Into the mind of the Indian politician

Corruption is a clichéd narrative to woo voters. What alternative narrative can politicians sell to the world’s largest democracy?

Charles Assisi

[Women at farmers rally in Bhopal. Photograph by Ekta Parishad (CC BY-SA 3.0), via Wikimedia Commons]

As elections get closer, the question on everybody’s mind is: which way is the wind blowing? Every Ram, Rahim and Ronny seems to have a hypothesis and every media outlet a prediction of what the outcomes would look like. But the thing with predictions is that they are, well, predictions. It is as good or as bad as astrology can get.

Then there is drawing room banter. That too is just that. Uninformed banter. What makes it worse still is that it makes a naïve assumption—that the politician is a stupid creature. But let’s get real. No politician gets to occupy high office by being stupid. Fact is, those outside the “political circus”, as observers condescendingly describe elections in India, may well be the stupid ones. Because, inevitably, they are the ones who get it wrong.

I gained some perspective after poring over my notes from an interesting conversation with S Srinivasan, a friend and former colleague. Srini, as friends know him, moved to London a while ago to further his academic record in economics. But he continues to follow India and remains closely engaged with India observers. In an earlier avatar, he earned his spurs reporting on politics from every corner of Tamil Nadu.

I called him up the other day to revisit the multiple threads from our conversation and ask if he still stands by his assertions. He maintains he stands by them and added more perspective. His opinion was on the back of reportage and an informal conversation with a senior political leader from a party headquartered in Chennai. I thought it fascinating; what the political leader had to offer were some pointers on how our world views may be manipulated over the next few months by the many parties vying for power.

The sum and substance of what he told Srini was that the Indian voting population ought not to be looked at as a homogeneous base, but as three distinct groups. To do that, the veteran suggested he imagines Indians as people who live in three concentric circles. Apparently, every astute politician understands the nuances here because it is on the back of this idea that their bids for power are made.

The innermost circle, call it Group I, comprises people who have sworn their allegiance to the party and its leader. This is because they are wedded to the party’s ideology. So, come what may, they will stand by the ideology and the anointed leader. The politician understands this intuitively. To ensure Group I works well, the leader’s mind lubricates this ecosystem with two kinds of people—thinkers and doers.

Thinkers are the ones who defend the party’s ideology on all platforms that matter. They are also the ones mandated with thinking of new ways to tweak the ideology to keep pace with the times and proselytise it across different channels. Thinkers are inevitably articulate, polished and can put their arguments across with much finesse. For the anointed leader, keeping them on the party’s side does not take much effort because they are ideologically wedded to what the party stands for.

As far as the doer goes, they will do what the leader commands them to, without giving their actions much thought. This is because—like the thinkers—they too are ideologically sworn in; the leader’s word is gospel. But unlike the thinkers, the doers may lack finesse. So, it is entirely possible that they may appear uncouth or be unlettered. Be that as it may, if their leader asks them to serve a community or a cause, they will follow instructions. And by the same measure, if they are instructed to attack an opponent viciously or destroy something to protect their ideology, they will. Because they believe their leader is doing what is right.

When events like these outrage a passive bystander, “thinkers” from Group I go into overdrive mode to defend the “doers”. But in the minds of the thinkers and doers, they aren’t doing anything outrageous or wrong. They are just living their ideologies out and performing what is their prescribed duty. They see it as a morally incumbent ask.

The second ring that falls in the middle of the concentric circles, or Group II, as a political leader sees them, comprises the self-serving voters: the business classes, those who vote along the lines of their caste and non-resident Indians (NRIs). The reason they vote for an individual or a party is because they believe whom they vote for will tweak the existing system to benefit their interests more. This group is loud, inevitably moneyed, and insists that India is the kind of nation where democracy has failed and needs a “benign dictator”. To bolster their case, they will inevitably place Singapore and China as cases in point of countries that India ought to mimic if it must find a place in the Sun.

All they need to hear is a soothing voice that suggests their interests will be taken care of and that they are much needed.

When looked at as a politician, both Group I and Group II are important, but not worth losing sleep over. Those in the innermost circle will do all the grunt work for obvious reasons. Those in the second circle can be appeased easily by charm and promises. The nature of these relationships is purely transactional.

Group III comprises people who live in the outermost circle of these concentric rings. These are the neutral voters. But this is also the circle where the largest number of people reside. It is the largest vote bank, and includes the middle class and the poor. It is the group politicians lose sleep over as elections come closer.

