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THE SHASHI THAROOR COLUMN

Stephanians in Parliament

Fourteen of this institution's alumni are now in Parliament. Is it surprising?

RAJEEV BHATT

St. Stephen's College ... out of its hallowed corridors and into politics.

THE startling news that no fewer than 14 of my fellow Stephanians — alumni of that bastion of elite liberal education, Delhi's St. Stephen's College — currently hold seats in Parliament, and that 11 of them were actually elected to the Lok Sabha, has provoked in me a mild state of astonishment.

The roster of Stephanians in the Lower House is impressive enough: Mani Shankar Aiyer, Kapil Sibal, Manvendra Singh, Lakshman Singh, Sachin Pilot, Jatin Prasad, Manvendra Shaha, Dushyant Singh, Omar Abdullah, Jyotiraditya Scindia, and Rahul Gandhi. Add to these Natwar Singh, Arun Shourie and Chandan Mitra in the Rajya Sabha, and one's surprise is complete. In my time Stephanians were expected to go into the IAS and IFS, not to enter politics. And they conquered babudom in large numbers every year, rising to the highest ranks of the civil service but believing profoundly that politics was not for them.

I have never forgotten the college's annual "Games Dinner" of 1974-75, which I, never proficient at games of any sort, was invited to attend as the elected President of the College Students' Union. Our guest speaker that night was a distinguished Stephanian of royal descent, an Additional Secretary to the Government of India and a civil servant known to be well-connected to the ruling family. He surveyed us, 17 to 22 year olds with bright eyes and scrubbed faces, and chose to express a candour none of us was accustomed to from Indian officialdom. "I look at you all," he said bluntly, "the best and the brightest of our fair land, smart, honest and able, and my heart sinks. Because I know that most of you will do what I did and take the civil service examinations, little realising that if you succeed, your fate will be to take orders from the dregs of our society — the politicians." He could see the shock on the faces of his audience as he went on: "Don't make the mistake I did. Do something else with your lives."

I have never forgotten the speech, thinking about which kept me awake most of that night — and helped change my own career plans. If someone as successful and important in the bureaucracy as he could feel this way, I wondered, what satisfaction could ordinary people without his rank or connections derive from government service?

Nor have I forgotten the speaker, whom I have had the privilege of meeting many times since. He was Kanwar Natwar Singh, star of the IFS, who went on to put his money where his mouth was: he resigned from the government before he could attain the Foreign Secretaryship that most of his peers considered inevitable, and entered politics instead. This gave him a stint as Minister of State for External Affairs, where he could give orders to the Foreign Secretary of the day; and today he is, of course, India's Foreign Minister.

Turning point

This transformation was extremely unusual even when Mani Shankar Aiyar followed in Natwar Singh's footsteps. But it became possible because of the unexpected ascent of Rajiv Gandhi to the Prime Ministry in 1984, which brought to power the kind of Indian almost completely unrepresented in Indian politics. The Stephanian kind.

How can one describe them? There are many of us, but, among India's multitudes, we are few. We have grown up in the cities of India, secure in a national rather than local identity, which we express in English better than in any Indian language. We rejoice in the complexity and diversity of our India, of which we feel a conscious part; we have friends of every caste and religious community, and we marry across such sectarian lines. We see the poverty, suffering and conflict in which a majority of our fellow citizens are mired, and we clamour for new solutions to these old problems, solutions we believe can come from the skills and efficiency of the modern world. We are secular, not in the sense that we are irreligious or unaware of the forces of religion, but that we believe religion should not determine public policy or individual opportunity.

And, in Indian politics, we used to be pretty much irrelevant.

Usually, we don't get a look in. We don't enter the fray because we can't win. We tell ourselves ruefully that we are able, but not electable. We don't have the votes: there are too few of us, and we don't speak the idiom of the masses. Instead we have learned to talk about political issues without the expectation that we would be able to do anything about them.

Rajiv Gandhi epitomised the breed, dismissed by so many as the "baba-log". When he came to office he was unlike any Indian political figure I had ever met. He had nothing in common with the professional politicians we had taught ourselves to despise, sanctimonious windbags clad hypocritically in homespun who spouted socialist rhetoric while amassing private wealth through the manipulation of political favours. And at a time when casteists and religious fanatics were attempting to redefine India and Indianness on their own terms, I was proud to have an Indian leader who belonged to no single region, caste or community, but to the all-embracing India I called my own. By simply being Rajiv Gandhi, he represented a choice it was vital for India to have.

It didn't last. He failed at his first attempt in office, and I was not alone in regretting that he did not more effectively act upon the convictions of his upbringing. At the second attempt, a suicide bomber deprived India of that choice. With Rajiv Gandhi's passing, there was no longer any Indian political leader of whom it could be said that his appeal was truly national, and in the spectrum of alternatives available to Indians, that loss was disenfranchisement indeed.

All that is now changing. Fourteen Stephanians in Parliament, with more (the likes of Salman Khurshid, Montek Singh Ahluwalia and Sheila Dikshit) behind the throne! And, to paraphrase Macaulay, others in politics who may not have earned the Stephanian label but are "Stephanian in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect" (like Ministers P. Chidambaram and Praful Patel, Jairam Ramesh, Milind Deora ....). The political landscape may not have been irretrievably transformed, but we at last have a breed of politicians who have a chance to prove they can do better than "the dregs of society". Politics has never been a noble profession, but in every democracy it is a necessary one. The quality of our politicians inevitably affects the quality of our democracy. Perhaps it is time for more Stephanians to set aside their preparations for the IAS exams and seek to serve their country in elective office instead.

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