Sunday, April 13, 2008

Overheard at the IIC

Had they invited me to carry the Olympic torch, I would have refused at once. But, alas people care as little about my politics as they do about my athletic prowess. So, having missed the chance of making a powerful political statement, I return faithfully to my little corner in the world at the GhoseSpot.

I enjoy the side-shows of contemporary Indian politics immensely more than a travesty of sports called 20:20 cricket. But still, that won’t get me to read L K Advani’s Memoirs. It’s partly because I am a lazy reader lacking the patience to go through voluminous tomes – but also because, I believe that, while it can provide grist for the glugging chatterati at the IIC Bar, it can’t be a historical document of any great import. Like most autobiographies of politicians, I am sure it leaves more unsaid than said. Few politicians have the frankness of a Nixon or John Major. Besides, their facility with the pen is generally not as good as their oratory skills – barring some notable exceptions, of course. And, even if this one’s been ghost-written by his journalist daughter – I doubt if it will make a good read.

Yet I am surprised to catch myself watching the many TV interviews he has been appearing on since the publication of the book. All our star anchors have been vying to get the old man into their studios on a blatant trip of ‘ego-nomics’ ( feeding their own egos while fanning the channel TRPs). Celebrity print columnists did not lag behind either – so from Vir Sanghvi to Shobhaa De everyone had their little 2 bits on the man and his book.

All this may be a part of a well timed media exercise to kick-start his personal run upto the next elections. Be that as it may, I found the Television interviews especially engrossing. The questions (just like for Bill Clinton’s book, everyone was more curious about what he had to say about his affair with Monica Lewinsky ) largely revolved around his knowledge – or the lack of it – of the mid-tarmac hostage barter deal at Kandahar circa 2001, his relations with his mentor turned compatriot – Vajpayee and his views on Jinnah and Musharaf . But, they gave us a few fascinating glimpses of the real person behind his white bushy moustache and disarming (some say, deceptive ) smile. It was rather touching to see him visibly in tears describing his meeting with Vajpayee – the morning he called upon him to present a copy of his book.

It is these human qualities that set leaders like Advani and Vajpayee apart from others. Come to think of it, there is something endearing about these figures, a trait I find missing in most other present day politicians. They are real people, real politicians. So Vajpayee may be away from public view – but one does feel sorry to hear about his failing memory and poor physical state.

I am no ‘card-carrying member’ of the BJP or RSS ( which, almost by definition, a middle-class and middle of the road Bengali can never be – even if it was a Bengali, Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, who founded the Jan Sangh). Yet, I am more impressed by the younger lot of BJP leaders than I am by their suave and smooth talking counterparts in the Congress. So a Jaitley and Ravi Shankar Prasad (among the lawyer set ) score far higher in my reckoning over a Sibal or Singhvi – notwithstanding where they may individually rank in terms of their professional fees for court appearances. And, I can’t think of a leader of any consequence in the Congress who has the electoral appeal of a Modi, Rajnath or a Pramod Mahajan of yore – even if one concedes that this latter lot can hardly ever measure upto the towering stature of their political gurus – Advani and Vajpayee, the proverbial Chanakya and Bhishma Pitamaha of the BJP.

The Congress – having systematically decimated its ranks of leaders with popular standing to establish the unquestioned hegemony of a single Indo-Latin family (don’t forget the new Spanish connection ) - is today a motley collection of fortune seekers whose ambition is inversely proportionate to their political base or, one might even argue, political acumen (forget wisdom!!). In many ways, I compare the Congress to a family run conglomerate - such as those of the Ambanis, the Mittals or the Birlas - that engage professional managers for the day to day running of the businesses, while the control rests firmly in the hands of the owners, who are also the face of the company for the public shareholders. Nothing illustrates this analogy better than the example of the PM himself, who is like a hired CEO, as good as his last quarter’s performance.

But unlike the IIMs, which produce professional business managers, there are no schools to train professional politicians . And, mere intellect doesn’t make you a political leader. So it’s little wonder that someone like Pranab Mukherjee has to run the business of governance – akin to the old trusted retainer of a family enterprise – while the over-paid and over-rated executives go in and out depending on the flavour and fancy of the owners.

But herein also lies the tragedy of the BJP. In trying to reposition its image on a more secular and inclusive platform, the BJP has lost its core constituency – which has got fragmented along the fault lines of caste based politics. Consequently, the appeal of its new band of moderate, sober-faced leaders ( the Surf Excel washed LKA included ) is now largely restricted to the middle-class intelligentsia whose votes hardly count and very few of them vote anyway. Thus, while the most deplorable form of politics is being played out on caste and religion by all - not the least by the Congress, who unabashedly pander to the minority vote banks. – the stigma of being anti-secular and fundamentalist sticks to the BJP, rather unfairly if one might say so despite Ayodha. This would be Advani’s main challenge in re-inventing the party. If he is not able to pull it off, the prospects of having a "Sushree Behenji" from UP as the next premier looms large over the country. You can trust a seasoned politician like Advani to understand this better than anyone else - which probably explains his gesture of holding out an olive branch to his female bete-noire over an apparently innocuous cup of Italian Espresso.

The other day, at the IIC lounge I over-heard some septuagenarian stalwarts discussing Advani’s prospects of becoming the next Prime Minister. One of them reported that, Lallu had Advani’s horoscope examined and found his stars are not favourable for his ascendancy. At this the other remarked that, he could always overcome any astrological impediments by performing a few ‘havans’ & ‘yagnas’. This outraged his friend terribly - who found such a suggestion preposterous. He said in all seriousness, if it were indeed possible to alter the destiny of a person by changing the trajectory of the planets – it would have a disastrous consequence on the universe. By diverting the planets from their orbits it would set them on a collision course - which would mean the ceratin end of this world. Infallible logic one must admit. But, hearing it – a friend who was with me ( the national editor of the largest bengali daily ) leaned over and whispered – “if such profound conversations can happen just over tea, can you imagine the heights it would reach over a few drinks at the bar ?”

So where does all this lead us to ? If you missed the point, it positions your humble blogger as a prime candidate for induction into the CWC – having neither ambition nor political base (spine and self-respect tradeable on call !!) . But, is any one at 10 Janpath listening ?