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Political careerism is fine but sad

Why a party spokesperson’s defection to another group is especially unsettling

Last week, Priyanka Chaturvedi, till then national spokesperson of the Congress and convener of its communications cell, quit the party. She claimed her decision was triggered by the party’s move to reinstate some Congress workers who had been suspended for misbehaving with her. Had this been the only reason, her exit would have been truly unfortunate, both for her and the party. But the story did not end there. Within 48 hours of leaving the Congress, Ms. Chaturvedi joined the Shiv Sena.

The surprise factor

It is not unusual for politicians to switch parties. But there is something about this episode that makes it less palatable than the humdrum defections of Indian politics. It is not comparable to, say, a Shatrughan Sinha joining the Congress before the 2019 general election. On the face of it, Mr. Sinha’s defection is far more serious: he was a sitting Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP and a former Union minister. Ms. Chaturvedi, on the other hand, has never contested a national election. But Mr. Sinha’s defection barely raised an eyebrow, while Ms. Chaturvedi’s came as a big surprise to many.

She has been a prominent face of the Congress. Over the past few years, she quickly climbed the party ranks on the back of high-voltage visibility afforded by her prime time television appearances. Her identity was that of a forceful defender of the Congress and an articulate votary of the party’s ascribed values. Of course, these values have always been rather nebulous. But that doesn’t mean nothing can be affirmed about them, even if only in the negative.

If there is one thing that can be said about the Congress’s ascribed values — as opposed to the ones on display — it is that they are adversarial to those of the Shiv Sena, the BJP, and the extended Sangh Parivar. To be sure, this hasn’t deterred a regular osmosis of politicians between the two camps. In the moral desert of Indian politics, and the even more barren discourse that dominates its coverage in the media, such behaviour is more likely to be commended as a sign of political ambition than censured as opportunism. There is a strong element of this worldview in the responses that have greeted Ms. Chaturvedi’s switch, not least among other Congresspersons, who seem to harbour no sense of betrayal or resentment. On the contrary, her ex-colleagues have wished her well for her new gig in the Shiv Sena from where, presumably, she will now attack with zeal the very party she used to defend with conviction. Yet her case is different: she was a spokesperson.

There is a difference between an MP, MLA or a senior leader switching parties, and a spokesperson doing the same. A ‘plain’ party leader’s primary audience is her own constituency, and her party’s supporters. But a party spokesperson’s primary audience is the world at large, not merely her own or her party’s followers. She represents the party to the world. When she addresses the public, she is the voice of her party, not — and never — speaking for herself. In other words, a spokesperson is not like any other party member. A national spokesperson, by the very nature of the role, works closely with the top leadership. She has a deep understanding of, and affinity with, her party’s avowed ideology and the leadership’s vision. Typically, only a person whose loyalty is beyond question should get such a role.

At any rate, from a ‘civilian’ perspective, it is difficult to say which is more disturbing: the casual break with old-fashioned loyalty, or the cynical acceptance, and even admiration, of what, in plain sight, is a display of naked careerism.

Such careerism is par for the course in the corporate world, where you can be a spokesperson for Pepsodent one day and Colgate the next. God — and Mammon — forbid, it’s no one’s case that politicians cannot be careerists. Indeed, it would be difficult to pinpoint a politician today who isn’t one. The dominant register of political discourse today is so quick to justify a politician’s right to trample ideology and ethics in her fervid commitment to serving her own self that questions about public service are seldom asked. But asked they must be.

Commitment issues

In Ms. Chaturvedi’s case, the questions are obvious. Was she ever committed to the values of liberty, equality (especially gender equity) and fraternity that she upheld as a Congress spokesperson? If yes, what does one make of her commitment to these values now that she has joined a party whose political capital is rooted in the wilful desecration of those very values? If her espousal of those values was mere posturing, was she then making a fool of all those who took her seriously? Or is this question silly because no one took her seriously in the first place and everyone had known all along that one day she would join a party with a legacy of hate?

Perhaps Ms. Chaturvedi’s defection rankles because she doesn’t come from typical political stock. It rankles for the same reason that the kind of doublespeak seen as commonplace coming from other parties is suddenly outrageous when it comes from the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). Perhaps it’s because one has — or had, in the case of the AAP — higher expectations. There was something AAP-like about Ms. Chaturvedi. Not anymore. She was a political outsider who led us to believe that she joined politics for much the same reasons that many joined the AAP — to serve society, to do some good, ridiculous as this sounds. We know not to believe such posturing. But sometimes, one does so anyway. And when disappointment comes, as it invariably must, it carries a whiff of sadness.

sampath.g@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Feb 26, 2020 1:09:49 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/political-careerism-is-fine-but-sad/article26935937.ece

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