Jitin Prasada’s decision to join the BJP, a year after his “older brother” Jyotiraditya Scindia did the same thing, is deeply dismaying. I say this without any personal bitterness. Both were friends, both have been to my home and I to theirs. I attended Jitin’s wedding. So this is not about individuals, or about personal likes and dislikes. My disappointment in what they have done is based on something far larger.
Both Scindia and Prasada were amongst the most eloquent voices against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the dangers its communal bigotry posed to the India they cherished. Today, they are both happily sporting the colours of the party they once reviled more than any other.
The obvious question this provokes is: what do they really stand for? What beliefs and values animate their politics? Or are they in politics only for self-advancement and power? Can politics be a career devoid of principle?
When You Enter Politics, You Choose a Vehicle For Your Convictions
To me, politics has to be about ideas, or it’s nothing. If you are interested in a career without convictions and principles, you may as well be a banker or lawyer or accountant and make money, or a chief executive and wield power. No one cares about the ideology of the manager of a company that makes detergent, as long as your product cleans.
But politics is different. Political parties conceive of an idea of the perfect society and pledge themselves to attain it. They are animated by a set of beliefs about how that society is to be constructed and attained, and on the way it is to be run. That’s their ideology.
When you enter politics, then, you don’t choose a party the way a graduate chooses the company that makes him the best placement offer. You choose a vehicle for your convictions.
Your party reflects not merely the institutional framework for your personal ambitions, but the set of principles, beliefs and ideas that you are pledged to promote and defend in the course of your political career.
Politics isn’t supposed to be like the IPL, where you play for one franchise one year and another the next. There’s nothing to choose between IPL franchises but labels, uniforms and individual players, whereas between political parties there are key issues of principle and conviction.
You either believe in a more intrusive role for the public sector or in free enterprise. You either believe in an inclusive society or in a communally-divided one. You either want to build a welfare State to protect the marginalised, or to get people to fend for themselves. One set of beliefs precludes its opposite.
Unlike IPL, In Politics One Doesn’t Simply Jump Ship For ‘Better Opportunities’
In the IPL, if you conclude your team is just not faring well enough in the tournament, or the management isn’t sending you in your preferred batting position, no one will blame you for seeking a transfer to another team. It is accepted that you have the right to go where you have better opportunities, and where you feel you have a better chance of laying a finger on the winners’ trophy, and enjoying some of the bonuses that come with that.
In politics, that’s not the way it’s supposed to be. You are in your “team” because you believe in what it stands for. However poorly you might think your team is faring, it’s still your team, the embodiment of your principles and values. However badly the captain may be treating you, nothing can make you swear allegiance to another captain who upholds a set of ideas opposed to yours, simply because your ideas are so intrinsic to your politics that you can’t bring yourself to disavow them.
Of course, a party is not just a hallowed institution for your principles; it is also a flesh-and-blood organisation, with individuals in charge, with all their biases, deficiencies and weaknesses. Your party may have the ideas you value, but be poor at selling them to the electorate, or may be run so ineffectively that you feel the good ideas may never win good results at the polls.
You might even be tempted, for these reasons, to leave your party. But if you respect yourself and everything you have stood for in the past, you will take yourself to another party with the same or similar convictions, or start your own — even a regional party with compatible views. You would never cross over to the party of your principal ideological opponents.
That was the thinking of the vast majority of those who entered politics in the past. They left their parties, split or merged or established new parties, but they never abandoned their convictions.
The Advent of the ‘Careerist’ Politician
But for a few years now, we have seen the advent of the careerist politician, who enters politics as a profession rather than a cause. Principles and passions matter much less to him than his own prospects for advancement.
If the party he has chosen, for whatever reason, to join, is not doing well, he is not prepared for the long, hard struggle to bring it to success. His principal concern is not “what do I believe?” but “what’s in it for me?”
He is also impatient with the processes of politics, of defeat and revival and reversal. As a “careerist” in politics, who is not motivated by a larger purpose or a set of values and principles to promote and defend, he is just looking for his next promotion. And he wants it now, not by waiting for a long-term future.
Politicians in our country are congenitally unable to think beyond the next election. If they don’t see hopes for themselves where they are, they have no compunction about being somewhere else, as long as it’s on the winning side.
What Is Politics For?
Sometimes one is tempted to ask these politicians — when you see old videos or press reports of yourself saying the opposite of what you find yourself saying now, do you feel somewhat ashamed? Or do you merely congratulate yourself on having articulated as impressively then as you do now, with no twinge of remorse for the convictions you have cast aside?
The media will be full of speculation about the motivations that led Jitin Prasada to join the BJP today. My question is somewhat different: what is politics for? His answer, I’m afraid, is not the right one.
(Dr Shashi Tharoor is a third-term MP for Thiruvananthapuram and award-winning author of 22 books, most recently ‘The Battle of Belonging’(Aleph). He tweets @ShashiTharoor. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)