You see them in a lot of places, especially in the movies and ad films, usually anonymously good looking in the same general way, white teeth flashing as they smile or scowl according to the requirement of the moment, the hour or the day. They’re the background to the hero and his heroics. So they’re never by themselves because by themselves they’re nobody. They need a handy principal to whom they can attach themselves, like the corona to a comet. It’s a symbiotic relationship, but in a one-sided way, for without the comet there is no corona.

If the milieu is make-believe, it doesn’t matter, but in the real world it’s different. The “yes boss” culture is of course well known, where you’re supposed to agree with everything the boss says, never mind if he’s talking rubbish or even telling lies. Then it becomes more than a mere indulgence in narcissistic eccentricity. It could be designed to draw a blind on uncomfortable facts.

In the corporate world such behaviour is pretty normal because you don’t cross the boss.

He’s the controller and can get you in a hundred different ways. That’s why it’s so easy to gut a corporation and hollow it out on the quiet, as has happened to Kingfisher Airlines. All that’s required is for the officers to put on a public show. And everyone is aware how you run a great gig. That’s exactly what the Wall Street bankers were doing when it blew up in their faces and brought on the Great Recession.

The greatest gig of them all today, however, seems to be a process called democracy, or the open society. It’s been hailed everywhere as the natural successor to autocracy, but a closer look could throw up some surprises. The ideal, of course, is ancient Greece where, it is often believed, even the unwashed and the shirtless could sit down with the most powerful and be heard in an argument. As propaganda images go, this one, too, is simplistic and misleading. But it does have something in common with modern times.

That is in the presence of the supporters and placemen (only men in those days) through whom demagogues and magnates like Kleon could dominate the Athenian assemblies and bend them to their will. The principals dominate the scene but the background men (or women), the filler to the main event, are crucial cogs. They amplify the message, much as followers provide the echo chamber for the twitterati. They may be indispensable in other ways, too, but in the presence of the sun they must abase themselves. They may bask in its warmth and reflect its glory, but they are expected to know their status as mere adjuncts of the lord of the manor.

In an imperial setting they would be instantly recognised, as courtiers and palace servants, or perhaps as eunuchs. It’s a dirty word these days, but not so long ago eunuchs were an indispensable part of a royal household. Often they were much more, imperial ministers and generals. The world’s most famous mariner of old times, Zheng He, was a eunuch in the service of the Ming empire.

They were among the most powerful administrative castes in imperial China, Turkey and Mughal India. They could and did sometimes rule the ruler as well, but in another sense they were quite impotent. They could not inaugurate a dynasty, nor would they ever become acceptable as the actual rulers. The mandate of heaven would always elude those who were not complete.

In an elective society, of course, anyone can be king. It’s happened a little too often here for comfort in recent years, but contest and contention are supposed to be integral to the open society. And in such a race your gender shouldn’t matter. But that isn’t the case at all, despite a couple of exceptions.

Still, the eunuch isn’t completely bereft in today's world. Every party and every government seems to have its share of these individuals. Indeed their numbers seem to have gone up over recent decades. 

Still, the eunuch isn’t completely bereft in today's world. Every party and every government seems to have its share of these individuals. Indeed their numbers seem to have gone up over recent decades. Strange as it may sound, these people may not even be aware that they have been neutered. Perhaps an example would make this clearer.

The case of former railway minister Dinesh Trivedi (Trinamool Congress) is the best recent instance of this phenomenon. By any reckoning the Railways portfolio is one of the most important; certainly it’s one of the most prestigious, and the holder enjoys Cabinet rank. In other words, he is a senior member of the government and his word is heard beyond the confines of his ministry because so many of them are affected by the performance of the Railways.

On March 14, Trivedi presented a railway budget that was described as bold and timely by a number of experts. They said it was much needed for an organisation drowning in a sea of red ink. The measures to raise revenue included an increase in passenger fares, which had remained static for 10 years. The result was beyond anything he had anticipated.

