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Politics of change

In today’s India, politicians can build mass bases on the back of good governance as well, writes Barkha Dutt.

india Updated: Mar 13, 2009 21:39 IST

If you speak, think and dream in English, are essentially urbane and culturally influenced by the West (you know, if you know your Rolling Stones better than your Ramayana), you should forget about being a successful politician in today’s India. Or at least that’s how the current narrative of Indian politics is framed.

It wasn’t always the case. Post-independence India was entirely at ease with the erudite and yes, often Western, sophistication of politicians like Nehru, who famously joked that he was the last Englishman to rule the country. But post-Mandal India dramatically subverted the pyramid. As castes and regions that had been historically marginalised began to mobilise unwavering voter loyalty; it was the angrezi-babu who began to look peripheral and pathetic. Ironically, at roughly the same time, the image of India abroad had successfully altered from land of snake charmers to land of software geeks. But on home turf, and in the fiercely competitive akhara of politics, elite was now a bad word. Babalog became the most overused media cliché in the coverage of politics. And it came to typify the contempt reserved for a certain kind of politician — someone who was sincere and well- intentioned, but far too ‘English’ to ever be connected to the the ‘real’ India. Unselfconscious politicians like Lalu Prasad brilliantly converted their natural earthiness into an image-building weapon, while simultaneously poking fun at drawing room politicians. And as coalition politics began to pave the road to Delhi, the snide digs about city-slicker netas only multiplied. Basically in the lexicon of Indian politics, urbane became the opposite of grassroots.

But, if you look closely, at the year gone by, you will see that the narrative is shifting again and rejecting all such oversimplifications. Most recently of course, Naveen Patnaik dramatically broke free from the image that had imprisoned him for many years. He could no longer be tagged as an earnest, soft-spoken sophisticate at sea in the swamp of politics. He could write books on botany and art and swig his scotch, but also be the man who would ruthlessly outfox a party he had allied with for more than a decade. Today — the man now being described as India’s most underestimated politician — has single-handedly bent the election sweepstakes of 2009.

But well before Patnaik emerged as a political giant killer, the assembly results of December 2008 came with the new writing on the wall. Two very different Chief Ministers managed to wrestle with the incumbency monster and retain their states. At first glance, Sheila Dikshit and Shivraj Singh Chauhan represent two competing cultural realities of India.

Dikshit’s English is as crisp as her sarees; she is the quintessential urban Indian who can appear to be too manicured to get down and dirty in the murky world of politics, and you can imagine her enjoying a game of scrabble when she has the time, or a day out at the movies.

By contrast, the non-flamboyant and soft-spoken, Shivraj Singh Chauhan, who studied philosophy at Bhopal University and
quietly worked his way up through the RSS and party ranks, is known to begin his day with a Surya Namaskar and wanted to make yoga compulsory across schools in Madhya Pradesh. Once upon a time, Dikshit and Chauhan would have been stereotyped as the faces of India and Bharat. But, what they have in common is more striking than superficial differences of personality.

Both managed to retain their states in impossibly difficult circumstances essentially because they were seen as incorrupt leaders who ran efficient administrations. Despite being from ideologically antagonistic parties both ran their campaigns on issues of development. If Patnaik did not have the same advantage of perception, he could not have dared to take the gamble he has.

In other words, the Indian voter seems less and less concerned with manufactured debates around who has a higher desi quotient, and more interested in what sort of government we get. Even, the man who is at present India’s youngest Chief Minister — Omar Abdullah — used to be dismissed by his opponents for being too elite to play politics in the complex land of Jammu and Kashmir. Yet, today, his no-nonsense efficiency and fiercely rational approach to governance is seen as his strongest virtue. And, so far, he’s had a remarkably smooth opening innings with a sharp focus on improving the performance of his government on issues like healthcare and education.

It’s not as if complex caste arithmetic or regional loyalties will cease to determine political destinies in India. But, the most distinct change in our politics is the addition of governance as a strong ingredient in the mix. If handled right, it seems to have the power to change the flavour of the drink.

The hurly burly of politics may well have forced the more upper crust politicians into learning much-needed lessons in humility. It may have cajoled others into improving on their Hindi, Oriya, Tamil, or Kashmiri. And this can only be welcomed because ivory tower politics has no place in public life.

But, the pariah status often accorded to the English-speaking neta is no longer valid. As the Indian voter grows up, mass bases can clearly be created on the back of good governance as well. So the artificial distinctions between Bharat and India must end. And hopefully, we, in the media, will now stop using that tired old word — babalog. Because Patnaik and Dikshit just managed to give it a whole new meaning.

(Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV)

First Published: Mar 13, 2009 21:37 IST