics is not that bad.” The educated middle-class certainly does need to join politics, but not join politics to work antiseptically on laptops, use snobbish words like ‘synergy’ and worry about getting their hands dirty.

Politicians instead must revel in the political process. They must adore people, jump into crowds, pump hands, kiss babies, travel by train to remotest corners, walk where there are no roads, speak a language that touches hearts, causes tears to flow and raises a million cheers. When Mayawati talks, the crowd falls silent. When Narendra Modi walks, thousands — whether we like it or not — join him. And if anyone can push economic reforms throughout in India, it will be these natural-born leaders and charmers of crowds like Mayawati and Modi and to some extent Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, state-level leaders of people for whom good economics is also political innovation. The PM could have been middle-class India’s door to politics. But he may have, tragically, shut the door on himself.

Sagarika Ghose is Senior Editor, CNN IBN

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