Nonentity: Something that does not exist or exists only in the imagination; a person or thing of little consequence or significance.                                                                                                                                                                                          —Merriam Webster online dictionary

I have told you a thousand times that principles are like gold jewellery. It should not be put on every day. Wear it at weddings and festivals and that’s enough. Talk about principles a couple of times a year and that’s fine, but do your politics for the rest of the time.

—Translated from Kashinath Singh’s Kashi ka Assi

We have a self-professed progressive government at the Centre, so committed to Bharat Nirman that it is spending ₹150 crore of public money on advertisement handouts to the media to reiterate its progressiveness. It is a government trying to show that while it has lost face, it perhaps still has some soul left to sell. Front pages of newspapers have been bought, airtime has been leased, all to tell the janata that while the last 10 years may have seen scams of unprecedented magnitude—many of them what Srilal Shukla so eloquently called “shudh gaban” in Raag Darbari—all that people need to know is that the government has wonderful progressive ideals, even though it has looted this country.

This has happened under the watch of Manmohan Singh, said to reside ordinarily in Assam, from where the Congress party keeps sending him to the Rajya Sabha. His Cabinet has, at various times, consisted of English-speaking lawyers and others with ambitions who have taken the Rajya Sabha way to a seat at the power table. Ashwani Kumar, a lawyer and a grammarian of repute, and Pawan Kumar Bansal, a “clean politician” are just two examples of this kind.

The problem with today’s Congress is that it is run by nonentities—not career politicians, but by career sycophants, people who can be articulate only in television studios, people unable to win even a mohalla committee election. That this cosy little coterie, the core group of the Congress both inside and outside government, should be steeped in corruption and cronyism is only to be expected. They aren’t accountable to anyone save United Progressive Alliance (UPA) chairperson Sonia Gandhi, they don’t have to fight to retain a seat anywhere, there’s no pressure to engage with people or to go door-to-door canvassing for votes. They are directly and personally outside our electoral process, spectacularly mocking our vote.

The prime minister is simply the finest example of this group. He came to office with an impeccable track record, and will now, without question, leave with his reputation irreparably damaged. His integrity, in light of his government’s and the Prime Minister’s Office’s (PMO) conduct, was never more than a mythical construct, a venal creature that should have been called out years ago.

The 2G spectrum scam, the coal block allocation scam and the Antrix-Devas deal are some of the scams that lead directly to his doorstop. With the exception of the Antrix-Devas deal to a certain extent, there is enough material to show that the Prime Minister was aware of the goings-on in the other two cases. Coal block allocations took place for three years directly under his nose. He has allowed more than any man of integrity ordinarily ought to. The standards of probity demanded by the office he holds are much higher than just filing taxes on time, queuing up for a driver’s license, and other such minor matters.

His defence has been unconvincing: ignorance in the 2G case, which he called “coalition dharma”; denial in the coal block allocations scam, and outraged indignation in his support for Ashwani Kumar who tampered with the CBI’s progress report in a Supreme Court-monitored investigation to save the PM some blushes.

It’s an attitude—feigning ignorance and shameless denial—identical with that of investment bankers and regulators in the wake of the Great Recession. They wrecked the global economy and made millions jobless by playing dice with other people’s money till the game was up. Manmohan Singh’s game is also up. His much-eulogised, middle-class feel-good story of a man who came up the hard and the right way, has been besmirched by his spineless leadership as a prime minister whose instinctive reaction to every serious charge against his government is to pass the buck. He has also efficiently adopted other tropes of the corrupt: the matter is sub judice hence life can go on, and “innocent until proven guilty” mantras. Sub judice does not mean blanket omerta, comment is still permissible subject to certain restrictions. And yes, presumption of innocence may be the bedrock of criminal jurisprudence but public life demands higher standards of conduct.

The Prime Minister’s conduct is no different from former Karnataka chief minister B S Yeddyurappa’s, in whose defence former BJP president Nitin Gadakri had said that the chief minister’s actions may be immoral but not legally wrong. These two have paid the price for their trespasses, but Manmohan Singh continues undaunted.

Though his claims of integrity and honesty have been comprehensively demolished, the prime minister has chosen to remain silent, save token verbiage from his office or press managers. This is yet another display of unaccountability—the PM’s refusal to interact with the media and answer some tough questions. It shows that the man running this country is wary of subjecting his actions to scrutiny.

The only time he displays any conviction is when he speaks about holding on to the prime minister’s office.

The strain of unaccountability runs deep in the Congress. It is exemplified by Sonia Gandhi. Because she had to “sacrifice” by not becoming prime minister (a dereliction of duty if she was really committed to nation building), an extra-constitutional body had to be created to compensate her. Thus was born the National Advisory Council (NAC) which the UPA chairperson heads and with which come the privileges of a cabinet minister. There is a coterie around her too; Ahmed Patel, her political secretary, is the quintessential backroom manager, and probably controls the fates of more people in the government than the prime minister.

Others who have made convenient late entries to mainstream politics include renowned mobile phone poet Kapil Sibal and “head-to-toe” Manish Tewari, both entrusted with important ministerial portfolios though neither has serious political experience.

External affairs minister Salman Khurshid, a two-time MP, is another example of a studio politician who can spout nonsense on demand in an Oxbridge accent. The website ( calls him “a dynamic leader of mankind”.

The Rajya Sabha route has undermined the electoral process, especially the rampant abuse of the “ordinarily resident” clause. The Upper House is fundamentally a place where state legislatures send their representatives; it is supposed to act as a check on the Centre’s unilateralism, especially when it comes to making laws that concern states directly. These points were clearly raised and agreed upon in the Constitutional Assembly Debates, and the “ordinarily resident” clause was to ensure that the person seeking election has a stake in the interests of the state.

