Byline by M.J.Akbar: Much to do with Nothing!
Who was the last Indian politician who wrote a best-seller? Who was the last Indian politician who wrote a book? I am not going to be nasty and ask who was the last Indian politician who read a book, because all of them are literate and many of them do read. The only author-politicians who come to mind are foreign minister Natwar Singh, petroleum minister Mani Shankar Aiyar and former finance minister of Bengal Ashok Mitra, and that is because politics is a second, post-retirement, occupation for them. (I can’t include Arun Shourie in this category because there is some doubt as to whether he was ever a politician. He was in office but never in politics. He was and is a believer, occasionally of the fundamental variety.) Atal Behari Vajpayee writes good poetry, which is evidence of his difference, but while poetry might fetch an audience it does not fetch royalties.
What do you do when there is nothing to do? For normal people that is not a problem. We sleep. We laze. We bond. We read or, more probably, doze before the more mindless television junk. We might even indulge in some minor free-market crime, like watching pirated movies. There is lots to do when there is nothing to do. For normal people.
But since those who have once tasted power tend to be too grand to be normal, they have a problem when ejected out of office. After a spell of life during which every minute is allotted, either to work or to flatterers, the absence of a printed schedule (not to mention the absence of hangers-on) can be tormenting.
Politicians in other democracies have found solutions. In America they all sign up with agents who put them on lecture tours. America is a very audio-friendly society. Instead of falling asleep at lectures, people actually pay to hear them. An orator like Bill Clinton makes millions out of lectures. This may not sound surprising, given the number of women anxious for proximity; but even serious men are willing to lay out a budget for the privilege of hearing him speak. Clinton has a seat in the luxury class of this gravy train, but there is space for lesser lights as well. Even British politicians with some cache are beginning to get on. Then there is membership of the board of companies. British politicians are far more adept at becoming directors. The city keeps a fair percentage of its space at the top for out-of-work politicians. This is also a means of reducing the income-deficit that all of them have to suffer when in office. Government salaries are significantly less than what they would have earned in the private sector, so this is an opportunity to compensate. The practice is understood even though it might never be stressed. For the crasser kind, this can become a pay-off: firms that have benefited from a politician’s influence in decision-making tend to possess a memory that can be lucrative at the right moment. Halliburton’s expertise in such matters comes to mind.
Then of course there are books. The Clintons, Bill and Hillary, made, together, nearly twenty million dollars at the very least from their respective memoirs. Retired generals have a good market as well. Colin Powell saved himself from any chance of penury with his book about the first Bush-Gulf war. The trick of course is to be known well-enough to be a regular face on television. If you are seen on TV your book will be purchased by large numbers of suckers who have no desire whatsoever to open its pages, except perhaps to get the copy signed by the author. However, it is reassuring that in some societies a book remains a status symbol of some value. There is after all no scramble for signed DVDs of television serials. The second requirement is "revelation". The book must reveal something that can put it on the news stories. After that the celebrity-author can do his/her round of appearances and stroll all the way to the bank.
We can see instantly that almost none of this works in India. Who was the last Indian politician who wrote a best-seller? Who was the last Indian politician who wrote a book? I am not going to be nasty and ask who was the last Indian politician who read a book, because all of them are literate and many of them do read. The only author-politicians who come to mind are foreign minister Natwar Singh, petroleum minister Mani Shankar Aiyar and former finance minister of Bengal Ashok Mitra, and that is because politics is a second, post-retirement, occupation for them. (I can’t include Arun Shourie in this category because there is some doubt as to whether he was ever a politician. He was in office but never in politics. He was and is a believer, occasionally of the fundamental variety.) Atal Behari Vajpayee writes good poetry, which is evidence of his difference, but while poetry might fetch an audience it does not fetch royalties.
No best-sellers then to fill empty time zones. One reason for this is that you have to retire to write a memoir. You can’t begin to dish out revelations about colleagues if you still intend to do business with them. Who was the last Indian politician who announced his retirement? If you can think of any do let me know on my email id @ email@example.com. Politics is a full-time job, and also therefore the only source of income. The only exceptions are those who were born rich, and brilliant professionals like Arun Jaitley or Kapil Sibal. No one, therefore, thinks of writing a book to reduce the income-deficit. (Ministers, with honourable exceptions, quite often use office as an insurance policy against leaner times.) Ideology is the other reason for writing books, as in the case of Ram Manohar Lohia or Madhu Limaye. Since ideology is dead, ideological books are also dead.
It was different once, as the mention of Lohia and Limaye indicates. But all the greats of the freedom movement wrote. Mahatma Gandhi wrote incessantly. His collected works are nearing the century mark. The finest writer-politician was undeniably Jawaharlal Nehru, whose prose was as immaculate as his intellect; and both virtues took second place to integrity. Since they had integrity, they had the courage to have differences. Here is Nehru on Gandhi which should be read for at least two reasons: to glimpse the quality of politics in his time, and for the sheer joy of reading excellent prose.
‘And then came Gandhi… Much that he said we only partially accepted or sometimes did not accept at all. But all this was secondary. The essence of his teaching was fearlessness and truth … abhaya, fearlessness, not merely bodily courage but the absence of fear from the mind. Janaka and Yajnavalka had said, at the dawn of our history, that it was the function of the leaders of a people to make them fearless. But the dominant impulse in India under British rule was that of fear. Pervasive, oppressing, strangling fear… It was against this all-pervading fear that Gandhi’s quiet and determined voice was raised: Be not afraid. Was it so simple as all that? Not quite. And yet fear builds its phantoms which are more fearsome than reality itself, and reality when calmly analysed and its consequences willingly accepted loses much of its terror.’
Is it the absence of anything else to do that makes politics a full-time activity in India? A political party naturally needs to function out of office, but opposition does not mean a full-time discordant chorus. Silence is not a virtue in any party’s dictionary. Loss of power seems to induce a serious sense of insecurity that demands continual if not continuous confrontation. Sometimes the two sides in a match forget that there is an audience watching every move, and in the political game it is the audience that eventually decides who is the victor: there is no other referee.
Lal Krishna Advani has seen the weather change too often not to recognise this. If by some magic three quarters of the BJP top echelon had other things to do, he might have been a happier man. One gets the sense that sometimes he is compelled to create artificial activity where none is needed. He is latching on to issues that refuse to catch fire; and not enough thought is being put into examination and analysis, of cause and consequence. Even the campaign over the Shankaracharya of Kanchi, Jayendra Saraswati, seems to have spluttered out. It is possible that the citizenry is over-sated with politics after the needlessly long election and simply wants the government to get on with its job and the opposition to leave things alone for a while. There are no takers for any policy of confrontation. Lalu Yadav has only reaffirmed his image of irresponsibility by his sordid attempt to character-assassinate Advani. Indians do not like witch hunts, no matter who initiates them. (The subtle alteration in the meaning of that term shows how it has fallen into disgrace. It used to mean a hunt for a witch; it has now begun to imply a hunt by a witch.) Indians like it even less when a government uses its power to do so.
Shakespeare — inevitably — had a phrase that sums up the present, and welcome, scratchy lull in Indian politics: Much ado about nothing. When there is nothing to do, the last thing one should do is make much ado about it.
- Politicians : Endangered Species? by ilaxi