Antony's parable proves there are no saints in politics

There’s a political anecdote that’s told of AK Antony’s tenure as chief minister of Kerala. It goes like this…

Once, a young man turned up at the (then) chief minister’s office asking for a job. Now, anyone who attempts to seek an audience with the chief minister merely to ask for a job would stand no chance of getting anywhere within a mile of the leader. But in this case, the young man was able to penetrate the layers of bureaucracy and get through to the top man on the strength of the fact that Antony’s mother had sent him along.

At the chief minister’s office, however, the irresistible familial kinetic force that had propelled the young job applicant all the way met with an immovable object: Antony’s personal integrity.

The chief minister politely turned him away, even giving him bus fare to head back to his village. He also sent his mother a respectful but firm message asking her never to send people over to him with requests for intervention.

Given the depths to which public morality in India has sunk, the story, which sounds too good to be true but is nevertheless a very authentic narrative, is invoked whenever anyone wishes to make the claim that for all the venality that characterises Indian politics, it still has space for the likes of ‘St Antony’, a scrupulously honest man.

Limits to infallibility

Even Antony’s opponents – who are quite mean-spirited politicians in their own right -- are disarmed by the borderline saintly nature of one of India’s most uncommon politicians. But, in fact, when judged in totality, Antony’s politics establishes the limits to human infallibility: as in the case of Manmohan Singh, personal probity counts for a lot, but only when it’s unalloyed by slidebacks in other areas.

 Antonys parable proves there are no saints in politics

To be fair, there is much to commend in Antony, particularly at a time when there is a heightened backlash about corruption in high places. Reuters

To be fair, there is much to commend in Antony, particularly at a time when there is a heightened backlash about corruption in high places. As defence minister, Antony has thus far refused to yield to the intense lobbying (by top foreign leaders) for arms purchases on India’s long shopping list.

Earlier this year, for instance, when US defence secretary Robert Gates made known his intention to travel to India to lobby (on behalf of US arms industry) for a $10 billion deal for India’s purchase of combat aircraft, Antony shot it down by making it clear he would not meet Gates. The Telegraph reported, citing a senior central minister, that Antony pointedly let it be known that he would go away to Kerala during the duration of Gates’ stay in New Delhi if there was any coercion on the defence ministry.

Likewise, during an October 2007 visit to Moscow, Antony publicly chided defence officials in Russia, India’s oldest defence sales partner, on the earlier lapses on grounds of transparency and honesty in business dealings. Antony’s insistence on transparency and honesty left Russian defence officials sufficiently chastened. Antony also criticised the delay in the delivery of the Gorshkov aircraft carrier (since rechristened INS Vikramaditya), which had led to cost overruns.

A couple of months ago, when the asset holdings of the central ministers and their families were made public, Antony was marked as the “poorest minister”: he disclosed personal assets worth Rs 1.8 lakh, in addition to a house and agricultural land worth a cumulative Rs 30 lakh.

And whereas the revelations in respect of Sharad Pawar’s declaration of assets worth Rs 12 crore and P Chidambaram’s declaration of, among other moveable assets, a bicycle, only drew derision from the public who felt they were vastly understated, no one sniggered at Antony’s low-rung asset quality – because his life of spartan simplicity is sufficiently well chronicled.

Even when Antony was Kerala chief minister, his wife and children used to take public transport for their daily commutes; later, when he was appointed by Rajiv Gandhi as civil supplies minister, Antony continued to stay in a one-room MPs’ hostel in New Delhi. Those who knew him then recall that he would cook his own breakfast.

The same frugal simplicity manifests itself in the quirky way in which Antony runs his ministry. US diplomats have noted that Antony doesn’t give generously of his time and hospitality when they seek meetings: he prefers short meetings, and even avoids offering visitors the customary coffee and snacks!

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And yet…

And yet, while these stories of personal probity and an abidance by simple living make for a feel-good narrative about one of India’s uncommon politicians, Antony’s mishandling of the recent controversy surrounding the documented age of the Army chief, Gen. VK Singh, who is himself working to clean up corruption in the Army, knocks Antony off the pedestal and strips him of his saintly halo.

The controversy has been well chronicled in Firstpost (here, here and here), but Antony’s intervention in the manner that he has done has only served to politicise the issue over the age of the Army chief and demoralised the Army – apart from vitiating the atmosphere at a time when multi-billion-dollar weapons acquisition programmes are in various stages of approval. The fact that it happened on Antony’s watch is doubly ironic.

Some commentators have explained Antony’s centrality in UPA politics, despite his self-effacing personality, by claiming that Sonia Gandhi has retained him in her inner circle of political advisers “because, like her, he is a Roman Catholic.” That statement is demonstrably false: although Antony was born in a Catholic family, he became an atheist; the feeling was reinforced when the Church refused Antony’s father – with whom it had a property dispute – burial space in its cemetery.

The more pertinent observation is that when the balance-sheet of Antony’s political career is drawn up, it will establish that for all his personal merits, which have led to his ‘canonisation’ as a ‘saint’, Antony is personification of the statement that in the arena of politics, nobody is perfect. And given enough time, every personable leader will eventually contrive to fall off the pedestal.

Updated Date: Nov 06, 2011 18:14:56 IST