The choice between self-righteousness and self-interest

A slightly different version of this column was first published on livemint

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Some are celebrating that the upcoming general elections have turned personality-centric. The focus then, has been on individuals, as opposed to the substance of their social, economic or political ideologies and policies. Let us take a close look at the principal challengers then (at least in terms of airwaves dominated) in the run-up to this year’s general elections.

In this post, I am talking about one of them who has promised deliverance—from corruption, from dynastic politics, from minority politics, etc. The promises are made through television cameras that beam their nuggets faithfully to millions; and are further buttressed by loyal spokespersons who faithfully appear on prime time in television studios and sing praises of the fearless leader and his party. Talking of the party, it seems not so long ago now that it emerged as a counter to the establishment. Although the party employed highly questionable methods to garner popular support, subsequent elections established it as a force to reckon with in the country. Once in power, the party on multiple occasions, showed scant respect for law and order. An episode of vigilantism, usually with a defence that it was “defending our moral values”, seemed never too far away.

When right-thinking citizens protested, they were scoffed at for being a minority that anyway did not vote. If you think the party’s collective behaviour let us down, the leader’s ascent to power was no better. Part of the process was the dismantling of the erstwhile patriarch. This was a person the party not only recognized as its ideological mentor, but also someone who was responsible for creating conditions for the party’s electoral success. Although this was achieved by means, some would argue, that were abominable to due constitutional process in a democratic country, it had yielded rich electoral dividends. Be that as it may, within the portals of the party, the patriarch now was openly sniggered at; the media was encouraged (as well as fed with juicy bytes) to write critiques that would contribute to the image of the patriarch being a bitter loser as events overtook him. On the outside though, the party continued to display affection and reverence towards the patriarch.

After he was anointed as the supreme leader within his party (yes, the party now looks very much like ‘his party’), he has been at pains to stress his ‘aam aadmi’ credentials—never mind that those credentials look ‘aam’ only in comparison to Rahul Gandhi. Self-congratulation has become a core component in the incessant self-promotion pitches; endorsement by celebrities, the other. At the same time, in public addresses, his publicists always made sure we caught sight of the thousands of supporters—mostly ‘aam aadmi’—that thronged the venues and shouted slogans at the top of their voices.

He professes not to have an ideology, except for the progress of the poor and commitment to “saving the nation”. In public, he is happily economical with the truth, while using the vilest of language for his opponents. His opponents have responded in kind, but he has shrewdly turned some of the adjectives used for him by his opponents into vehicles for further self-promotion. He claims to have changed the idiom of politics and the meaning of “governance” in India today.

As things stand, he has positioned himself at the centre of the public debate, certainly using the media as a weapon of choice. On their part, the media and analysts have taken clear sides when it comes to his character and track record of governance. So who am I talking about? I have deliberately omitted mentioning the name of the challenger and his party. Clearly, the above applies to more than one person—possibly more to one than the other. Does it matter what the name is? Does it matter if we choose self-interest over self-righteousness, or the other way around? What matters is how similar they look from this perspective— admittedly not a holistic one, but who really cares about a rounded perspective in the midst of this shrill electioneering?

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