English-speaking, educated politicians soft target

By Rajdeep Sardesai
21 May 2010 22:39 IST

What do Shashi Tharoor and Jairam Ramesh have in common? Both are incredibly bright, articulate men with impressive CVs: Jairam is a mechanical engineer with degrees from the IIT and Massachusetts Institute of Technology while Tharoor is a PhD from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and has the distinction of getting a doctorate at 22, the youngest in the history of the prestigious institute. In a sense they represent the best traditions of Macaulays children, "a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect."

And yet, both these fine representatives of India's liberal and cosmopolitan traditions find themselves under siege in a political milieu that appears to share an uneasy relationship with the English-speaking professional turned politician.

Tharoor was undone by the seeming impropriety of having acquired sweat equity for his sweetheart without informing the world. Ramesh is being pilloried for having questioned the Home Ministry's policies towards China. Both are perhaps guilty of forgetting their constitutional responsibilities as union ministers. Tharoor paid for it by being banished from a ministry which could have benefited from his wide experience as a global diplomat. Ramesh may yet pay the price of his indiscretion by being switched from an environment ministry which has acquired a renewed energy and a forward-looking profile under his leadership.

The irony is that the charges against the duo appear trifling when compared with the monumental scandal and corruption that besets the political class. An A Raja gets away with the clamour for his resignation over the spectrum scam because as his leader, M Karunanidhi brazenly told the UPA leadership, "Mr Raja is a Dalit'. A sweat equity worth a few crores appears loose change when compared with the fact that the public exchequer lost a few thousand crores because of a minister's dishonesty. Again, while Ramesh may have overstepped his brief when commenting on the Home Ministry's China policy, how do his statements compare with the unabashed criticism of fellow UPA ministers by Mamata Banerjee? While Ramesh has to apologise, Mamata remains unrestrained.

Which brings me to raise the larger question: are English-speaking, upper-class, highly educated professionals soft targets in public life? An A Raja gets the benefit of doubt because no political party can be seen to be anti-Dalit even if it means winking at corruption. A Mamata Banerjee enjoys the protection conferred on her by virtue of being a regional ally and a mass leader.

The problem is that both Tharoor and Ramesh are upper-caste politicians with no mass base. Tharoor is a Nair, Ramesh a Mysore Brahmin. Tharoor was parachuted into the Lok Sabha from Thiruvanthapuram because of his proximity to the Congress leadership. Ramesh was made a Rajya Sabha member from Andhra Pradesh, again because he had a special relationship with the party's high command. Removing Tharoor as minister was an easy option because while it may have affected the twitterati, it will not affect the existing power equations in Kerala. Ramesh is also a politician who counts his numbers on a laptop, not in a public rally. In other words, both are seen to be easily dispensable netas.

The truth though is that Indian politics needs more of the likes of Tharoor and Ramesh, lateral entrants from the professional world who can add to the quality and intellect of public life. Just contrast a Tharoor as minister of state in South Block with some of his contemporaries. As diplomats from African and Latin American countries have admitted, Tharoor's experience in the United Nations and linguistic skills made him an impressive 'interlocutor' (ah!that dreaded word again) in their engagement with India. Contrast also Ramesh with his predecessors as environment minister, many of whom reduced Pariyavaran Bhavan to a cash and carry ministry. Would you rather have a learned minister representing the country at climate change summits or a bumbling politician who has never heard of greenhouse gas emissions?

Across the western world, there are increasing examples of top-level professionals making a successful switch from the private sector to government. Unfortunately, in India, many of the individuals who aim to make this transition are typecast as English-speaking elitists who are disconnected with 'real India'. The charge of elitism partly stems from envy of the successful upper class Indian, partly from a certain condescension, even hubris, shown by the anglicised Indian towards his 'vernacular' counterparts.

For the traditional, feudal Indian politician, who survives on caste and family loyalties, Tharoor and Ramesh are gatecrashers into a closed system. The duo are a threat to the prevailing political order because they challenge the status quo: neither are they dynasts who are the beneficiaries of being the sons and daughters of politicians nor are they caste chieftains who will nurture their vote banks. They are instead, like millions of others, children of middle class Indians who have become upwardly mobile through scholarship and hard work. Indeed, if politics is to prove aspirational and attract the best talent, then it is important that the likes of Tharoor and Ramesh succeed. Which is also why professionals like them need to be extra careful in their public dealings because the rules for their conduct will always be measured by higher standards than those imposed on the rest of the system. 

Post-script: If Tharoor and Ramesh are looking for a role model, maybe they should take a lesson from Nandan Nilekani. The former Infosys chief executive is now shuffling through data in a government office, with the singular focus of providing the country's citizens with a unique identification card. No twitter accounts, no page three parties, no ego trips, no dramatic statements, it sometimes pays in public life to be a low profile worker ant.
Disclaimer: Views expressed above are the author's own.

Blogger's Profile

Rajdeep Sardesai

One of India’s most respected journalists, Rajdeep Sardesai, has nearly three decades of journalistic experience in print and tv. He has been the founder- editor of chief of IBN 18 network, which included CNN IBN. Prior to setting up the IBN network, he was the managing editor of NDTV 24 x 7 and NDTV India. Rajdeep has won more than 100 national and international awards for journalism, including the Padma Shri in 2008. He is currently consulting editor at the India Today group.

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Previous Comments

Yes you are right Mr. Sardessai! The present day Indian Politician is surviving on cast, and family loyalty ! He can also use the terms secular and communal very effectively to churn the passions of masses! In small States like Goa, he is good at taking percentages, commissions, and siphon money from the public exchequer to give some part of it to a section of his voters to get re-elected even when he has committed criminal acts while in power or is involved in many scandals, corruption cases, drug trade, sex offences, etc.etc...Turning a section of the voters to vote in return for money and other favours has resulted in the same criminal faces again and again repeatedly getting elected and causing degeneration of the democratic system. When the merit is overlooked and other considerations overweigh, the rapid degeneration of any system is eminent! And that is what we see today in the society!

- vishwas prabhudesai, loliem | 08 th June 2010 08:47


Mr. Sardessai has brought out the correct reason for the unwanted controversies in the two cases. In fact, Indians don;t like educated and refined intellectuals in politics. They worship third rates like Mamta, Lalu, Jayalalita, etc,

Shashi mad a mistake in joining Indian politics. Finally he became a loser.

Why there was no demand for Mr. Ahamed's resignation in the wake of allegations regarding special treatment while allotting air tickets through a particular travel agent in Kerala ?

- Das, Goa | 06 th June 2010 21:41


You are absolutely correct Rajdeep. I agree with you in toto w.r.t your comments in Post Script. In fact, it is very difficult to be in public life and at the same time to be a low profile worker. I admire functioning as well as personality of Nandan Niekani. Unforunately, it needs a mention........

- Milind Paidarkar, Mumbai | 28 th May 2010 11:05


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