Thursday, April 16, 2009

It doesn't help to be a Lone Ranger (April 12, 2009)

By Swapan Dasgupta

If editorial approval, Facebook encouragement and celebrity endorsements can shape an election, Independent candidate Meera Sanyal will be the clear winner in battle for Mumbai South. Needless to say, the possibility of such an outcome is about as high as Sonia Gandhi making an extempore speech. The best that Sanyal, the “daughter of Mumbai South” who (in the spirited prose of Shobhaa De) has deigned “to get her hands dirty”, can hope is to save her security deposit. The same is true for Mallika Sarabhai who is taking on L.K. Advani in Gandhinagar on the strength of her illustrious surname and local roots.

Mumbai has a tradition of being generous to Independents. In 1971, Naval Tata lost Bombay South by just 20,000 votes. He even outpolled George Fernandes. V.K. Krishna Menon lost by just 13,000 votes in 1967 in neighbour Bombay North-West. In 1971, the redoubtable former army chief General K.M. Cariappa polled 90,000 votes in that seat. On its part, Ahmedabad elected Independents such as G.V. Mavlankar and Indulal Yagnik on four occasions.

It is extremely unlikely that history will shape the results on May 16. Neither Sanyal nor Sarabhai is fighting to win. Sanyal is in the game to stand up and be counted and, in the process, serve as a role model for People Like Us. Sarabhai’s objectives seem more modest. She loves needling Narendra Modi and securing brownie points from the radical chic community. Sarabhai has sought to paint Advani as an outsider which, had it not been for her aesthetics, would have seemed suspiciously reminiscent of Raj Thackeray.

Although both candidates profess to speak for exasperated citizens, eliciting mass support, it would seem, is not on their agenda. Sanyal and Sarabhai have made a virtue of their fringe status and tacitly acknowledged that ordinary voters will shun them. Parties, writes Sarabhai piously on her website, “uphold the logic of numbers and not the logic of people.” Sanyal isn’t so disdainful but even a perfunctory glance at her campaign team tells a story of professional achievement and social exclusivity. Sarabhai, on the other hand, is consciously averse to the corporate and MNC types. Her campaign is made up of NGOs and activists who have made a virtue of being jarringly out of tune with the impulses of mainstream Gujarati society.

Both campaigns are fanatical in their desire to occupy the moral high ground. It is, however, curious that their competitive sanctimoniousness is inversely related to public support. It is a pointer to the mind-blowing condescension with which these beautiful people view their less socially adept co-citizens. They are in effect snobs in an arena where snobbery is at a serious discount. Exclusivity may be a worthwhile criterion for social networking but it is somewhat inappropriate for democratic politics. In the world of universal adult franchise, life is all about aggregation and finding negotiated solutions to complex problems. Political parties are an important forum—but by no means the only agency—through which communities find a voice and through which the distribution of scarce resources are managed, however imperfectly. That is why they retain relevance and why aspirants for public office can’t do without them. A Parliament of free thinkers is a good idea on paper; in practice it is even less coherent than the Third Front.

Yet, there is an important lesson to be learnt from the romance of well-meaning people dissipating their energies in pursuit of an uncontaminated political culture. First, over the years, political parties have lost the ability to attract the idealists and the talented in sufficient numbers. Instead of grooming decent people into leadership roles, the parties have fallen back on resourceful fixers and criminals who take refuge behind community sanction. The consequences are thoroughly unwholesome. Secondly, caught up by the challenges of social engineering and empowerment, parties have bypassed a new breed of middle class Indians who are detached from traditional vote banks. This lapse has prompted the “secession of the successful” from politics.

It is heartening that both national parties are beginning to acknowledge the problem. Rahul Gandhi’s bid to change Congress culture may be clumsy and often laughable but at least he has recognised that politics could do with a different blood group. Likewise, the outreach Friends of BJP initiative has the potential of injecting some contemporary thought into the parent body.

Maybe, in hindsight, both Sanyal and Sarabhai can take some credit for doing their bit to highlight the shortcomings of our democracy. But their election experience will also show that “good” people can’t play Lone Ranger. To make a difference they need responsive political parties. (END)

Sunday Times of India. April 12, 2009

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