The last two months has been a different kind of experience for me. It has also been the time when many of my own convictions have been questioned and tested. It is said that the true character of a person is evident only when his convictions are put to the test. Apart from this, I was also witness to the views and opinions of many different kinds of people – some of them were genuine friends and who cared for me and my welfare, some were just passersby, while many others were people whose lives would be affected in different ways by the decision I took. And what was this decision all about? Thanks to the media, my personal question was now a public one. Many who met me and knew about me had one question on their minds. Would I join the bandwagon of people contesting the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections? And if yes, which party would I be contesting from? While some newspapers had speculated that I would be contesting from the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), others wrote that I would contest from the BJP. Each had a view to share, an opinion to state and a suggestion to offer me. While some felt that I would disappoint them if I joined politics, many others felt that I would surely disappoint them if I did not. It was the same whether I joined the AAP or the BJP. I was certain to disappoint people whatever decision I took. Some emailed me stating that politics was the last resort of scoundrels, while others said that I had to demonstrate the ‘nerves of iron’ and ‘muscles of steel’ that Swami Vivekananda had asked for, and jump into the fray. I have had no other desire than to work for the cause of National Reconstruction based on the principles espoused by Swami Vivekananda. How well would mainstream electoral politics go with my temperament and me? A close friend and confidante from my Harvard days put it succinctly by asking me if I could be a politician on the outside while maintaining my principled and value-driven self on the inside. He went on to say that if I could find that balance, I would be a successful politician who could still do meaningful and constructive work for the development of India. One mentioned that it would be the next logical step for me while another felt that I may now need to learn to deal with the devil.
The normal perception of the common man today is that the world of politics is dirty and needs cleaning up. But then, many including me till recently had always believed that someone else would do this cleaning up. Very few have the courage to jump into the system and attempt any change from within. Most have lost their way in attempting to do so and this today serves as an example of how impossible the task on hand is. Though I have always loved challenges, I am also realistic in my assessment of the barriers that are there for people like me. The issues of religion, caste, sub-caste, money power, muscle power, connections, family lineage – all this needs to add up to get a few doors open. Coming from an activist background and the values that I subscribe to, one can imagine how much more difficult this would be!
Amidst all this confusion, I decided to talk to a large cross-section of people from varied backgrounds. I also met and interacted with politicians – honest ones, situationally honest ones, ones with a ‘clean image’, some tainted ones, etc. They belonged to different parties, though I could not easily decipher the underlying ideology or philosophy driving them. One thing in common was that they were all career politicians who believed that politics was in their DNA and it was their calling. I needed to see the picture from their side of the fence and it was indeed a revealing experience for me. This information, I felt would surely serve me in good stead if I were to actually make the move. I remembered the old adage ‘get yourself warm winter coats if you are planning on moving to the Arctic’.
And this is what I learnt from them…
The first thing I learnt was that people have a very two-dimensional understanding of the situation and that the view from the inside was very different from that of the outside. The setting is indeed very complex. The pressure of pampering and responding to the gallery was the unstated norm. People measured their political leaders based on whether they responded to their individual demands. The pressures that the constituents manage to create were also very palpable. Decisions were seldom based on the collective well-being of society but were guided more by the personal stakes involved, the mass appeal that such a decision would create and on whether it addressed the concerns of vested interest groups and political factions and caste combinations. Leadership here was not about giving the work back to people; it was about positional authority and being the ‘man’ up there. It was about basking in the glory of being important and occupying the limelight all the time. It was about negotiating your seat on the ‘dais’, about making sure that you were seen in the newspaper at regular intervals and about making the ‘correct’ comments at the appropriate places. It was not about speaking your mind or sticking to the truth. It was always about the truth that people wanted to hear and about catering to the needs of human ego and pride.
My leadership lessons would surely be tested – the leadership that I had learnt and teach now was to keep the focus on the ‘work at the center’. It was not about ‘myself’ but about a process of empowering the group to address the problems that besieged them. It was about getting people to understand that they were a part of the problem and had to necessarily be a part of the solution if they wanted it to work. I was unsure how this would work in the setting where constituents neither have the intent nor the patience to do it themselves. They see their elected representatives as the people who should be doing the hard work on their behalf. The people tend to see their political representatives as a wire conducting the electricity of their hopes, frustrations and desires. Anything less and they would be unforgiving and push them out of electoral significance.
And how it all panned out finally…
As the debate and speculation continued, a senior journalist friend living in Delhi and who has covered the Parliamentary proceedings for more than three decades told me that any party interested in making me their official candidate in Mysore would not be serious about my winning the elections. He went on to mention that my caste was not in my favour and I would never be able to understand the electoral arithmetic of caste and cash. One senior politician suggested that I choose a constituency where the voters predominantly belonged to the same caste as I do. Being deeply wedded to egalitarianism and a caste-less society, it was unacceptable to me. Having wanted to ‘Make Democracy Work’, it would also be unethical and a mockery of participative democracy to contest from a constituency that I neither belonged to nor knew about.
Another friend mentioned that I would never be able to convince any party that was serious about my winning to restrict their expenses to the limits prescribed by the Election Commission. One group of people belonging to a particular caste combination was more candid. They mentioned that their desire for a man of competence and integrity to represent them was not as strong as their filial affection for a man of their own community. At the end of the day, it did boil down to the ‘change that the common man desired and cared about’. And I painfully realized that the system would be forced to change only when the electorate was intent and determined about the change. And the electorate at this point of time is not fully prepared to let go off their own insecurities and concerns. They are not ready to bell the cat or be the change or not even be a part of the change. But everything is not so depressing. I do see a silver lining amidst all this. One section of society, especially the youth are beginning to get restless and are looking for a change. Many of them are keen on breaking down the barriers of entry for credible people with the appropriate competence to enter the political world. The very fact that mainstream parties did consider a person like me for electoral politics is a beginning of this change. But more needs to be done and this will happen only when the people demanding that things change reach a critical number. And I understand that till then, my aborted attempt to cleanse the system will only serve to ripen the issue. Hopefully, the years to come will be different and more and more young people will be able to realize their dream of serving this country through the political path. And only then can we boldly say that the Indian Democracy has come of age.