There was an eruption of protest from his own party MPs and his party president Mamata Banerjee demanded Trivedi’s recall without ceremony. She even submitted the name of the egregious Mukul Roy as a replacement to the prime minister. This is a man who as minister of state for Railways not only declined to visit the site of an accident, but said it was the prime minister’s responsibility.

The TV anchors couldn’t believe their luck, an actual sensation on an otherwise sleep-inducing day, and spent the rest of the evening baiting Trivedi mercilessly. Which is par for the course, of course, but why did it have to come to that?

Here was one of the senior members of the cabinet being humiliated publicly and at length, not for a gaffe or a bad budget, but by his own mercurial chief because she didn't like his proposals, egged on enthusiastically by his party colleagues.

The reasons given for his recall are thin but that is irrelevant. In fact, he seems to be irrelevant to his party's fortunes, electoral or administrative. So is he a leader or a clay pigeon to be shot down at will? Perhaps Trivedi will rehabilitate himself by complete abasement to his leader’s will. The one thing he cannot do is challenge that will. For now, he’s staying on in the party, at any rate.

If this episode shows anything, it is the huge asymmetry in power between the chief and the rest, in this case in the Trinamool Congress. All that is important for Mamata is that her party should get that ministry as a matter of right. Who occupies is of no consequence, as every one of her MPs is of equal consequence—faceless, powerless proxies. The rule is simple. It’s not their qualifications that are decisive, it’s their promptness in carrying out orders. The chief decides, the others do her bidding.

But this is an exact description of the palace servant who lives to serve his master’s pleasure. In their own smaller circle they may be great men and women, but in the larger picture theirs is a satellite existence. In an elective society they might justly be called political eunuchs. They are impotent. Nothing they say or do can be a creative advance on the leader's agenda, and there’s no chance they will be ever credited with spawning an idea or concept.

Look around and you can that the eunuchs surround us, in every corner of the polity, in every party. Take the Indian National Congress, for instance. In the last two years its long-time heir apparent, Rahul Gandhi, has staked his credibility on two state elections, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. He’s suffered complete humiliation in both. Now these are two of the most important states in the Union, and not just for the numbers they can send to Parliament. Victory or defeat has great bearing on the shape and fate of the Union government.

Common sense says that these states ought to be full of candidates and party cadres who can lead from the front. But the prince was the party’s only show. No one else was allowed to get any traction, maybe because this was supposed to be his coronation. But all the plans of mice and men gang aft agley, etc.

Defeat, though humiliation would be a better word, should have led to questions about the quality of the stewardship. But who would dare to question the competence of the Great New Hope even if the cannier observers suspected that it was a Great Delusion?

The explanations and excuses for the electorate's rebuff of Rahul touched a new low after Uttar Pradesh. We had Abhishek Manu Singhvi, the party spokesman, confessing on TV that the result was a mystery because the crowds always turned out to see and hear Rahul. He could not say the obvious; that they were unconvinced by the message. That would have been too much like saying he failed; other reasons had to be found for the defeat.

The state Congress leaders lined up to fall on their swords, both in UP and Punjab. But guess what? The gesture was enough; they didn’t have to show any blood. They could continue to have power without real power so long as they realised it was a gift from on high. And the others, the placemen who lost? It’s not quite clear, but there’s reason to believe that the more loyal palace servants and their baggage trains will not suffer the penalties of defeat. After all, when the prince failed, how could they succeed? It would have been almost indecent if they had.

And in Uttarakhand, where the party did form the government, the chief minister, Ashok Bahuguna, brother of Sheila Bahuguna Joshi, UP party chief, was imposed by the high command. He was nowhere in evidence during the run-up, but turned up promptly for the feast after. Those who had actually worked to make it happen could only watch. Who will get the CM’s greater consideration, his state colleagues or the so-called high command?

After two massive failures in Bihar and UP it would be natural to expect a churning at the top as the voters rejected the message so emphatically. When Labour lost the 2010 general election in Britain, not only was Gordon Brown sent to polar exile, but a vigorous and sustained succession campaign began almost immediately. It ended only when a clear victor emerged, Ed Milliband, and the others have coalesced around him.

