Importance of appearing to be earnest

Dec 04, 2008 | Updated May 25, 2011

Note from the contributor: Shashi Tharoor's latest column in the Times of India (November 2, 2008) explains the US elections to Indian readers and he judges it too elementary to be suitable for cross-posting this week on the Huffington Post. Readers who are curious may find it by clicking this link. Instead we are posting below an earlier column on US politics, from August 24, 2008, which may be of broader interest.

Importance of appearing to be earnest
By Shashi Tharoor
Weekly Column "Shashi on Sunday" in "The Times of India"
August 24, 2008

The implosion of John Edwards' political career will probably be remembered as a minor footnote in American politics this election year. The former North Carolina senator and former Democratic vice presidential nominee, a serious contender for the Democratic nomination (he came in second, behind Barack Obama, in the Iowa primary that opened the electoral contest in January), was caught by a tabloid newspaper in an affair with an employee, initially denied it, was cornered in a hotel with the lady in question at 2.30 am, and finally made a clean breast of his past relationship with her on national television. The mainstream media, which had stayed away from the case in the absence of tangible proof, has gone to town in its excoriation of the boyish-looking Edwards, whose popular wife, Elizabeth, has been suffering from terminal breast cancer. The conclusion is unanimous: his political days are over. He will never even be elected dog-catcher in America again.

Indian readers may rightly judge that this is a scandal with no significance whatsoever for us, since Edwards neither holds office nor was close to attaining it when the news broke. But what happened to Edwards has got me musing about one of the essential differences between the world's oldest democracy, America's, and the world's largest, ours - our respective attitudes to our politicians.

Americans seek perfection in their politicians. In the land that invented Superman and Wonder Woman, they expect - indeed demand - that their politicians be superhuman. An American politician is expected to attain standards that American voters do not demand of themselves and their neighbours: would-be elected officials in America are simply not permitted to display the weaknesses that ordinary Americans suffer from. Joe Sixpack and Jane Doe may be prey to assorted temptations, but politicians must be immune from all of them, in public life as well as in private. Did i say private life? Perish the thought - for an American politician, there is no such thing. His private life is put on public exhibition as part of what makes him electable: he must have a beautiful, dutiful wife, two or three (or more) perfectly-groomed children, and at least one dog, all of whom must be telegenic and capable of being put on display as the very models of ideal parents, wives, husbands or pets. (If the politician in question is female, she is better off without a husband at all - a startling number of elected female politicians are widows. Husbands are not as good at being either beautiful or dutiful, and many a married female politician has come a cropper because of the financial or sexual indiscretions of an inconvenient husband.)

The American public, riven by divorce, pre-and extra-marital sex, does not live up to this stereotype itself, but it finds its role models in the idealised couples it sees on television. Political leaders are expected to conform, and in turn they make it a point to speak of "family values" at every available opportunity. Politicians who spout rhetoric about family values feel obliged to embody them in their own personal lives, or at least to pretend that they do. A startling number of wives of prominent politicians who participate in the charade - portraying happy marriages while being neglected by ambitious, hard-working, hard-charging political husbands - find themselves seeking solace in the bottle, or in bottles of pills (think Ford, Dukakis and Kennedy, to pick just three names).

But still the charade goes on, because politics in America is a form of sacred drama. Political leaders are playing vital roles in a grand national theatre, where appearances are far more important than reality. So Newt Gingrich can campaign on family values while abandoning a succession of wives for more nubile alternatives; Bill Clinton's extra-mural activities have to be shoved under the carpet in a celebrated TV interview (with his wife loyally at his side) before he can resuscitate his endangered candidacy in 1992. Clinton was the living, breathing exemplar of the principle that in politics the best actor wins not the Oscar but the presidency.

The American writer Chris Hedges puts it powerfully: "In an age of images and entertainment, in an age of instant emotional gratification, we do not want honesty or even reality but the reassurance of old cliches, stereotypes and mythic narratives. We want leaders who are willing to pretend they live in a make-believe world of happy couples and perfect relationships. We want to feel that they like us and we want to like them. This gives us what television gives us, a simplistic narrative around which to frame our lives. This narrative defies the messiness and disorder of the real world." To Hedges, the reason that American politicians must adhere to "this ridiculous narrative of personal happiness and fidelity," is because the objective is "to reassure us that the world is ordered and neat and constant." That's what the American public wants, and that's why American politicians must either be perfect or, since perfection is unlikely in the real world, be consummate actors.

Now contrast this with India. Far from expecting our politicians to attain standards that we do not demand of ourselves, the Indian middle-class expects politicians to behave in ways we would not tolerate in our own families or neighbours. Politicians are not merely assumed to be sanctimonious, insincere and hypocritical, but it's also taken for granted that they must be unprincipled, sleazy and venal. We do not seek a neat and ordered political world: we accept one that is messy, chaotic, devious. We are surprised when a politician comes across as possessing genuine convictions, let alone values, and speak with hushed admiration of the rare neta who is known to be honest - because honesty is seen as such a departure from the norm that it invites comment.

How did we lower our standards so much from the days of Nehru and JP, Rajaji and EMS, Ambedkar and Maulana Azad, Acharya Kripalani and Ram Manohar Lohia, Shyama Prasad Mookerjee and Minoo Masani, Madhu Dandavate and Nath Pai? If Gandhiji hadn't been cremated, he would be turning over in his grave. It would be absurd to suggest that we should emulate the hypocrisy and artifice of the American demand for political perfection, but it's equally tragic that we demand so little of those who seek to lead us. Every country gets the political leadership it deserves. Indians, as a people, deserve better.

(Originally published in Times of India, August 24, 2008)