There is no such bar on a Lok Sabha nomination, the logic being that people can directly decide to vote for or against a candidate. Every party has been guilty of negating this rule and the malaise has now spread to the states as well, with both Mayawati in her last term as UP chief minister and Akhilesh Yadav the present chief minister deciding to hold office while being members of the legislative council. The fact that only seven state legislatures have an Upper House is an unintentional check on this practice.

This politics of nonentities is not restricted to the Congress—the central leadership of the BJP too is full of Rajya Sabha stalwarts and other non-electable leaders. This period in central politics has coincided with the rise of strong mass leaders in the states, both in the Congress and the BJP.

There’s bound to be strife when the unaccountable group tries to dictate to those who made their careers the hard way—by winning elections.

Gujarat chief minister and prime ministerial aspirant Narendra Modi has often argued for greater state autonomy, especially in taxation, and has also on occasions not deferred to his party’s central leadership. Odisha’s Naveen Patnaik, West Bengal’s Mamata Bannerjee, Bihar’s Nitish Kumar and Tamil Nadu’s Jayalalitha have all at various points stood up to the Centre, whether on tax proposals or setting up the federal surveillance agency NTRO.

For all their faults, they are elected leaders who have tasted both victory and defea (save Modi so far) in election, and could even lose their own seats if they are not careful. Former Bihar chief minister Lalu Prasad Yadav lost from Patliputra (one of the two he contested, he won in Saran, the other seat) in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, an outcome unthinkable in his heyday. His party won just four of Bihar’s 40 seats, and his defeat was symptomatic of voter disaffection.

Even if the people want to hand Manmohan Singh a crushing defeat, they cannot do so. The government may be voted out but Singh will continue to sit in the Rajya Sabha.

After the Emergency and humiliation in her home seat of Rae Bareli, Indira Gandhi fought and won an election, though a safe seat in Chikmagalur had to be found for her. After the Janata Party proved incapable of running the country, Indira was voted back to power. What if she had not fought from Chikmagalur and instead managed to secure a seat in the Rajya Sabha? It would have destroyed her politically.

There is a strong anti-neta mood in the country. Spot sentences are issued every day on prime time news, Twitter fans the discontent, and politicians are called names and cornered—much of it is richly deserved outrage—everywhere in the virtual world, and flash and orchestrated mobs routinely demand dramatic action from city squares. The Anna Hazare movement for the Lokpal bill is a perfect example of where all this came together.

The Hazare crusade had a promising beginning, amplified as it was by television anchors. Soon ordinary people joined in, protests erupted across the country and the politician was painted as the corrupt destroyer of India. It wrong-footed the government, which groped cluelessly for a response. Hazare crusaders took heart from its bumbling and started taking uncompromising positions on their version of the Lokpal Bill, sniggering at Parliament’s inability to change even a comma. For a while it was good drama, but then other news started coming in.

The conduct of some Lokpal crusaders was not above board, they themselves had manipulated the system in ways the politicians did. The middle-class, which by that time had a severe case of self-righteousness, started losing interest. Petty infractions, even by those in pursuit of loftier goals, could not be condoned. Also, the self-righteous attitudes of Kejirwal and Co. started losing its charm after a while. Meanwhile, the government, amid protests, tabled a watered-down version of the bill effectively killing the movement.

That movement is now all but dead. Hazare is in search of his next great satyagraha, and its offspring, the Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party is flitting from one theatrical protest to another. All want quick results; the AAP wants to sweep Delhi in the next polls but isn’t prepared to do anything more than can be compressed into a 60-second television story.

In the recently-concluded Karnataka elections, a lot was made of the fact that many “clean” candidates, some of them working professionals, chose to contest. None of them even made a dent, barring a couple from the Loksatta Party.

Expecting people to vote for an unknown quantity is asking for too much, and on the face of it, the promises made by these “clean” candidates are no different from those made by the politcians they seek to replace.

Politics is not a part-time vocation, middle-class candidates eager to change things should remember. Constituencies have to be nurtured; a bond with constituents has to be formed before any concrete results can be expected.

Voters want someone who will stand by them in moments of need, someone who goes with them to the government office to collect the caste certificate, someone who can ensure a bed is made available at the overcrowded public hospitals.

Voters want someone who will stand by them in moments of need, someone who goes with them to the government office to collect the caste certificate, someone who can ensure a bed is made available at the overcrowded public hospitals.

They want someone who, whether in or out of power, is willing to become their interface in dealing with the various organs of state.

It is a long-term project, and there are no shortcuts unless you have the Nehru/Gandhi lineage (in which case you can win an election first and then embark on Bharat Darshan). When these parachuted candidates lose, they make despondent, hurt statements blaming the people for not making the right choice.

This is the middle-class’s opportunity to seize the day. The credibility of the politician is low and the Hazare movement did succeed in inspiring at least a section of people to engage more wholesomely with the system.

This can, however, only be a start of change that may take a couple of elections to manifest. Both the AAP and the “clean” candidates don’t appear keen on the long haul, and have confused studio audience applause with votes.

There’s little sign that the top leadership of the Congress or the BJP is bothered. They continue to live in their cocoons, and see and hear whatever their trusted servants tell them. They are even oblivious to the performance and the results their leaders have achieved in states, mainly by doing good work and promising to do more. The government, for its part, is busy saving itself as it stumbles from one ditch to another, issuing denials, led as it is by a leader who doesn’t want to take the blame for anything.

Manmohan Singh may go down in history as the prime minister who succeeded in rousing the Indian middle- class, chiefly through his own ineptitude and heading a government that had other nonentities like him.