Newly installed in the BBC Delhi office at 1 Nizamuddin East ...
... and in my 'barsati' home at A-22 Nizamuddin East
SCOUNDREL POLITICIANS - June 1993
Andrew Whitehead has just taken up a post reporting for the World Service from India after five years as our London-based Political Correspondent. He offers now some thoughts on the contrasting style of politics in Britain and India:
Just before I came out to Delhi, a diplomat friend gave me some common sense advice. "You know", he said, "politicians are the same the world over, whether they wear a suit or a dhoti." Then with a mischievous twinkle he added: "And let me tell you this, they are all scoundrels!"
I spent five years cheek-by-jowl with the scoundrels of Westminster. I came across plenty of scheming and skullduggery. But also, I have to say, quite a few MPs of all parties whom I came to like and admire. Though my natural inclination was, and is, to vie all politicians and political statements with deep cynicism.
And there is something perhaps rather narrow about British politics these days. A creeping blandness. The Conservatives are moving towards the centre just as Labour is abandoning the last shreds of ideology. Close your eyes and sometimes you can't tell the difference.
No-one would describe Indian politics as bland. Nor is the breadth of political debate diminishing. That's, for me at least, one of India's attractions. The main opposition party here is routinely described, a little unfairly, as neo-fascist. While in the state of West Bengal - in population terms much bigger than Britain - the ruling party cleaves to a form of Communism which confounds rational analysis. Look around its Calcutta headquarters and you see portraits of Stalin still prominently on display.
If that's an invigorating if rather alarming contrast with British politics, there is a much more depressing point of difference. There is still a tradition of honesty and probity in British public life. In India - so people tell me- it's all but disappeared. Some state governments indulge in what can only be described as legalised looting. Many politicians have close contact with organised crime. A journalist colleague got a phone installed quickly some years ago because the minister responsible had decided to sell off extra lines. And no, the money didn't go into the government's coffers; it went into the minister's back pocket.
But curiously it was my recent visit to that Communist citadel of Calcutta which convinced me that the similarities considerably outweigh the differences. You see, one of the speeches I most remember from my spell as British political correspondent was by a prominent, left-wing trade union leader. He was complaining about what were called the modernisers in the British Labour party, with their filofaxes and cordless telephones.
And there I was at party offices in a poor area of Calcutta - a city where poor means very poor - and what should the proud local official pull out of his desk, a cordless telephone. I didn't see a filofax, but I'm sure it will have been there somewhere. Whatever the ideological climate, the vanities of politicians are the same the world over.
What though - some colleagues said to me before I came out - about the three curses of Indian politics: caste, communalism and charismatic leaders. There is this assumption in the west that politics elsewhere is somehow primitive and debased.
Yet those who complain about caste in India were also venting outrage about the way the British Conservative party had been taken over by state agents. Those who tut-tutted about communalism also professed themselves quite at a loss on Northern Ireland. And let's remember the two communities there share the same basic religion and speak the same language - the difference is merely denominational and cultural. Would that it were so simple in India.
And then the charisma factor: it's certainly true that there has been a strong dynastic tendency in Indian politics, and that loyalties have often been to personalities more than to parties or policies. But coming from the country which kept Margaret Thatcher in power for eleven years, I don't think I'll cast the first stone.
I have no great sympathy for casteism, communalism or personality-based politics. The point I'm making is that these are universal phenomena. For caste read class; for Bombay read Belfast; and don't I recall that Mrs Gandhi and Mrs Thatcher got on rather well together.
I found the press gallery of the House of Commons a little wearying after a while. There was real drama and passion. But we were often force-fed synthetic indignation. There's plenty of that in Delhi - and Calcutta - as well. I will try to treat Indian politics with the same respect, the same gravity - in other words, the same measured cynicism - that I leant in London.
And if any politician should deign to complain. Well, it just shows that they're all scoundrels, doesn't it?