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Modern politicians and ‘new India’ May 21, 2010

Posted by southasiamasala in : India, Sundaram, Manu , trackback

Manu Sundaram

In India, politicians evolved out of the national struggle for independence from colonial rule. Pandit Nehru, Dr Rajendra Prasad and Dr Ambedkar, who belonged to this group, were eminent scholars and possessed high intellect. More recently, grassroots leaders who espouse the cause of their communities and classes have blossomed from bottom up. This has been a result of the political empowerment of the backward classes and thereby giving raise to Mayawati, Mamata Banerjee, Lalu Prasad Yadav, Mulayam Singh Yadav, etc. Both set of political leaders have been a product of their times and have in common a significant mass following. Their support bases have unflinchingly thrown their weight behind their leaders every five years in the toughest election campaigning anywhere in the world.

Shashi Tharoor and Sonia Gandhi. PTI Photo by Kamal Singh, source: Press Trust of India.

Now, an alien set of political creatures have appeared on the scene, claiming to be ‘modern politicians’. This includes Shashi Tharoor, Mani Shankar Aiyar and Jairam Ramesh, all of whom have been educated at elite institutions, posses a progressive outlook and global vision. This group is exceedingly popular with urban India that watches 24-hour news channels, blogs and prides itself as the ‘new India’. Both the modern politicians and new India feed off each other in a symbiotic manner. When news breaks, the modern politicians oblige with an opinion, which is subsequently amplified into a ‘national debate’ drawing in opinion-makers and experts. The entire show is carefully stage-managed to shock, provoke and ultimately cater to the sensibilities of new India.

In the absence of a mass base for the modern politicians, the new-age media plays a vital role facilitating a frenzy of information. The television is the preferred media channel at the moment, though elements of modern media – Blogs, Facebook Fan Pages, Twitter – are slowly starting to gain popularity. However, new-age media fails to take into account existent political dharma. In a democracy that is largely conducted within the perimeter of mass movements, social empowerment and coalition alliances, the scope for individual actors is limited. But new-age media demands prioritizing individual opinion over everything else. Therein lies the pitfall for modern politicians.

While new India is not wrong in demanding a closer relationship, virtual as the case might be, with their elected representatives, they must introspect whether modern media provides more channels for good governance. Can a ‘tweet’ replace policy documents of the Government or the annual review of the Planning Commission? Doesn’t much of the modern media focus on political posturing rather than policy debates?

While there is no evidence that Shashi Tharoor worked any harder or less hard than his ministerial colleagues, the media focus on him was largely a result of his own initiation (Twitter, Blog, etc) compounded with the desire of new India. By creating a great deal of fanfare around himself, his Officer on Special Duty (who also was a popular user of Twitter) and his personal life, Shashi Tharoor unwittingly diverted attention from his official work. As a case in point, other leading politicians in the current Cabinet – P Chidambaram and Pranab Mukherjee – have gained admiration for their no-nonsense approach, unwavering professionalism and low-key profiles. Even those with apolitical backgrounds and little mass following – such as Montek Singh Ahluwalia and Nandan Nilekani – have shown that it is possible to stay the course without being a part of the media cycle.

It is not inconceivable that Shashi Tharoor might be back in Government sooner rather than later but if there is a lesson for the future Shashi Tharoors of Indian politics, then it is this: to survive in Indian politics, it is as important to show solidarity with holy cows as it is to travel by cattle-class.

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