Friday, October 31, 2014
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India’s Bourgeois Revolution

NEW DELHI – In 2009, when I competed in India’s last parliamentary election, I was something of a rarity. I was not a professional politician. By contrast, all of the other candidates in my constituency – indeed, most of the contenders across the country – had devoted their entire lives to politics, many since their student days.

I was not born into a political family; I had no seat or political fiefdom to inherit; and I had entered the race without a political “godfather.” I had not even lived in India for decades, having spent my adult life working abroad for the United Nations. Nonetheless, I managed to wrest a seat from the opposition Communist Party of India, which had won the two previous elections in my constituency, with a substantial margin of 100,000 votes.

This victory represented a slight crack in the well-guarded fortress of Indian politics, which had long been reserved for a small and largely hereditary circle. The only exceptions had been movie stars, whose popular appeal was based on fame, not political pedigree. Professionals who had built careers and reputations in other fields simply could not get their foot in the door.

But this may finally be changing. In the current general election, there are more non-politician candidacies than in any previous poll. For example, Nandan Nilekani, co-founder of the technology giant Infosys, is running on behalf of the Congress Party in Bangalore, India’s information-technology capital, against a five-term incumbent from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

In Mumbai, the newly established Aam Aadmi (Common Man’s) Party has nominated Meera Sanyal, a former head of the Royal Bank of Scotland’s operations in India. And, in Chennai, the Congress has put forward the electronics engineer S.V. Ramani.

This amounts to a fundamental shift from previous generations, when politicians tended to come from either the top or the bottom of Indian society – unless, of course, they were the nationalist leaders who won India’s independence and comprised its original political class (and whose heirs have continued their legacy). They could be maharajahs or zamindars (landlords), with a feudal hold on their districts’ voters and the time and money to devote to politics. They could also be semi-literate members of the underclass, who viewed politics as their only means of advancement and could appeal to others like them. For everyone else, the route to success was to study hard, pass their exams, and build careers based on merit.

Such an approach might be understandable in a highly competitive society where the salaried middle class could not take the kind of risks implied by a political career; but it undermined the quality of Indian politics. Indeed, it excluded the educated professionals who tend to be a mainstay of democratic governments elsewhere, bringing middle-class values and convictions to politics.

In Europe, for example, middle-class professionals comprise the bulk of the activists, voters, and candidates for political office. In India, by contrast, their counterparts are too busy working to make ends meet to have time for activism. They lack the money found at the top of India’s stratified society, and they have little access to the votes that lie at the bottom. As a result, middle-class professionals have largely abstained from the political process.

That pattern has allowed Indian politics to become increasingly populist, with candidates appealing to the lowest common denominator to win votes. Given this, growing disenchantment with Indian democracy among the middle class is not surprising. Some have even spoken of the “secession of the elites” from Indian politics.

That is why the participation of middle-class candidates in the current election is so significant. If the old pattern is being reversed, the change is almost certainly a result of India’s economic transformation, which has enabled millions of people to join the middle class, bringing with them a new energy and dynamism. Hard-working professionals are no longer willing to sit on the sidelines while the political class makes critical policy decisions. Equally important, India’s educated middle class will, in the not-too-distant future, become large enough to matter in elections.

To be sure, India’s parliament already includes several educated young professionals who previously would not have participated in politics – people with good degrees, a clear vision for the country, international experience, bright ideas, and the capacity to articulate them. But they are all children of politicians. Though the dynastic trend in Indian politics may be bending, it is far from being broken: This year, the BJP has nominated technocrat Jayant Sinha for the seat being vacated by his father, former Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha.

And yet, despite their hereditary advantage, this new generation of educated, articulate, and forward-thinking politicians is raising the standard of Indian politics – a shift that the growing involvement of well-educated professionals will advance further. If the current trend continues, India’s middle-class voters will have more representatives with whom they can identify, rather than having to pay allegiance to politicians for whom they constantly need to make excuses. That will be Indian democracy’s salvation.

