Ready to send your child to politician school?
The entry of those who have capital, cultural or otherwise, into politics is not necessarily something that should make us applaud
In the late 1990s, it wasn’t uncommon to hear women in Bengaluru buses saying what one would now term thirsty things about Narayana Murthy. “Such a nice man," they would say to each other. Murthy’s public image was of a man who was helpful around the house. And somehow this merged with his success outside the house. From the beginning, the public knew of him as one half of a certain kind of dhampati—a domesticated and happy coupledom. I assumed that these women in the bus were going home and telling their husbands with varying degrees of trenchancy that if the founder of Infosys could do it, they could jolly well do some housework too. Now, in 2020, I wonder whether those ladies are looking at their children and thinking they should go into politics. Now that the Murthy son-in-law, Rishi Sunak, is finance minister in the UK, I mean.
A decade ago, when I was a journalist in a newsroom, I had exactly zero friends in politics. Partly because of the ethical constraints and partly because People Like Us were just about beginning to enter mainstream politics and there was just a stray banker or sportsperson. Otherwise it wasn’t common at all. When an uncle of mine was stigmatized as mentally ill, the anecdote usually cited was that he jumped out of his car to join a political rally. Those days are obviously gone. In 2019, around the time of the Lok Sabha election, I realized I had one friend and several acquaintances who had already been in politics awhile. And via Shakti, a new organization meant to promote women in politics, I made several new acquaintances preparing to stand for elections for the first time. However, the entry of those who have capital (cultural capital and the regular variety) into politics is not necessarily something that should make us all applaud.
This is what I remember from the very tame elections at my all-women’s college. One, the very first year, a candidate hired an event manager to run her campaign. Strange men were suddenly seen walking around campus putting up expensive posters. When this candidate—a sleek and accomplished young woman—came to our classroom, my friend, who was already inclined to vote for her, asked why she had hired an event manager. The candidate’s response was delivered with a smile: I don’t need to answer that.
I watched with my mouth open as my friend acquiesced and sat down. My friend voted for her and the candidate won with a landslide. Some months later, we heard through the grapevine that our new union president had allotted the bulk of the budget for the college festival to the event managers (a company owned by her friends). The next afternoon, a bunch of us ran a one-question survey on campus, with the help of a friend in the statistics department: Do you want an event manager to run the festival?
We printed and Xeroxed the pie-chart of the results (the majority said no) and promised “in-depth analysis" in the first issue of our newly launched weekly, Enthupataki (don’t judge!). The president of the union was displeased by the sudden influx of science and math students walking into the union room to ask sticky questions about budgets. We were summoned. We looked gormless and were supported by the staff in our embryonic attempts at public interest journalism. So we lived to publish another week.
The next year we were appalled to see that one rich candidate had printed her “vote for me" message on hundreds of paper napkins at the local idli and dosa outlets. When the student heard that we had run a short critique of this in the latest issue of our paper, her response was to try and buy up all the copies. And not even quite hide this attempt. That first sleek candidate had done some damage already. She had changed expectations of what counted as a proper candidate—her personal sleekness needed a big budget and her big budget created a campaign sleekness. More importantly, she raised the bar for thick-skinned shamelessness. She had said she didn’t have to answer any questions and the voters had nodded along.
Since the recent protests began, only the most privileged and/or clueless have stayed out of the fray. In a startling number of neighbourhoods around the country, going to protests and meetings is now a weekly activity. Every time I hear a fantastic speaker, I find myself thinking, I wish this person would stand for elections. And given that it has already become quite kosher for all kinds of people to stand for elections, I hope I will get a chance to vote for one of these electrifying and brilliant young women and men newly in the public arena. I say “I hope" for reasons that we need not belabour.
The former IAS officer Kannan Gopinathan has an answer he recommends to the legendary question, “What is the alternative to Modi?" He says that when elections roll around in 2024, there may well be alternatives. The implication is that the protests against the new citizenship law have ensured that there will be dozens of alternatives, if not so well-funded, certainly more charismatic than the current lot of politicians. For the present, the answer to the “What is the alternative to Modi?" question is, he said at a talk in Bengaluru, “a Modi on his toes". And this—regardless of the Murthy son-in-law—is what I wish People Like Us would train their children to become. To become watchful and discerning citizens who will not fall for shiny posters. Who will never smile and sit down when netas say, “I don’t wanna." Who will see politicians who have glossy skins like New Zealand apples and know it for the wax of shamelessness.
Cheap Thrills is a fortnightly column about millennials, obsessions and secrets. Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger.
FIRST PUBLISHED21.02.2020 | 02:58 PM IST
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