One of the most riveting images of this year was the picture of three members of Parliament, arm in arm, dancing in a five-star hotel in the nation’s capital. This was not a picture taken by stealth. They were in fact actively posing for the photograph.
It is difficult to say whether these worthies would have found their way to Parliament had the Indian polity been in better health. But there they were, thumbing their nose at the rest of India. “We are your leaders and we are having a good time,” the picture screamed.
But the MPs in the picture are not the solitary symbols of how politics in this country has become alienated from the people. Mary Antoinette’s “Let them eat cake” seems to have been replaced by “Let them eat the menu card” in India. That the prime minister would have the choice of eating lobster piri piri, crab meat, prawn curry, mudoshi (a type of fish) fry, xacutti and balchao while on holiday at Taj Exotica hotel in Goa is supposed to infuse a sense of satisfaction in the masses too. Instead of delivering on people’s demands, politics is now expected to provide a spectacle.
A front-page report in one of the major national dailies recently declared that women MPs were “unnerved by the glamorous makeover of their male colleagues”. A woman minister was quoted as saying that not only the younger MPs but even the “oldies” were becoming fashion-conscious. “Have you noticed the number of multi-coloured jackets each one of them (the older MPs) is wearing' In the course of the day I have seen the same MP wearing a brown jacket for one TV interview, a pink one for another and a maroon silk for yet another,” she said.
O ne MP was quoted in the same report as saying that he wears clothes designed by J.J. Vallaya, Sandeep Khosla and Kavita Bhartia; and another claimed that he wears clothes designed by a Bombay fashion group “which caters to top-notch Bollywood stars”. The Union health minister and ageing film star, Shatrughan Sinha, reportedly claimed that the people want their “netas (politicians) and abhinetas (actors) to look well-groomed”. In another interview, the health minister, who has been under attack for spending little time in his ministry and Parliament, described himself as “a well-mannered, well-dressed, polished and a good looking man.”
Good sartorial sense and successful partying are on the verge of becoming synonymous with successful politics. The “neta” and the “abhineta” are merging into one as never before. Politics is being reduced to voyeurism. The two primary reasons for this are the changing nature of politics as a profession and the lack of comprehensive competing visions for a secular and democratic India.
The times when individuals chose to enter politics with fire in their bellies have passed. It might not be an exaggeration to claim that except in parties with millennial ideologies, those entering the political arena are not doing so to change the world. They are there to make money just as they would have done as executives, lawyers, bankers, hoteliers and shopkeepers. Some come into politics because they see it as a family business where their forefathers as past beneficiaries of political office had gathered substantial political equity. A husband dies, his widow takes over the reins of his business (politics). A father dies, a son or a daughter takes his place.
The vision of these politicians is limited to winning an election. It is not a grand vision for transforming society. The political parties they are in are of no help. They are bereft of any ideology or strategic vision.
The communists and the Bharatiya Janata Party are the exceptions to the rule. Except for the left and the extreme right then, there are no distinctly different competing visions that the Indian mainstream political parties propound which would be inclusive of all sections of society. Some of them cannot do so because, like the Janata Dal and its disintegrated debris, they are ineffective. Others like the Congress have a managerial or “governance” approach to politics, prioritizing the delivery of goods and services to the people over empowering them politically. And the smaller parties — like the Samajwadi Party, the Samata Party, the Telugu Desam, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Dravidian parties — have small and fractional visions limited by their vote banks.
The ideological space that has become available because of the disintegration of the overarching social vision of the centrist parties is being filled by extremists. On the one hand, this has resulted in the rise of intolerant Hindutva votaries arguing for a Hindu rashtra. On the other, in situations of acute deprivation and exploitation, Maoists of one variety or the other continue to attract public sympathy, for example, in Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra.
What the new breed of political leaders have are a few slogans and a “governance” perspective which is de-linked from issues of social transformation. But whoever said that those who rule can’t have fun' If, as bankers and executives, they partied all night, they see no reason to give that up just because they are in the legislatures now.
The rise of the smaller parties has also witnessed the emergence of a class of political facilitators who help them negotiate their way through the urban political jungle. The more limited the vision of the party and the more parochial or caste-based it is, the greater is its requirement for facilitators who can negotiate with the political elite, the bureaucracy and the media at the national level.
Presence in legislatures does not automatically provide these political parties with representation commensurate with their aspirations in the bureaucracy and the media. For them to be able to deliver even partially on their promises they need to be noticed, to be seen to be hobnobbing with the power elite and to be pushing their agenda through the media. Therefore the need for political plenipotentiaries who can do this for them. These can be upwardly mobile politicians or they can be interlopers from the world of business or the media. If in the process they have to be rewarded by positions in the legislatures, then so be it.
There has also been a transformation of ambitious businessmen from just backing the political parties financially to becoming politically ambitious themselves. This spurt in vanity-politics is predictably seen in the upper house of Parliament. The membership of legislative bodies also gives businessmen the kind of political access they would normally not get. Organizing galas and spectacles, parties and fashion shows becomes a means for these elements to facilitate their entry into the political elite. Their politics then is the politics of marketing themselves, hoping to get brand rub-off from being photographed with the high and mighty.
But critical to this voyeuristic politics is the role of the media. As journalists rise up the hierarchy, they get socialized into accepting these carbuncles on the face of the body politic as perfectly normal. They not only begin to celebrate the spectacle that these people make of themselves, but are eager to join the charmed circle. By recording the shenanigans of this incestuous circle in the social register and giving them wide publicity, the media ends up reinforcing the equation between spectacle and politics.