As veterans see it, Group III comprises mostly “people like us” (PLU). They do not subscribe to any ideology per se and would much rather shy away from politics. They think it is a “dirty” affair and their opinions are mostly uninformed ones. These opinions are formed in drawing rooms or in huddles at street corners and are driven by the media.

That this population is significant and its members’ votes count at the sweepstakes is good news for Group III. The bad news (and one that anybody who is part of the PLU population will not acknowledge) is that they can be manipulated. And how may that be done?

They need to hear a comforting message or the promise of a better tomorrow. When looked at from a politician’s eye, this is the tough part. What message does the party apparatus send out to this class when it is election time?

More fodder on how these messages ought to be thought through was provided by the veteran in Tamil Nadu. By way of example, he cited a talk by CN Annadurai (or Arignar Anna, as he was popularly called), the founder of the DMK, to members in his party. Soon after the DMK had demolished the Congress and won by a landslide margin in 1967, he told them that pre-election supporters are different from post-election supporters. This was his first law of politics.

The goodwill of any political party falls by 50% the day it assumes power

In turn, it paves the way for his second law of politics that the goodwill of any political party falls by 50% the day it assumes power. This is not for anything else, but because it is impossible, even for the most sincere and capable leader, to fulfil election promises in a country like India. Because it is as diverse as it is and has democracy at its heart, revolutions cannot be engineered. No individual, however thumping the mandate is, can legislate anything into or out of existence. When the time comes, things happen.

The smarter political leaders in India understand this instinctively. That is why they know they must be quick to draw first blood and claim credit when something good happens. They also understand there is much truth in Annadurai’s native wisdom. Because it follows from his laws that it is inevitable that a lot many people from Group III will feel “let down”.

This raises a question: what does “let down” mean in India? Plainly put, “let down” means the ruling party “did nothing to eliminate corruption” and “prices are rising”. This is where things begin to get interesting from a politician’s eyes.

“Corruption” is not a problem in India. It is a “system” much like “capitalism” is a system

As a politician sees it, “corruption” is not a problem in India. It is a “system” much like “capitalism” is a system or “socialism” is in other parts of the world. They also understand there is a reason why “corruption” exists as a system in India; there are too many people and too little resources to go around.

It is inevitable, then, that those who have the means to gain access to resources will deploy them—not because they are inherently bad people, but because they need the resources badly. The only way to get it out of the system may be to throw something into the system to acquire it. If that be money, so be it. You may call that money anything—in this case, corruption.

But it is embedded in the middle class psyche. By way of example, if you need to get something done someplace, touts are the norm. Nobody raises as much as a brow when a few extra rupees are passed to a tout to get the job done and save on time because there are other things to be attended to. For instance, get to work on time, as opposed to stand in a long queue to get the right forms stamped by the authorised officers. That’s the way things are and that’s how the system operates.

Where do you draw the line between necessity and corruption?

When looked at dispassionately, in a country where the per capita income is as low as it is and everybody needs money, where do you draw the line between necessity and corruption? This is not to suggest that scams are par for course. Those are “Black Swan” events that gets everyone’s attention and everybody frothing at how “corrupt” a country India is. Fact of the matter is, everybody is “corrupt” because that is the system.

All this said, it is not possible to acknowledge that a corrupt system is indeed a system at all. To the contrary, all kinds of noises must be made that it will be dismantled and discarded to give way for a new order. It is on the back of this promise, inevitably, that any party rides into power. But as postulated by Annadurai, a party loses 50% of its goodwill the day it assumes power because it cannot live up to promises.

Then there is the issue of “rising prices”. As any student of economics will tell, prices rise and prices decline. Economies boom, economies decline. It is the nature of the economic engine. There are some things that can be controlled by policy makers. There are others that follow global patterns and policy makers can do their best to navigate through what may be choppy waters. And then there are the outcomes of legacies they may have inherited from earlier regimes. There is only so much a politician can do about forces like these.

But that a politician in power will come under attack is inevitable. Some rightfully so. Some because of the actions of their predecessors—the outcomes of which have chosen to rear their heads now. And some because of mistakes that could have been avoided if wiser counsel had been sought. All said, there are consequences to be dealt with and elections to be faced. What is a political leader to do next?

So, every five years, in a democracy like India, it leaves political leaders with not much to do except think up a new story—a narrative if you will. They know that there is only so much juice they can get out of the “corruption” story. And there is only so loud you can scream about it.

This is again a function of the fact that whether a leader be in the ruling party or in the opposition, pressing the button too hard on “corruption” can backfire in the long run. Because, as hypothesised, for better or worse, corruption is part of the system. And the system isn’t going anywhere.