But it would take a brave man to suggest that in the Congress because most don’t have a following worth the name, probably not even in the constituency. Virtually all the representatives are someone’s creature. It’s worth noting that two of the most important and influential leaders, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Home Minister P Chidambaram have no popular following. The PM is not even directly elected to Parliament, and the home minister just about scraped through in a controversial recount of votes. They are totally dependent on the ruling deities for their long-term survival.

No one has yet displayed the brutal directness of Mamata, but the truth is that if Sonia Gandhi decides to dispense with their services she need not worry about a party revolt. She’s surrounded by palace servants, all of them only too eager to be of service in whatever capacity she wants.

It’s pertinent to remember here that Mamata was originally in the Congress, a firebrand agitator eager to take on the Left Front in Bengal. She left only when her bosses showed no interest in fighting for that crown. They were happier after their accommodations with the Left and had no stomach for a prolonged war.

It is tempting to speculate on what if she’d had a free hand then. Maybe the Left would have been defeated earlier, sparking a Congress revival in other parts of the country. And maybe Mamata would have grown out of her monotone populist avatar, a senior strategist who could have made all the difference to the party’s overall fortunes. That, regrettably, is what the dynasts fear most of all, a leader with a popular following in the party and among the voters.

But it’s not just the various Congresses that are affected by this syndrome. Both Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK and the Bahujan Samaj Party are run in the same way. The only person of importance is the leader. Everyone else is inconsequential. Take the case of Babu Singh Kushwaha, former UP health minister and (then) one of the BSP’s most powerful leaders. One day he was the go-to man for almost everything, the next day he was sprawled on his backside, booted out by Mayawati who saw him as a liability because of his connection to the National Rural Health Mission scandal.

He may have deserved it, but it’s again worth noting that his departure meant nothing to his partymen. There was no revolt, no protest even. The power he wielded was purely derived; he had no standing of his own. His subsequent misfortunes only reinforce that point.

Indeed during the election campaign Mayawati repeatedly stressed that a vote for the BSP was a vote for her, not the other way around. That statement may have proved more costly than she’s willing to admit.

The real pointer, however, is to the mindset that seems to be taking over virtually every political party’s top echelon. The leader is the message, the end of the game, and the source of power. It’s the fuhrerprinzip with a vengeance, all the stranger as it comes in an environment where the elective principle is held to be supreme.

In a party of Dalits it is even more strange, because all through their history Dalits have been oppressed by a minority that had extraordinary psychological power even though it was rarely the ruling class. The idea of a Dalit party is a big one, and its limits have not even been properly tested yet. It needs to be explored freely and fiercely, not confined to a depressingly quasi-fascist class of militarised governance, which seems to Mayawati’s preferred model.

The same could be said for every other party, except, oddly enough, the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is said to be the fascist par excellence, India model. It does seem to provide room for people to grow in new ways. Its chief ministers are rarely of the centrally-produced rubber stamp variety, but regional leaders in their own right. Some are obviously preparing for a larger, national role.

But the party itself is in seemingly unending internal turmoil and at the national level it seems unable go beyond the bigotry that marks the religious right mindset. That has too limited an appeal and, moreover, chills the soul of anyone who is not a Hindu.

The open society is about exploring the power and complexity of diversity, about empowering, not emasculating, individuals.


Since independence, however, the scope for individual action has been narrowed down in most political parties, most notably the Congress, which used to be a proving ground for men and women of outstanding vision and leadership qualities.

Gradually, inexorably, the space for that has been whittled down. The result is an extraordinary proliferation of political eunuchs whose worldview revolves around personal survival, whether by appeal to caste or faith.

One of the more distressing consequences is a suffocating parochialism that can’t detect the larger patterns that the constant churning in an open society creates. Shorn of this vision, political parties are blind to the new world taking shape around them.

Politicians are not, of course, the only or even the major innovators in a society, but it is they who take the big ideas and try to make them workable. There’s a constant flow that can only be observed and examined by perceptive individuals who have an incentive to be different.

The political eunuch is by definition incapable of being different. Survival hinges on an accommodation to the familiar. And that is the real loss to society, because imagination is the mother of invention.