POLITICS AS A CAREER

I wonder at times if the career politician will soon be squeezed out of top echelons of public life. Increasingly we are faced with the scenario of civil servants, industrialists, film stars, sports stars, and powerful criminals seeking and securing space for themselves in the political arena. Civil servants exercise enormous power in service and have only more power to look forward to in politics are retirement, film stars and sports stars have a shorter shelf life than politicians. So a timely move to politics can only be useful. Business and industry have obviously figured out that direct intervention into policy making is more cost effective than using intermediaries. Criminals of course feel secure in the precincts of a legislative establishment. Better to be an MP and MLA themselves than to be a camp follower of an aspiring politician.

The list of fresh category faces in politics is of course not exhaustive. The Rajya Sabha (thought to be an easier route to national politics) is replete with eminent lawyers, former Judges and even retired military officers. So what does a serious minded young person who wants to devote a whole life to politics do? Such an aspirant begins early, in youth politics, and then can expect to work relentlessly at the grassroots and indeed up the slippery ladder of organizational politics, for long years before being certain of having arrived. Needless to say nothing works in politics “ hard work, money, mental abilities etc “ without a generous helping of good fortune. Without a bit of luck one can only hope to keep company of deep frustration and pervasive cynicism. The new category politicians, on the other hand, came from considerable experience of fulfilment and having satisfied basic needs. Their previous occupation gives them the platform and public audience virtually gratis, which in the case of a career politician would mean a monumental cost.

The very idea of a career politician in India too need a closer look. In most democracies people who join politics do excite a mixture of curiosity and admiration. Politics is thought to be tough and expensive. But of course it is supposed to have considerable reward or else why would bright young people opt out of private life and place themselves at the temperamental command of public opinion? Yet, by and large, the motivations and material of public life are very different from the situation in India. Fifty years ago the picture in India was obviously different. Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru, Maulana Azad, Sardar Patel, Baba Bhim Rao Ambedkar et al did not join politics because the local police administration was harassing them at the behest of a rival or because they wanted to grab a neighbour's plot or the local cooperative bank. Find me politicians in contemporary India who seek to ˜discover India' or espouse a vision to restructure India's governance in order to fortify our unity, or feel themselves bound by a commitment to transform society to ensure complete social justice and eliminate the need for constructed disparity to overcome historical disparity.

I do believe that the career politicians in India are a product of and representative of humongous unemployment. Our rallies, at the drop of a topic so to speak, are possible only because there are so many people who have nothing to do (unemployed) or people who have very little to do (underemployed). In the North East, where employment is a problem and most employment is created by way of government jobs, yet in relative terms unemployment is relatively low compared to the rest of the country. So it is difficult to held a rally and most political campaigning in done door to door.

The model of a party with fulltime political cadres is not unknown to us. BJP (and the rest of the Sangh Parivar) and CPM come to mind immediately. In contrast the Congress is known as a mass based party. But that does not tell the whole story of the Congress in every village and mohalla of the country there are persons who breathe, speak, dream of Congress every living moment. They would be most distressed that we think of them only as a part of an undistinguishable mass. In Rajiv Gandhi's time the Congress debated intensely about the merits and demerits of being mass based versus cadre based.

In either case the problem of funding a political career is a critical matter. In other democracies the demands of public life do not overwhelm the prospects of an alternative professional career atleast till the person becomes MP or holds offices that being a MP leads to. In India that is virtually out of the question. So the finance has to come form politics, legitimately or illegitimately. The source of the wild rivers of corruption that run constant riot in our politics is right there. In many cases illegitimate beginnings become respectable with passage of time and the ascending steps of the political ladder. Having started on the take a career politician can hardly give up the habit.

So much for the dark side. But there is a positive side too. Like everything else politician personalities suffer wear and tear, overexposure that makes them stale and out of date. Thirty or more years of saying the same thing in the same manner can become boring for anyone, including the person who is saying them. So a careful injection of experienced, talented, fresh faces can do a world of good to add some spice to public life. Dr. Manmohan Singh is perhaps the best example in the Congress. Late Rajesh Pilot was another such value addition to Congress politics. The BJP too has some conspicuous examples. The experience of all such successful entrants into politics show that there is no hard or fast rule about when one must enter politics.

The success of these eminent public figures points to another reality as well. Often there is terrible resistance to newcomers described as sky labs . Even if they distinguish themselves in one way or another, cynical comments like He is non-political! are repeatedly made to undermine the success. The arrogance of a career politician is unacceptable despite the toil and tribulations of their long years of struggle for recognition. On the other hand the late comers who take a fast track to the top, too need to be a little sensitive about the feelings of the traditional politician. No single model of a politician will suffice for a political landscape that is as varied as the geographical landscape. What is common between the software experts of Bangalore and the Tribals of Kalahandi or Dalits in the parched fields of Bundelkhand? How can one person feel comfortable with the fisherman of Kerala and the classical musicians of Varanasi? A leader who understands caste and community equations in Uttar Pradesh may feel ignorant in a gathering of economists or space scientists. Regrettably our politics has become confined to demands confined to restricted identity. Even the talk of our shine is in a sense restricted to a narrow base. If the light is to travel to every home we have to reconsider the paradigm of our political thinking. While keeping our feet on the ground let us not shun the sky. But when we fly let us keep our eyes on the ground to which we must return.

Salman Khurshid 09/02/2004

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