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  • Grace in defeat, a lesson from Britain for Indian politicos

    Posted On May 17, 2015

    By Karan Thapar

    I am an unmitigated – some would say incorrigible – anglophile and I’ve always believed there’s a lot we can learn from this small island nation. For example, its humour and its willingness to laugh at itself, its talent for pageantry, the use of the understatement, Westend theatre and the uniform high quality of its broadcast and print media. Now, let me add a sixth item to that list: the British knack for responding to political defeat with grace.

    Within hours of the result – in fact even before the sun had set – 3 political party leaders resigned. They were Ed Miliband of Labour, Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats and Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party. They accepted moral responsibility even though they were not personally to blame. They recognized the need for new leadership. They accepted that their parties cannot recover under a defeated and discredited leader.

    How different that is to the way we respond. Sonia and Rahul Gandhi reduced the Congress to just 44 seats but the very thought of resignation did not occur to them. Mayawati saw her party’s fortunes reduced to zero but, unconcerned, soldiers on. The DMK was reduced to a mere rump in the assembly and obliterated in the Lok Sabha elections but the Karunanidhi family’s control stayed unchanged. The CPM lost Bengal and Kerala and ended up with their worst Lok Sabha tally but Prakash Karat was unaffected.

    I remember John Major’s famous words at 2 in the morning when it was clear Tony Blair had swept the Tories aside. “When the curtain falls it’s time to leave the stage and that’s what I intend to do. Tomorrow I shall be watching cricket.” Can you imagine any Indian politician similarly rising from the ashes of defeat?

    What our politicians forget – but the British are all too aware of – is they have a limited shelf life. Once defeated the electorate deserves a new leader. That new leader has a right to re-fashion the party according to his or her vision. It’s only then that a democracy provides a critical and meaningful choice. Simply recycling discredited leaders with the obstinate insistence that at some point the people will have to opt for them is to force yourself upon the electorate by wilfully denying them anything else.

    I know Jayalalithaa can be cited as proof of the opposite because she’s won 3 elections after 3 defeats. You could say the same of the Abdullahs or Mulayam Singh. But I believe they prove a different point about family-based parties or caste- based politics. Neither should have a place in a true democracy.

    Finally, the British, you could say, are cruel to defeated leaders. When a prime minister loses he’s moved out of 10 Downing Street within hours. It happens swiftly and smoothly.

    Usually, defeat is clear by 3 or 4 in the morning. Around 11.00 a.m. the defeated prime minister leaves Downing Street for Buckingham Palace to hand back the seals of office. The movers arrive through the back door and clear out his belongings. After meeting the Queen he departs the palace in a courtesy car offered by Her Majesty. He’s no longer entitled to the Prime Minister’s limousine. And he heads for his own home. He cannot return to 10 Downing Street until he’s earned the right to do so.

    This speed may be harsh but there’s no room for misplaced sentiment in a democratic transition. The British understand that. Unfortunately, we don’t.

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