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  1. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

    In Mr. Shashi Tharoor's "India's Bourgeois Revolution", he is questioning the wisdom of maintaing India's tradition of hereditary connection in politics. Nevertheless he calls himself "something of a rarity", as he was not "born into a political family", hence he "had no seat or political fiefdom to inherit". Moreover he "had entered the race without a political “godfather". However he has not mentioned that, thanks to his local Kerala roots, his image as author and flamboyant UN diplomat he ran for the Congress Party in Kerala and won in 2009.
    Yet his political career had embarked on a tortuous path. He was elected junior foreign minister and had to resign in 2010 amid controversy over his role with the winning bid for a new Indian Premier League (IPL) team. As a MP he worked for India's bid to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council. He then served as junior education minister before he became junior minister for human resource development. Meanwhile he is the most famous tweeting politician in India with two million followers. In January, his wife died, presumably as a result of a drug overdose. In April he ran in the general election, yet he maintained his rivals were trying to capitalise on the death of his wife and portray him as anti-women.
    Rahul Gandhi, the scion of India’s most powerful political dynasty, was asked a simple question: "Can you name five party workers from the area"? He shrugged and admited that he could not name anyone. Critics claim Gandhi has inherited few of the political skills his forebears possessed. Gandhi has appeared reluctant to embrace political life. Yet he still has decades to reinvent himself, if he does not give up his ambition. Three members of his family - Nehru-Gandhi - had been prime ministers and Indians revere hereditary politicians.
    It's not unusual that parliamentarians, ministers etc hail from political dynasties. Nepotism is a part of India's culture and politics mirrors society. Power and influence are defined to a large extent by a family's wealth, the land it owns and where it stands in society.
    Indian politics are based on grassroots campaigns. The Gandhis had long relied on votes from the vast numbers of rural poor. Mr. Tharoor points out that the "middle-class professionals" have to struggle "to make ends meet". Hence they have no "time for activism", leaving the battlefield to "the top of India’s stratified society", who have the means to reach out to voters "at the bottom". As "middle-class professionals have largely abstained from the political process", he sees it time to engage "middle-class candidates" to capture the bourgeois vote. It makes sense!

  2. CommentedProcyon Mukherjee

    Very interesting observations from Mr. Tharoor in this article and indeed there are some changes in the offing for the polity that brings to the fore people who have been successful in various walks of life, not merely through the advancement that a clout from political inheritance can only further; leaders from the business are really welcome as we transition towards an orientation towards a market.

    But I wonder whether these entrants would at all muster the influence as they have to withstand the enormously tilted balance in favor of a majority who fill the offices of power, the public “block” that is largely held captive by the avarice of private interest.

    The relationship between public and private interests, has so much to be bridged, if it could only bring some alignment between politics and the market to further the cause of growth, that allows investments to be made in a fair manner leading to social dividends.

  3. Commentedsrinivasan gopalan

    well, india's bourgeois revolution is not the apotheosis of meritocrats occupying the political arena. far from this, most of the successful outsiders had bee parachuted into the political party of one kind or another and this piggy-backing is no good for democracy. Shashi Tharoor's jibe at dynasty not being broken, though beneded, by opposition party leaders nominating their own scions look jejune when his own party is headed by the dynasty representative of the fourth generation Nehru family with most of the candidates who are senior leaders letting their own sons/daughters to face the fray, afraid to face the electoral prospects themselves after being in power for a decade!! It is sad that a highly qualified and globally known person like Tharoor is making sweeping generalizations about revolution when nothing on earth has changed even an iota o scintilla till date. Indian political parties would dare not let thousands competent flowers from across the country bloom into the temple of Parliament garden!! This will take definitely another millennium and surely not in this!g,srinivasan, journalist, new delhi

  4. CommentedMadan Raja

    Good article, but would like to know if an example had to be taken to refer the dynastic rule, should it have been Rahul Gandhi and not Yashwant Sinha's son? Wouldn't you agree that he is certainly a more valid example. Someone who does not seem to want the PM post, but is being pushed in that direction because of who his family members are/were. He is being handled with golden gloves, sister shows up to fight for him and everywhere she goes she wants the people to remember that her father was a 'martyr'. When asked about Rahul, she invokes Rajiv. Maybe as a Congress MP, you should mention that dynastic trend must end and stop it at that instead of pointing fingers.

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