Amit Varma is a writer based in Mumbai. He worked in journalism for over a decade, and won the Bastiat Prize for Journalism in 2007. His bestselling novel, My Friend Sancho, was published in 2009. He is best known for his blog, India Uncut. His current project is a non-fiction book about the lack of personal and economic freedoms in post-Independence India.
This piece of mine was published today under the headline “Politicians can be so boringly predictable” in Mail Today, a new paper started in Delhi by India Today and The Daily Mail.
Many years ago, before the satellite TV revolution, there used to be a video newsmagazine called Newstrack that I rather enjoyed. There is one scene from it that I still remember. If memory serves me right, it began with a shot of the bottom of Devi Lal’s sports shoes as he reclined on a garden chair, his foot rested on some kind of support. (I could be wrong, but I vaguely remember he wore a banyan and a dhoti on top.) An interview began, and the interviewer asked him why he had made his son, Om Prakash Chautala, the chief minister of Haryana. Devi Lal replied:
“Tho kya Bhajan Lal ke chhore ko banaaoo?”
An English translation —“Then shall I make Bhajan Lal’s son the chief minister?” –cannot match the rustic delight of it. I loved that riposte, and remember it still, because it was a rare moment of honesty from an Indian politician. Devi Lal could have said that his son was a fine leader, and had served the people of Haryana. He could have said that it was a democratic decision by the party. But his statement made no pretence of denying what we all already know: Politicians are motivated by nothing other than a lust to power, and once they acquire it, they want to pass it on, like a material possession, to their progeny.
Now imagine Sonia Gandhi, asked why Rahul Gandhi has been elevated in the Congress Party, saying: “Tho kya LK Advani ke chhori ko banaaoo?”
Young Rahul has received many fulsome tributes recently, but has no political achievements to his credit, and hasn’t come up in the party the hard way. (Unless waiting is considered hard, as it might well be for a crown prince.) But no one in the Congress Party will have the cojones to admit that Gandhi’s position comes from Gandhi’s name, and nothing else. The language of politics is couched in doublespeak, and Indian politics is all about double standards. Dynastic politics is not the only example of this, and it is certainly not restricted to the Congress Party.
Convenience, not principle
Consider the nuclear deal, to take a recent example. The BJP has opposed it, with Rajnath Singh saying that “it is not good for the future of the country,” and Murli Manohar Joshi claiming that it will make India “a junior partner of the US.” But can anyone have any doubt that if the NDA had come into power in the last elections, and a BJP prime minister had brought an identical deal to the table, the party would have supported it vociferously? There would have been much nationalistic rhetoric about how the deal would take India into the league of superpowers, and how we would have a decisive advantage over Pakistan, and so on.
And the Congress would have opposed it tooth and nail.
Now consider Nandigram. I have no doubt that if an identical crisis had erupted in Gujarat, the positions of the parties involved would have been reversed. The BJP would have spoken about how the state needs to be industrialised, and the Left parties would have agitated for the rights of the poor peasants who were forcibly being deprived of their land. Er, actually, wait a minute – remember Narmada?
When the BJP wanted to discuss Nandigram in parliament recently, the Left protested, saying that it was a state subject. The BJP ridiculed that assertion. How easily I can imagine those positions being reversed on the issue of Gujarat 2002.
Indeed, it is mildly amusing to see the self-righteousness of the Congress and the Left on Gujarat. The 1984 riots in Delhi and the brutality at Nandigram differ from Gujarat 2002 only in matters of detail. Indeed, one can actually take the quotes and the principles espoused by all these parties on any one of these issues, shift the context, and boom, the same quotes apply, if uttered by a different party. Everywhere, same difference.
I was immensely amused recently to hear BJP leader VK Malhotra speak out in favour of free speech. He demanded that Taslima Nasreen “be given full protection and citizenship” and said that “India believes in freedom of speech.” MF Hussain must be chortling in Dubai as he reads that, if not positively choking on a frappe.
If the BJP supports free speech, Mother Teresa danced at the Moulin Rouge.
The truth is that the only politicians in our country who actually act on the basis of principles are a few deranged souls on the extreme right and the extreme left. Not a single mainstream politician in this country cares about principles. They are motivated by one thing only: what Devi Lal would refer to as gaddi. When they claim to espouse principles, they do so as a tactical ploy of the moment. As the moment changes, their principles change.
Our opposition parties, in fact, understand only one dharma: to be in opposition. No matter what they otherwise claim to believe in, they will oppose everything the government does – as the BJP’s stand on the nuclear deal indicates. Indeed, if the UPA government was to announce tomorrow that it is building the Ram temple in Ayodha, the BJP would certainly find a way to oppose it. Perhaps they’d bring Vastushastra into it, or they’d claim that the temple toilet faces Varanasi and is an insult to all Hindus, or some such humbug.
It’s all sauda
Isn’t politics everywhere like this? Well, yes and no. Politicians everywhere are human beings who respond to incentives, and they’re obviously in it for the power. If they only wanted to do good to humankind, they’d be social workers or businessmen – successful businessmen are successful because they serve the needs of people – or columnists. (The last is a pathetic justification for my own vocation.) Not politicians.
Still, if you compare Indian politics with American politics, it is easier to find politicians there who stand up for certain principles even when those are unpopular. Consider the ongoing US primaries, for example: John McCain consistently speaks out against torture, even though the Republican base prefers a more macho position. (Mitt Romney panders to them by suggesting that the size of Guantanamo be doubled.) Rudy Giuliani is pro-choice, a position that would normally doom him among the Christian conservatives who dominate the Republican primaries. Hillary Clinton has repeatedly refused to apologize for her 2002 vote for the Iraq War Resolution, or admit that it was a mistake, despite the Democratic base being so strongly against that war.
In America, the character of the leaders you are voting for matters, as do the policies they support. People vote for whichever politician comes closest to their worldview, and that worldview is a mix of complicated factors, from economics to politics to identity. In India, identity dominates.
Most Indian politics is identity politics. Mayawati’s rise or Lalu’s long reign in Bihar stand testament to the power of saying: “You guys have been screwed over for too many years now. Put me in power, and I will distribute the spoils to you.” It’s also entitlement politics, a politics of give-and-take, of promises made, sometimes material – remember Karunanidhi and his nine million colour TVs? – sometimes pertaining to jobs and power. But higher principles are entirely absent from such politics. And yet, our politicians couch their rhetoric in the language of principles, fooling only the wilfully self-delusional.
I have one question at the end of this: I think it is obvious, and we all accept, that our politicians are deeply dishonest when it comes to politics. Why, then, do we expect any different from them when they are in government?
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