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Mirror to each other

Any sophisticated understanding of politics must not hold politicians up to empty standards of idealism or unachievable coherence.

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta
March 31, 2009 5:18:46 pm

The virtue of an adversarial political system is that the truth reveals itself,even if often with bad intent. The recent spat between the prime minister and L.K. Advani over their respective political weaknesses is a classic case of two leaders holding a mirror to each other,even as they fail to reflect on their own sins. It is not even-handedness,but plain truth to say that both are onto something.

Any sophisticated understanding of politics must not hold politicians up to empty standards of idealism or unachievable coherence. Politics is messy,full of quotidian compromises and deference to reality. The difference between a leader and an ordinary self-serving politician is the ends which their compromises serve. In the case of leaders,the compromises are with an eye to maintaining the integrity of the system as a whole; the ethic of responsibility is to negotiate the wellbeing of the system even if it entails personal compromises. Judged by this standard,the prime minister’s performance has been astonishingly enervating and self-serving. The most telling symptom of this is the fact that he underperformed on the criterion of integrity. Much has been made of his personal financial integrity. But in political terms this idea of integrity is of secondary relevance. A deeper idea of integrity,more relevant to politics,is the willingness of a politician to stand for something,to ensure that basic values are not sacrificed on the altar of expediency,to broker compromises that lead to performance,not merely power. The PM’s tenure did not show minimal integrity and performance in this sense.

Take areas where he could have made a difference. The Congress has consistently assaulted the integrity of institutions,whether it is constitutional offices like the Election Commission or governor,or more quotidian ordinary agencies like the CBI and the police. Yet the PM stood by when the core idea of institutional integrity in a democracy was being undermined.

Second,take the performance of the government on economic policy. The degree of non-performance in this government has been masked by the growth of the last few years; the next government will have to pay the bill. But in crucial areas that matter for the poor,like infrastructure and power,the government simply lost the plot. As my colleague,Partha Mukhopadhya,has summarised in a report on infrastructure under the UPA,“In the final analysis,it may not be accurate to accuse this government of dropping the ball on infrastructure,for it never picked it up.”

Third,the cause of economic reform was set back by years,not in the narrow meaning of reform that equates it with liberalisation,but in the deeper meaning of reform that equates it with non-arbitrary,non-corrupt decision-making. He simply chose not to pull his weight on economic issues that mattered. More subtly,he did not resist the Congress succumbing to its old disease. Instead of creating genuinely empowering and inclusive public policy,he allowed divisive forms of identities that govern politics,caste,religion and region. In short,public policy for him was not about empowering minorities or correcting injustice,it was about playing the worst kind of politics with these ideas. These are again reflected in the manifesto. His conspicuous absence and evasive silence at every moment of national crisis meant that he could not project himself as a prime minister with a minimal degree of leadership,capacity to mediate conflict,or even be a locus of hope.

Financial integrity and the fig leaf of the imperatives of coalition politics cannot disguise the fact that his performance in office became a testament to the idea that the only way to hold high office is not to have minimal political integrity. In some senses,he comes off even worse than his colleagues like Arjun Singh and Kamal Nath: they at least did as they said. The prime minister on the other hand was such an exercise in cumulative evasion that it is a legitimate question to ask: exactly how did the prime minister of India matter?

But Advani has also a lot to answer. He is the creator of a genuine mass movement. Whether we like it or not,he gave voice to a widespread sentiment that will far outlive the political fortunes of the BJP. If the PM’s failing is that he is ready to give up core values at the drop of a hat,Advani’s failing is that he struggles,with any degree of sincerity,to articulate core values that can connect India to the 21st century. His capacity for putting up with,if not encouraging,a politics of hate will cast a permanent shadow on his capacity to negotiate the deep challenges facing India. One cannot think of a single lasting institutional contribution that characterised his tenure as home minister that has stood India in good stead. In a sense,Manmohan Singh is right: beyond the Ram Janmbhoomi movement,Advani does not have a record to run on.

He gives no evidence that he is capable of making the four transitions that matter for him: the transition from a rabble-rouser to administrator,the transition from a pracharak to someone who understands the character of modernity,the transition from a politics of hate and resentment to a politics of conciliation,and the transition from worker in a machine to being a genuine leader of a party.

In some ways Manmohan Singh and Advani can sympathise with each other. Neither has the capacity to mediate conflict within his own party. Both claim feigned innocence of distancing themselves without taking responsibility for the worst their parties spawn. Both are overshadowed by other figures in their party: Manmohan Singh is not a power centre at all; while Advani is diminished both by the memory of Vajpayee and the looming effectiveness of Narendra Modi. The limpid conduct of both after the Mumbai attacks was symptomatic of the extent to which they fall short of performing the basic prime ministerial function: understanding national anxieties with a degree of conviction,and an assurance that the buck stops somewhere. There is a bitter joke about Manmohan Singh that may apply to Advani as well: both can function only as “number twos”,not as number one.

It would be premature to write off either of them: the election is still very open. It would be good for public reason if they debated a bit in public. But the public also knows that,alas,neither of them can respond to the deep currents shaping India.

The writer is president,entre for Policy Research,Delhi

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