Home / Opinion / Columns /  It’s a wonder what most Indian politicians actually do

When the politician Sharad Yadav psssed away this month, I wondered what exactly Indian politicians do all their lives. Every day, when he set out to work, what was his work? What did he want? A few days after he died, Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand, improbably hinted at an answer.

One of the worst things about dying in India is the poor quality of obituaries. Most tributes termed Yadav a “socialist leader". What does it mean? Nothing. Among meaningless words in Indian political reporting, ‘socialist’ is on par with ‘secularist’.

Yadav was a successful man, of course. Yet, obituaries struggled to explain what he did for other people. His two remarkable feats are that he became a Member of Parliament at the age of 27 and years later contributed to the political pressure that forced V.P. Singh as prime minister to adopt recommendations of the Mandal Commission, which opened reservations for a broad band of Indians, thereby defeating the whole point of quotas.

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It is likely that what Yadav did most of his life was what most politicians, successful or not, did most of their lives. He indulged in politics, which is a mixture of deal-making, lobbying, cobbling alliances, compromising and plotting to win elections. He was caught up in the process of politics. This differs from the formal objective of politics, which is to improve the lives of a huge number of people.

My argument is not that Yadav achieved nothing. It is that in the 20,000 odd days he was a politician, most of them were spent in politicking, which is merely a process. I would have said that this occupied all his political life, but I am not counting the few days when he won polls, gave speeches that influenced people or policy.

Indian politicians are usually entrapped in the political process, which keeps them away from the point of politics. Politics claims it is a means to an end, but most politicians operate entirely in the means. This condition exists in the democratic aspects of all professions, where lobbying and arguments impede actual work.

Politicking has a sense of direction and gravitas because of its objective, which is to transform society, but politicians spend very little time on the transformation part. An overwhelming majority of politicians do not do anything useful for society. In fact, if it were not for the harm they cause, their professional lives would have been entirely without any impact. Imagine a profession where players raise funds to make a movie, forge alliances to raise funds, plot ways to go about it, analyse what would make the cinema project work, but never actually make the film, nor spend even a minute attempting to do so.

Lalu Prasad issued a statement from Singapore where he was recuperating from an operation. He had nothing to say about Yadav’s accomplishments. Instead he said, "Sharad Yadav and I fought with each other, but our disagreements never led to any bitterness." It captured the essence of their relationship, which was probably more about politicking than doing anything for society.

At first glance, it may seem improbable that Jacinda Ardern can confirm any aspect of Sharad Yadav’s political life. To be the prime minister of New Zealand has to one of the most fulfilling jobs in politics. Every moment, she is the face of her nation and an ambassador of an ideal; that alone makes it a proper morally defensible job. Yet, on Thursday, she announced that she will not run for office and would rather focus on her family life. She said one cannot do her job, “unless you have a full tank, plus, a bit in reserve for those unexpected challenges… I am not leaving because it was hard. Had that been the case, I probably would have departed two months into the job… I am leaving because with such a privileged role, comes responsibility. The responsibility to know when you are the right person to lead, and also, when you are not."

I do not believe that Ardern quit as PM because she was tired of making a difference to New Zealand. What she was saying is that she is tired of politics, the endless process of carrying key allies and foes with you, watching your back, plotting your moves, and so on, which takes up all of one’s energy before the moral objective of politics even comes into the picture.

The rot where people are stuck in the means and have no energy or interest in achieving ends can be seen in other professions, too. Consider India’s top activists, the activists you know, whom you have read or watched on TV news. What have they achieved? What have they changed? What have they won? Nothing really. They wallow in the intoxication of televised performances, ensconced in the means for years without any interest in achieving the objective of activism.

Some may argue that progress is not all there is to politics. Life is not only about better roads, clean air and prosperity. A society is also about grouses. Classical politicking politicians reassure large communities that they will not be superseded by other communities. And there is value in this. That is why Indians have rewarded cultural guardians. The politicking politician is the creation of the politicking Indian.

This is why every now and then, we see images of people in Mumbai commuting; hordes trying to get inside a compartment where there are already hundreds of people. This has been their plight for decades. Many political revolutions have come and gone in India, generations of politicking has taken place, without figuring out a way to shut the doors of Mumbai’s suburban trains.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, novelist, and the creator of the Netflix series, ‘Decoupled’.

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