The Press Council of India’s recent (apparent) announcement that it has “begun investigating charges that newspapers and television channels illegally sold editorial space to several candidates in recent general and assembly elections in India...” (the Press Council’s own website is silent on the matter), is hardly a bolt from the blue. By now, the fact that politicians can pay the media to carry stories on them (often the same story in multiple newspapers) is not (no pun intended) news to anyone. The Indian voter hardly needs (or should hardly need) reminding of the huge systemic flaws that bedevil the electoral system, problems that will not be remedied by a Press Council or an investigation. And because none of this is news, one can safely predict the reaction as well: much hand-wringing from various talk shows and news anchors, and reams of emails and online comments from people complaining about politicians, and about how the corruption of the political class is the biggest problem with India today. What we are unlikely to see is any introspection, any recognition of what we condemn when we pillory “the politicians”.
In having become everyone’s favourite whipping boys, the politicians serve an important function: they excuse the rest of us from the need for self-awareness, from the need for critical thought. 26/11? The politicians are scum. Farmer suicides? Well, why isn’t the government doing anything? Power cuts? If only the politicians were less corrupt.... Ask an Indian about a social or political problem, and chances are that you’ll get a complaint about “the politicians”. Interestingly, this opprobrium does not seem to rub off on the flip side of the coin. For instance, with respect to 26/11, one still awaits any outrage at the ineptitude of the security forces or of the bureaucracy, comparable to that focused on the politicians in the aftermath of the attacks; I’m not holding my breath. Similarly, the urban Indian intelligentsia does not seem to think that the country’s various corporate and business scandals reflect poorly on the business community. Commentary even on those sorts of scandals tends to focus on their nexus with the political class -- unless an (all too infrequent) arrest or prosecution is forthcoming, the corporate class gets a virtual free pass.
In the process, so too do India’s urban consumer classes: increasingly, there is a gulf in the urban Indian imagination between those who represent “our” aspirations -- professional, material, and cultural -- and those who merely represent “the people” politically. Or rather, there is an increasing recognition that the political representatives, by sheer dint of numbers and demographics of those who elect them, represent someone other than “us” (real or imagined). It isn’t hard to discern on which side English-speaking India increasingly sees itself. Mukesh Ambani might not speak for anyone other than his company and its shareholders, but he represents the aspirational fantasy of millions; by contrast, the politicians are caricatured, “representing” nothing so much as venality and grossness in the imagination of “India Shining”. In this odd and unfair economy, when the corporate tycoon and the politician execute a sweetheart deal, the taint of corruption clings only to the latter. The corruption of the big corporations, who brazenly profit from their proximity to, and arrangements with, the political class; or the complicity of the consumers, who have learned to keep a clean conscience (for instance, about the development they need that dispossesses far too many of the country’s adivasis) even as they outsource all political responsibility to “the government” (that has failed in its obligation to, for instance, adequately “resettle” those displaced in the wake of dam construction); that is to say, the corruption of us, slips by unremarked. The point isn’t that the political class has not failed. It has, and most abysmally. The point is that these failures are not the politicians’ failures alone.
I would love to say that this syndrome -- blame no-one but the politician -- is new, but in fact, merely the symptom is. The disease -- at bottom, the unease of so many of India’s best and brightest with democracy -- is an old one. It partly explains the country’s rapid bureaucratisation under Nehru and (even more so) Indira Gandhi, as the “we” that felt itself best qualified to decide for India tried to ensure that the steel frame of the colonial state would, far from being dismantled, only be reinforced. And today, when urban India’s professionals and corporate-types are drawn from the same social classes that, in those pre-Mandal days, disproportionately accounted for the bureaucrats, complaints about the political class being insufficiently responsive to commercial needs have become commonplace. The “new India” is very different from the “license raj” in its attitude to commerce, but its attitude towards politicians remains the same: left to themselves, the people’s representatives -- and, by extension, the people who elected them -- will mess it up (whatever “it” is). As far as status quo India (then and now) was and is concerned, the real question is one of administration and governance (with its god of efficiency) -- not of politics (with its call to justice).
A sceptical eye towards those who wield power in the name of “the people” has to be the cornerstone of any democratic system. In India, however, scepticism has itself become an opiate, leading to ever increasing credulity: for, as even a casual glance at any day’s English-language newspapers will show, only the politicians are subject to scepticism. Everyone else -- the corporations, the consumers, the military, the judiciary, the entertainment industry -- gets a free pass. Sure, sleaze involving any of India’s institutions is reported: but except when it comes to politicians, the narrative takes the form of scandal, of a deviation from the norm (or even as shedding light on yet more political corruption). Whereas, political corruption is all too often painted as representative, as testifying to the eternal truth about the system.
Small wonder, then, that the smartest and savviest politicians have decided to inoculate themselves against our prejudices by pandering to them. “I am just like you,” a Rahul Gandhi, a Sachin Pilot, or an Omar Abdullah reassuringly seems to tell us; “I’m young and clean, and you can trust me because I’m not really a politician -- at heart, I’m a technocrat.” The politicians who get the best media coverage, the ones who seem to have the strongest claim to upwardly mobile India’s esteem, are the ones who masquerade as administrators, CEO-types, and harbingers of (apolitical) “development.” Anything other than politicians. This is a triumph, but not of the healthy scepticism that needs to be the very air democracy breathes. It is the narcissistic triumph of injured innocence, that prefers withdrawal from a political fray it regards as sullying and dreams of a world where there will be no politics except in the form of light regulation of private desires. “The politicians” have become unforgivable, not because of their monstrous corruption (hardly unique to them) but because, as a class, they puncture the dream by serving as a reminder that such a world is very far off indeed. They serve as a reminder that the horizon remains political, a truth that -- in a land of landlessness and dispossession, insurgency and inequity, and stark want -- cannot be repressed.
Umair Ahmed Muhajir is a lawyer based in New York City. He blogs at qalandari.blogspot.com