In praise of mainstream politicians
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Donald Trump came to power on the back of his promise to “drain the swamp”. To the people who voted for him, Washington, DC was a cesspool of intertwined political and business interests. Culturally and economically, it had little in common with the country’s heartland. Trump’s lack of political experience and his transgression of norms of political propriety—personal attacks, not policy, formed the mainstay of his campaign—turned out to be his greatest strengths. His supporters were sick of the “Washington elite”. They were sending their man to, in essence, blow it all up.
Thus far, Trump has managed to blow up only his own administration. Appointing a respected, conservative Supreme Court justice aside, he has few concrete successes to his credit. Instead, he seems trapped in an endless cycle of scandals. Most of his problems are self-created. That Trump lacks political experience, and the astuteness in dealing with the bureaucracy, media and political opposition that comes with it, has been on stark display—from the manner in which he has responded to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI’s) probe into his administration’s contacts with the Russians to his indiscretion in compromising an Israeli intelligence asset, and a dozen instances besides. As Trump said about his first attempt at healthcare reform, he didn’t know the business of governing could be so complicated.
In the world’s largest democracy, meanwhile, the Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is learning a similar lesson. The India Against Corruption movement in 2011-12, helmed by Anna Hazare, was a wholly deserved rebuke to the corruption and ineptitude of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. But AAP, which grew out of it and achieved significant political success almost right away, has attempted to govern in permanent insurrection. Its attempts to continue trading on its outsider status are starting to come up short—from electoral setbacks at the state and local levels to infighting and dubious policy. AAP, too, is finding out that governing as an outsider is harder than campaigning as one.
“We hang the petty thieves and appoint the great ones to public office,” Aesop supposedly said two-and-a-half millennia ago. Popular distrust of the political class has existed as long as organized politics has. In the aftermath of the financial crisis, it has found fertile ground in large swathes of the developed world. This is understandable. A witch’s brew of economic turmoil laid at the feet of the political and financial elite, the failure to take into account those on the losing end of globalization, and the cultural and demographic fears that always emerge in times of economic turmoil have robbed politicians of credibility. The reasons for distrust in emerging countries are different and older—in India, for instance, ineffective governance and the pervasive corruption that link politics with the shadow economy are responsible—but the end result is the same.
And yet, the political class serves an essential function. A republic such as India is essentially a mechanism for reconciling disparate and often conflicting interests and apportioning limited resources. Politicians are needed to lubricate the mechanism. Consider the most sweeping changes in the Indian polity. Decades of post-independence politics were shaped by the ideological struggle between the stalwarts of the Congress Socialist Party caucus—formed by Jayaprakash Narayan in 1934—within the Indian National Congress. The Indianization of socialist politics and its spread owed much to Ram Manohar Lohia subsequently setting himself against the Congress. Likewise, the sweeping changes in the dynamics of caste politics in India were brought about by politicians like Lohia, V.P. Singh and Kanshi Ram working within the political system. When Atal Bihari Vajpayee shifted the economic discourse to the right, he did so with all the skill of the consummate politician. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, for all that he has often portrayed himself as a political outsider, is a party man through and through—and a consummate political showman and strategist, qualities he is exploiting fully to push another change of direction in India’s socio-economic landscape.
The merits and demerits of these changes over the decades are a debate for another occasion. But what they point to is the essential role of conventional politics in the life of a state as a means to mediate change. Compromise and the willingness to negotiate and cut deals might be unheroic qualities—and a source of frustration for the voting public—but they are also essential ones. A hard-nosed, take-no-prisoners approach sells while campaigning; it is problematic as a governing philosophy, as Trump is finding out.
In its most basic form, politics is a Hobbesian business of maintaining and managing the state’s apparatus of violence and coercion, physical, economic and otherwise. These are dangerous tools. There is something to be said for entrusting them to men and women willing to cut a deal on when and how they should be used.
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