What new narrative do you craft that you can sell to the world’s largest democracy?

This is a tough act. What new narrative do you craft that you can sell to the world’s largest democracy? How much creative license do you exercise? How manipulative do you get? Where do you draw the lines? Trying to create new narratives is not peculiar to politics alone. Look around. It permeates all domains of life—whether it be in business or our personal lives.

Consider Microsoft. It was once considered unassailable. The Free Software Foundation then started to make its voice heard and the Open Source Software Community started growing in numbers. But the leadership team at Microsoft wasn’t listening to them. They thought their narratives inconsequential and unable to hold up against Microsoft’s strengths. But that strength eventually turned out to be the proverbial Achilles’ Heel in Microsoft’s history.

What may Microsoft have looked like today if the entity had embraced the Open Source Community earlier? It looked impossible once. Microsoft had gotten wedded to a narrative where it was the dominant player. To change this narrative, it took a kinder, gentler Satya Nadella to take over the mantle until Microsoft started to finally adapt. It has now started speaking this new narrative and embraced Open Source.

This is not for anything else, but because Nadella understands they are staring at a problem to which the answers aren’t obvious. Grappling with it is tough and needs empathy. The legendary management teacher Clayton Christensen called it the capitalist’s dilemma: “Doing the right thing for long-term prosperity is the wrong thing for most investors, according to the tools used to guide investments. In our attempts to maximise returns to capital, we reduce returns to capital.” This requires a new narrative, like infusing empathy into a testosterone-driven culture, and Nadella is doing just that.

This may not sound like music. But those who last the mile in politics have empathy embedded in their muscle. They have the mental muscle in them to listen to narratives of all kinds from the ground and then craft one that may appeal to the largest possible audience.

Step down from an organisational narrative and listen to personal narratives. To hear these, take a stroll down the road and look closely at couples staring at each other longingly. With the benefit of hindsight, those of us past a certain age know what the male of the species wants intuitively. We also know the female wants to give in to the overtures. But she will not—until the male creates a narrative to convince the female he is not seeking an immoral sexual intercourse, but is in the pursuit of beauty and love.

That adds some perspective on why it is often not the most attractive of the species that wins, but the one with a better narrative. This too, is a nuance that those who occupy positions of power in politics understand intuitively—that they need not be attractive or appear powerful, but be able to create narratives that Group III wants to hear very badly.

As things are, there is much sound and fury. I am waiting to hear the line I—and other “people like us”—fall for, come election time. Because, at the end of the day, there is a story that every sucker falls for.

May the best storyteller win.

(This article was first published in Livemint.)

Was this article useful? Sign up and we'll send you articles like this every week. Here's a sample

Comments

Login to comment

About the author

Charles Assisi
Charles Assisi

Co-founder and Director

Founding Fuel

Charles Assisi is an award-winning journalist with two decades of experience to back him. He is co-founder and director at Founding Fuel, and co-author of the book The Aadhaar Effect. He also wrote a weekly column under the slug Life Hacks in Mint, India's most influential business newspaper. He is vocal in his views on journalism and what shape it ought to take in India. He speaks on the theme at various forums and is often invited by various organizations to teach their teams how to write.

In his last assignment, he wore two hats: That of Managing Editor at Forbes India and Editor at ForbesLife India. As part of the leadership team, his mandate was to create a distinctive business title in a market many thought was saturated. When Forbes India was finally launched after much brainstorming and thinking through, it broke through the ranks and got to be recognized as the most influential business magazine in the country. He did much the same thing with ForbesLife India where he broke from convention and launched the title to critical acclaim.

Before that, he was National Technology Editor and National Business Editor at the Times of India, during the great newspaper wars of 2005. He was part of the team that ensured Times of India maintained top dog status in Mumbai on the face of assaults by DNA and Hindustan Times.

His first big gig came in his late twenties when German media house Vogel Burda marked its India debut with CHIP a wildly popular technology magazine. He was appointed Editor and given a free run to create what he wanted. During this stint, he worked and interacted with all of Vogel Burda's various newsrooms across Europe and Asia.

Charles holds a Masters in Economics from Mumbai Universtity and an MBA in Finance. Along the way he earned the Madhu Valluri Award for Excellence in Journalism and the Polestar Award for Excellence in Business Journalism.

In his spare time, he reads voraciously across the board, but is biased towards psychology and the social sciences. He dabbles in various things that catch his fancy at various points. But as fancies go, many evaporate as often as they fall on him.

Also by me

You might also like