Messiahs or misfits?
What does Shashi Tharoor’s exit signify? The Indian political system’s inability to accept modern talent or the inability of the talented to navigate the rough and tumble of real politics?
What do Jairam Ramesh, Shashi Tharoor, Kapil Sibal, Abhishek Manu Singhvi, Mani Shankar Aiyar and Navjyot Singh Sidhu have in common (besides being extremely articulate individuals)?
They are all middle class men who joined politics at fairly senior levels after achieving success in their chosen fields. Aiyar could have become India’s foreign secretary but he quit the Indian Foreign Service (IFS).
“Don’t,” advised Rajiv Gandhi, Aiyar’s Doon School school junior-turned-boss, in 1989. “I will never be able to make you a minister. The system will not accept you,” Gandhi warned him. He knew well the resistance put up by the “system” against Arun Singh and Arun Nehru, two ministers in his council, also lateral entrants in politics.
But Aiyar, who went on to become a minister, still quit.
His nomination to the Rajya Sabha after his defeat in the general elections in 2009 shows how valued he is in Congress President Sonia Gandhi’s scheme of things. Aiyar sees it differently. “I am still an outsider. My thinking is so out of sync with the dominant thinking of the times.”
Several lateral entrants, in recent times, have acquired high profiles and varied degrees of success in politics – noted lawyers Kapil Sibal and Abhishek Manu Singhvi are Union HRD minister and Congress spokesperson, respectively, former bureaucrat and chief election commissioner M.S. Gill is minister of state for sports and former Indian cricketer Navjot Singh Sidhu is an MP and national secretary of the BJP.
So does it mean that the divide between outsiders and insiders is being bridged?
“Those in the urban upper middle class who believe lateral entry infuses merit into politics should realise that professional success in, say, computers, does not mean one can be a good politician … A good professor, or sportsman, may not necessarily make a good Prime Minister. The country is not a company, and the PM is not a CEO,” says sociologist Dipankar Gupta.
While fellow-Stephenian Tharoor was sliding from one controversy to the other, Aiyar offered him a piece of advice. “Humour is all about context, a lesson young Shashi Tharoor will have to learn before he transforms himself from a UN tadpole into a ministerial frog,” he wrote.
Aiyar, one of the most humorous and iconoclastic politicians around, admits to have learnt some lessons. “A joke has to be tailored to the audience. Indeed, even a gesture has to be tailored to the audience, as Tharoor discovered when he foolishly tried to teach a Kerala audience true patriotism by holding their hands across their chests like Americans do when they sing their national anthem. The Malayalis were not amused. Nor was I.”
Among the lateral entrants into politics, those who learnt their lessons in time survived and flourished. Others wondered why they had joined politics at all.
“Politics and government need talented people. At the same time, lateral entrants must never forget that the ultimate test in politics is public support, first within the party and then without,” says a senior Congress functionary.
“In politics you cannot be candid all the time. One may have to hide one’s feelings,” says Ajit Jogi, who resigned from the Indian Administrative Service to join politics in 1986. Jogi became a national leader in the Congress and the first chief minister of Chhattisgarh. Both Jogi and Aiyar, in some ways, attribute their political career to Rajiv Gandhi.
Having a godfather in politics is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition. “The political process in a democratic country has its own culture. Like anyone coming to a new arena, those who are non-political must learn the norms of political culture. Parties also have their norms of sub-culture, which the new entrant should try to modestly learn.
Otherwise, the lateral entrant, however brilliant, will face opposition within,” says Anand Kumar, professor of sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
Intellectual arrogance and a self-proclaimed “clean-the-politics” obsession that many lateral entrants carry keep them aloof from the grassroots of the party, gradually swelling the opposition camp, while their friends have little role in navigating the political process.
Those who cannot talk and walk with crowds – howsoever virtuous they may be – are misfit in politics. And those who lose the common touch when they begin to walk with kings lose out in politics.