A political misfit

Tharoors departure

It was clear as daylight that Shashi Tharoor, junior minister in the ministry of external affairs, would not last on the lofty perch provided for him by the ruling Congress party.
Slopes are meant to ascend, of course, but also to descend. However, gliding from the higher echelons of the United Nations to public life in India, a mind of insufficient suppleness may be forgiven for being a little confused between ascent and descent, status enhancement or status reversal. Tharoor was never certain whether Indian politics was a good enough fallback position once he had lost the top job at the UN. This uncertainty was at the bottom of his casual attitude towards politics.

IPL was only the trigger. Tharoor fell victim to a common failing. He completely misread New Delhi, its social seductions which can so easily lull eager beavers into a sense of false security. If feet are not planted firmly on the ground, the heady social swing, the pretentious sham of shallow movers and shakers, can sweep you off your feet. And feet can never be firmly planted either in Thiruvanthapuram or New Delhi, if you have lived half your life in the US. Tharoor fell because he could not adjust.

The case of Shashi Tharoor has lessons for the political establishment. Lateral inductions from the corporate sector and elsewhere into parties have come under scrutiny particularly since the days of Rajiv Gandhi. It is commonly known that politics was more or less thrust on Rajiv after Sanjay Gandhi’s death in an air crash.

An IAS officer of the Madhya Pradesh cadre, V S Tripathi was identified to guide him into the ways of the world during Indira Gandhi’s lifetime. At that stage Rajiv was comfortable with a small circle of friends like ‘Thud’ (abbreviation for Thadani) Arun Singh and Vijay Dhar. ‘Doscos’ (from Doon School) crawled out of the woodworks to take up slots in journalism, tourism and advisory positions around Rajiv Gandhi only after he became prime minister.

The list of those who made a career out of sharing the dormitory with Rajiv Gandhi at Doon School is long. But some talents did surface. Among them Mani Shankar Aiyar — successful IFS officer in his own right, qualified to be Rajiv’s mediaman for many reasons. An excellent speaker, writer, and, unlike the apolitical ‘baba log,’ political to the core, having dabbled in left politics at Cambridge.

The point I am making is that youngsters who clustered around Rajiv were largely political careerists, but for the exceptions I have mentioned. Surely careerists could not be expected to inject idealism into Indian public life. In fact not many of them even had the stamina to survive in politics, exceptions like Kamal Nath notwithstanding.

Breeding ground
Intellectual ideas during the freedom struggle were mostly nurtured in leftist crucibles, with Jawaharlal Nehru as the secular symbol of this school. Tilak, Sardar Patel, Purshottam Das Tandon, Morarji Desai represented Indian nationalism, finely poised on the edge of ‘Hindu nationalism.’

The context of the breakdown of feudalism, concurrent with the national movement, strengthened the appeal of the left to the educated and in many cases unemployed youth who gravitated towards left parties and the socialists. Some of them sparkled in parliament as Hiren Mukerjee, H V Kamath, Bhupesh Gupta, Ram Manohar Lohia, Nath Pai. The Hindi belt sent up its own brilliant speakers like Atal Behari Vajpayee and Prakash Veer Shastri.

Subsequent to this generation, the intake of idealistic youth into public life dried up with the onset of political corruption of which the IPL is only the tiniest tributary.
The second generation rural elite, new to wealth and power, concentrated on contracts for canals, culverts and coal mines.

The Maruti-plus middle class, part of the celebrated 300 million Indians on the make, was completely oblivious of the 70 per cent of Indians living in poverty.
For the new political class, the catchment area for young political recruits was restricted to the above categories. Since recruits from these group were creatures of market avarice, the handful of ‘decent’ leaders left in, say the Congress party, encouraged lateral inductions, like Tharoor, for instance, to give the party a wholesome visage.
These inductions were resisted by the party lineup (quietly, slyly) which since Independence has acquired a positive and a negative characteristic: it is increasingly homespun and aggressively corrupt. ‘Good schooling’ therefore sticks out like a sore thumb in this grouping.

I am not for a moment suggesting that Tharoor does not know Malayalam or that he is not familiar with Swati Thirunal. My point is that the young inductees to have credibility will have to know more about the debt trap which drives farmers to suicides rather than the garish razzle dazzle of IPL. They will have to vibe with the tribals of Chhattisgarh and Orissa who are holding onto their lands rich in minerals on which are set the eyes of the corporate world.

A national poll in universities and colleges on the tribal-Maoist combine versus the state may throw up a new catchment area for durable political inductees.

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