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Thursday, October 28, 2021

The triumph of the Outsider

I once met an LSE alumnus who had become a millionaire by restoring the fortunes of firms gone broke.

Written by Meghnad Desai |
May 24, 2009 12:40:49 am

I once met an LSE alumnus who had become a millionaire by restoring the fortunes of firms gone broke. He had become a company doctor. I asked him whether his training at LSE in economics had helped him. He said the only thing which survived from his days there was that he was taught Hobbes’s Leviathan by the famous political philosopher Michael Oakshott. Once you had read Hobbes,he said,any problem was easy to solve.

I was thinking of him when the election results started to sink in. Most experts had failed to predict them. Now,they are busy downplaying their uniqueness. The Congress only got two percentage points more in vote share. The BJP plus Congress seats are back to 1998,no more. Regional satraps are still dominant. Caste parties are not dead etc. Experts are good at missing the wood for the trees—both before and after the event.

The major fact is that within ten years Sonia Gandhi has restored a sick firm back to health. From its lowest point in 1999 at 114 seats,we now have 206,highest since 1984. She is like my friend—not so much a company doctor,but a party doctor.

Old political parties are not easy to restore. India has seen the death of many political parties—the Praja Socialist Party (PSP),the Swatantra Party,the Ram Rajya Party,plus various Congress factionswhich splintered after Indira Gandhi threw them out. Now the fragments of Lohiaite Socialist Party—the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD),the Samajwadi Party and the LSP are in their final death throes. We still have the Congress though. Now we should call it the New Congress,a party which has been rejuvenated both by success and by succession,if you know what I mean.

How did Sonia Gandhi do it? My answer is she did it by being an outsider. The 2009 election triumph establishes the triumph of the outsider,the non-professional over the insider professional. Manmohan Singh is also a non-political outsider and Rahul Gandhi is just an apprentice who may become a different sort of professional. Being unprofessional,Sonia Gandhi missed out on the hoary mythologies,the macho posturing,the fake ideology covering up the greed and the concupiscence. She saw the continuing importance of the rural vote in 2004,which most parties missed. She thought two steps ahead when she wrong-footed Sushma Swaraj and her ilk by not taking up office of Prime Minister. She saw the primary political importance of keeping the coalition together,leaving the executive functions to Singh.

Manmohan Singh also brought a different style to politics. His quiet but confident and soft-spoken manner beguiled many into thinking that he was a soft touch or just an errand boy of Sonia Gandhi. This is why the Left got it wrong on the nuclear deal and walked out of the coalition and into oblivion. This is why the BJP tried to denounce him as a weak prime minister,little realising that strident speech making or even peripatetic chariot riding are not marks of what makes a good executive.

Rahul Gandhi was the third non-professional person. He behaved totally unlike what was expected of him. He could have listened to the sycophants who wanted him to lead the party. His uncle Sanjay Gandhi grabbed power illegitimately and many of the ills of the Emergency were due to his impetuosity. Rajiv Gandhi was much better behaved,both before being inducted into Parliament and even after. Rahul has got his head down and slogged away in the party hinterlands. His abstinence from office is what has attracted attention. If he stays the course and works at the party rather than in the government,he will set a high standard. The Congress may be in power but as a party it has no organisation below the top. If he repairs that defect over the next five years,then taking office will be a cinch.

There are lessons for all other parties from this. Sonia Gandhi did not go into denial in 1999 but worked hard at the grassroots. Manmohan Singh did not shout but got things done. Rahul put party above office,which is what the Left used to do in the old days. Maybe the Harvard Business School should have new case study. Then Prakash Karat could follow it.

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