The narrative matters
Even though he has been in active politics for over two decades now, Dr. Manmohan Singh was — at least before 2009 — usually described as an economist or a technocrat. That description has since been replaced by the bon mot: “Dr. Singh is an over-rated economist and an under-rated politician.” As his image suffered, he came to be seen as more of a politician than an economist.
Even this description doesn’t capture the truth. Dr. Singh is a politician. Period. Anyone who is in top-level politics, has been a union minister and leader of the opposition, and is the prime minister is nothing but a politician. What Dr. Singh is not is a mass politician like most others. He can’t perhaps even today win a Lok Sabha seat for himself, or help his party’s candidates by campaigning during elections.
If Dr. Singh is to be referred as an economist, then Arun Jaitley could also be called a lawyer. After all, he is a distinguished lawyer, and he hasn’t contested elections for the Lok Sabha. Perhaps the difference lies in the fact that Mr. Jaitley has spent all his professional life being a politician whereas Dr. Singh came into politics much later in life. But that is besides the point. Whatever might be your primary vocation, once you are in politics, you are a politician.
Does it matter? Yes, it does. This narrative betrays a lack of trust in our politics and politicians — an economist is better than a politician. In a democracy, there is no way of bypassing politics; politicians should and must matter. It is dangerous to assume that a non-politician can fix the system. Yesterday it was an economist, today it can be a civil society leader but if we continue to go down this path, tomorrow it can be a General like Pakistan.
We can’t use politician as a pejorative term, be cynical about politics as a process and place our hopes on non-politicians to lead and fix our democracy. The romance of democracy has to be underpinned by the rough and tumble of politics, which in Max Weber’s words is like “the strong and slow boring of hard boards”. We should be careful that our distaste for corruption of politics doesn’t end up as contempt for politics.