I left the subject of Political Science way back in 2014, but Politics as an issue never left me. Therefore, I relished the opportunity of reading this book Realpolitik: Exposing India’s Political System, written by my colleague and friend — artist and writer — Mamta Chitnis Sen.
As I stared at the cover page of the book, I thought, I would be presented with an analysis based on the writers own perspective, after her in-depth study of Political Parties in India. What took me by surprise was reading and hearing about the unique perspectives of so many political workers themselves, across the rank and file of different, divergent regional and national Political Parties.
What we get, thus, is not a typical top-down approach in understanding the system as a whole, but a beautiful patchwork of carefully interwoven stories of political workers from the inside — and their different motivations, ideas and temperaments — and how they manage to keep the wheels and the cogs of the Party running and, thus, by default, keep our democracy running.
The behind the scenes of political parties in a country like India has always intrigued the common man. We imagine a hell lot of political manoeuvres and manipulations, even extortions and crimes undertaken by the henchmen of crafty leaders who would do anything for power. Yes, indeed politics is a game of power, muscle and money. But how it is played out on a day to day basis is perhaps less glamorous and more “admin-based” (for want of a better word), as the heartfelt narratives of so many grassroots political workers tell us.
In fact, quite contrary to our typical expectations, this book throws light on the “humane” side of those involved in a political party. Take for instance the example of a certain political worker from Republican Party of India — defined as a “foot soldier” by the writer, who traces his journey from stitching banners to marketing for important leaders to aiding in the formation of alliances. The book is replete with so many such foot soldiers that have started as humble workers and climbed the ladder of success over the years, that it astounds us.
Many who are in powerful positions today have shared their stories of starting with something basic as notebook distribution to sticking posters on walls, moving over to fundraising, mobilising loyal workers, resolving minor issues of common people — everything under the sun — until they catch the attention of the party leaders and are blessed with an election ticket. Many continue to work tirelessly for the Party, even after being denied one. Thus, the myth of all political workers basking in money and power is largely debunked and what we are instead served is a more realistic portrayal of their lives and circumstances.
In the carefully divided four parts and 11 chapters, the books also focus on the strategies these party workers employ to keep their Party victorious in elections, as well as to keep themselves afloat. Loyalty is essential when it comes to making or breaking a political party and alliances. The top leaders have to personally invest in earning the loyalty of their party workers and failing to do so can have dire consequences on the elections. The concept of loyalty, thus, finds its own space in the chapters of the book.
Why do some political workers continue to stick to one political Party for their entire life span, even after they are denied opportunities to climb the ladder of power? What makes a dedicated Party worker leave a party and shift his loyalties to another — sometimes a different ideological spectrum altogether? What is a greater pull? The political party or individual leader that they are following? These and many more questions are extensively discussed in the book.
What is interesting is that these issues of “conflicting loyalties” and “disillusionment of loyal workers” throws a very important light on why some political Parties are losing their stronghold and why some are rapidly gaining it in the new India. The inner functioning of the Party, thus, stands exposed before our eyes and many of the questions that may have come to our mind at the depleting condition of Parties are answered.
Also, an entire chapter is dedicated to understanding how women fare in political Parties. In the many interviews of women conducted by Mamta Sen, it is abundantly clear that the role of the majority of women who enter political Parties through their family or community remains partisan at best, and a very few have been able to go all the way up in controlling the power. The book provides bare statistics on the underrepresentation of women in the National Assembly.
The deeply entrenched patriarchal structure does not even allow women to have their own independent political opinion, leave aside, giving them a space to gain power. Most of the women, as they state in the interviews, content themselves as mere “female representatives” or mobilise other women for the Party. Many have also reported being under confident in handling unruly crowds and talking to men. Some who muster the confidence and try to make their way upward have too faced the backlash of having their character questioned.
These issues, which as a woman I had already guessed, sadly stood substantiated through the book. What was new to me, however, was that one female political worker said that it is cadre-based parties like BJP and CPI (M) rather than mass-based parties like Congress which are fairer when it comes to letting women represent and succeed (this intrigued me because a party whose ideological standpoint has not been very supportive of women’s liberation in general, is more open to women having power positions within the Party. Politics is full of contradictions — and Indian politics more so).
Here, I wished we could have heard the narrative of more women who have made it to the upper echelons of a political party and have also contested elections. How they navigated through patriarchy and asserted their agency to a breakthrough in the male-dominated bastion would have been interesting to read.
Other aspects like the importance of having a Godfather (or Godmother), the money involved in canvassing, political defections and their consequences are also covered in the book. One really good thing about the book is that it is not biased towards one particular bend of ideology or studies only regional or national parties. Diverse narratives from workers and leaders of diverse political parties — at both national and regional level are first pieced together and then divided according to different aspects. The focus is also on the commonalities between different parties as much as their differences.
Because the stories were rich in experience and emotion, I marvelled at the tactfulness of Mamta Sen in interviewing them and extracting their personal, first-hand, “inside” account of what is taking place. The dryness of a typical academically heavy, political analysis is not there in the book. It is raw and unfettered, perceptive and anecdotal and an interesting read to even those who are not intent on reading on political issues otherwise.