The Nation Needs Principled Youngsters

11/27/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

For a few weeks now, I have tried to keep my promise to regularly cite and respond to readers' reactions, but I have to admit that the quantity and flow of mail has been a bit overwhelming, and the pressure of events has all-too-often diverted me to other topics. This week, though, I would like to address the concerns of those readers who have written in about two of my columns that touched on political leadership -- one on June 22 about the extraordinary number of Harvard and Yale men amongst recent US presidential nominees, by contrast with the general level of educational attainment amongst politicians in our country, and the other on August 24 about the difference between the American and Indian publics' expectations regarding the moral behaviour of their politicians.

I'll skip those who had complimentary things to say about either column and react instead to the correspondents who were critical of aspects of the two pieces. Their criticisms seemed to coalesce around the broad charge of elitism: was I suggesting that the products of Ivy League colleges were somehow better-suited to rule the ignorant masses than less educated politicians with their fingers on the pulse of the people? Similarly, in noting that thinking Indians routinely have lower expectations of politicians than they do of themselves or their friends, was i sneering at the lower classes? Were my articles, as one emailer implied, symptomatic of the detachment the privileged elite who read (and write for) the Times of India feel from the daily struggles of Indians for political change and transformation?

On the contrary: I need only point to my Independence Day piece (August 17) in which I decried "the strange spectacle of a nation without nationals, of Indians who are not involved in India." Lamenting the absence of a "sense of belonging" to a larger idea of India, I made the passionate point, in an article I had published 33 Independence Days ago, that young educated Indians had to care, and needed to be involved in what became of our independence. Repeating these words today is not merely indulging in nostalgia; it is to lament the abdication by the Indian educated classes of our political responsibility for our own destiny.

My generation grew up in an India where a vast gulf separated those who went into the professions or the civil services, and those who entered politics. The latter, at the risk of simplifying things a bit, were either at the very top or the very bottom: either maharajahs or big zamindars with a feudal hold on the allegiances of the voters in their districts, or semi-literate 'lumpens' with little to lose who got into politics as their only means of self-advancement. If you belonged to neither category, you studied hard, took your exams, and made a success of your life on merit -- and you steered clear of politics as an activity for those "other people".

But the problem with that approach -- while completely understandable in a highly competitive society where the salaried middle-class rarely enjoyed the luxury of being able to take the kind of risks that a political life implied -- was that it left out of Indian politics the very group of people that are the mainstay of politics in other democracies. Around the world, the educated taxpaying middle-classes are normally the ones who bring values and convictions to a country's politics, and who have the most direct stake in questions of what government can and cannot do. Across Europe, for instance, it's people from the middle-class who make up the bulk of the activists, voters and candidates for political office. But in India, this group has neither the time for activism (they're too busy doing professional jobs to make ends meet) nor the money or the votes to count in politics: the money flows at the top, and the votes, in our stratified society, lie at the bottom, where the numbers are. So they abstain from the process, and all too often look at it with disdain. In turn, our politics become more populist, aiming at the lowest common denominator (since that's who the voters are assumed to be). No wonder there is so much disenchantment amongst ordinary people with the processes of our democracy, such cynicism about the lack of principle amongst our politicians, and such surprise in learning of an honest politician (because we routinely expect the opposite). Some even speak of the "secession of the elites" from the politics of India.

Can this state of affairs continue indefinitely? No -- and it probably won't, as the country's economic transformation brings more and more people into the middle-class, which will one day reach the point where its numbers will indeed begin to matter in elections. We already have, in the current Parliament, several educated and bright young professionals of the kind of background that for many years previously would not have been found in politics -- people with good degrees, a national vision, international experience, intelligent ideas and the capacity to articulate them. It doesn't matter that a significant proportion of them are the sons of politicians: the fact that they are in Parliament brings a different standard to bear on the quality of our politics. As they change the public's expectations of what a politician should be like, they should be joined by many others of similar qualifications but with no political background. In that, eventually, will lie our democracy's salvation.

So my message to young middle-class Indians who actually have principles and ideals is this: not getting involved in politics is a cop-out. The nation needs you. The Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, speaking of South Africa, once said he hoped his country would get leaders the people could look up to, "not people we have to keep finding excuses for." If well-educated Indians want a return to an era when our country's political leadership was full of people whom the nation admired, they will have to enter the fray themselves. Otherwise, all too often, we will have to pay allegiance to people we need to find excuses for.

(Originally published in the Times of India, October 26, 2008)