Art of the jostle

Earning political dividends

Which of the two is more difficult to deal with in the political style of South Asia: affection or anger? In physical terms, the first.

The principal motif of any display of popular support is the jostle. Whether it is Yousuf Gilani on his way to the Supreme Court in Islamabad, or Mulayam Singh Yadav scrambling towards the legislature in Lucknow, supporters feel entitled to test the body warmth of their leaders by getting as close to him as possible.

Granted that in this age of the omnipotent television camera some of this display may have more to do with love of TV than love of leader. For the great multitudes that give substance to our democracies this may be the only serious opportunity of being seen on the screen. The other option is holding a placard praising mummy at cricket matches but that costs money. Public life is free.

But we do get distinctly uncomfortable with politicians who are, shall we say, not warm to the touch. You can recognise the difference from behaviour if not demeanour. Gilani is warm; his boss Asif Zardari is cold. In Lucknow, Mulayam is distinctly warm, but is his bête noire Mayawati cold? I would suggest not. Mayawati belongs to a third variety, one that comes in multiple shades. She is aloof. Women politicians obviously have a problem with jostling, nor would men dare to be proximate. But Indira Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto were warm politicians without surrendering an inch of distance from their admirers. Mayawati practices a visible personality elitism that leaves a shadow bridge between her and her followers. You cross that bridge only with permission.

It is not often that you are going to see Mayawati compared with America’s President Barack Obama, or indeed his presumptive Republican challenger Mitt Romney. But all three are ‘aloof,’ albeit for radically different reasons. His critics have called Obama’s palpable sense of superiority an intellectual sneer at those who put him into office, but at least Romney will not raise the topic.

If Obama is high-table don, then Romney is boardroom billionaire, displaying a faint contempt for those who merely get by on earned salaries. The ultimate achievement in capitalism is unearned income from a bunch of dividends, the source of Romney’s present wealth, which is why he is reluctant to exhibit his tax returns.

Colourful by nature
On the subcontinent, of course, we give unearned income a new meaning altogether: undeclared cash. Being colourful by nature, we have created separate brands: the sweaty honest employee has white money, the cool corrupt have black. Mayawati, however, has discovered the perfect arc of departure. She pays taxes on unearned income. Let us congratulate her. This marks a pleasant difference from those who stash their cash without fear of accountability.

Pause, for a paean to the South Asian voter, who is mature enough to weigh the complexities of reality on a fine balance before working out the assets and liabilities within the balance sheet. His jostle is not guarantee of a vote; he can go with cool, or even cold when his judgment tells him that better value lies outside emotion.

If the queen of elephants, Mayawati, offers economic growth, she gets the nod. If the king of bicycles, Mulayam, persuades the voter about the benefits of touchy-feely warmth, his turn will come. South Asians may exude sentiment with abandon, but they know precisely when the gush becomes self-defeating. Sonia Gandhi is not a warm politician, but that has not prevented her from winning elections.

Rahul Gandhi is trying hard to heat his persona on the campaign trail, but the strain is visible. His effort is being watched with some admiration and some amusement, but judgment on polling day will be controlled by totally different climatic considerations.

Manmohan Singh is temperamentally lukewarm, but he is authentic. He is intellectual without being austere and does not try to be anything else. He knows he has an arranged marriage with the electorate and understands its advantages and limitations. But he does have one serious problem: the stench of corruption in his environment is beginning to envelop, indirectly, his reputation. As Shakespeare, who had something to say about everything, noted in a sonnet, “Lilies that fester, smell far worse than weeds.” He has time to dispel this odour. He should insist that prime ministers and presidents should be included, without qualifications, in the proposed Lokpal Bill.

If there was clarity on this in Pakistan, and a president was as accountable to the police on issues like foreign bank accounts, prime minister Gilani would not have had to be jostled towards the Supreme Court last Thursday. The neighbourhood has lessons that Delhi should be wise enough to learn.

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