THE CULTURAL SHIFT in politics is more than a matter of appearance. It may still begin with the new emphasis on the visual connection between the politician and the people, and the former is no longer an ideologically driven saviour in loose garments. He—mostly he—is made-to-measure perfection, impeccably groomed, fresh from the glossy pages, now amidst the crowd with all the details about instant nirvana on his fingertips, unveiling the future on a spreadsheet. A far cry from the crumpled, casual gravitas of another generation, playing a pastiche of Cicero to a captive audience.
In the politics of the well-rehearsed matter-of-factness, instinct is a liability, spontaneity is a clinical error. You no longer reduce the world to a shapeless rhetorical utopia, painted in primary colours. You deconstruct the world into indexed silos, comfortably aware that there is no complexity that can’t be simplified by computing skills. You are no longer a storyteller on the stump; you are not the sorcerer on a whirlwind tour, playing havoc with the mass mind. You are as calm as the ocean, and what you utter, edited and chiselled, raises the curiosity about what lies beneath, what remains concealed.
Expertise prevails. In the knowledge society, the new politician is not a salesman of fairy tales. Leave them to storytellers, the overrated deceivers masquerading as deliverers. The new politician, himself an expert or a gatherer of expertise, relies on the verifiable, not on the poetics of slogans. Expertise abhors sentimentalism; it sees an overabundance of emotion as a weakness of the fact-deficient. A country, as portrayed on a spreadsheet, is not the sum of its cultural diversities and identities steeped in multiple traditions, a geographical coherence made of civilisational memories; it is a canvas of ever-mutating data. They show the path, and they are too complex to engage the traditionalist.
My argument is not entirely built on the British Conservatives’ search for the leader after Boris Johnson, in which the candidate who is certain to be one of the final two is a testament to the new United Kingdom. The frontrunner, assuming he will sustain the momentum in the coming rounds, brings out the power of diversity in British politics, where race, gender, intelligence and class have jointly written the principles of equality, even though no one is mourning the quiet descent of the white male. What sets Rishi Sunak apart is his professional expertise and the confidence of someone who owes his success to merit and ambition, all his qualities as the most “serious” candidate coalescing into an impeccable persona. The technocrat—a former fund manager—has the answers, and they are not couched in polemic.
The suave technocrat as national redeemer is an increasingly familiar portrait—think of French President Emmanuel Macron. The French evolution of power, from the majestic nationalism of de Gaulle to Macron’s managerial model for a new Europe, shows how ideas of the smart technocrat, not the ideologies of the party-born politician, can get the momentum. Not necessarily always a technocrat, the new politician could be anyone who is not sullied by the cynicism of politics-as-usual and inspired by the possibilities of ideas in democracies where ideologies have no worthy apostles. Bill Clinton walked straight into the heart of America as a charismatic young Democrat who, while breaking away from the traditional left, embraced the social conservatism of Reagan. The first presidential campaign of Obama, a freshman Senator who had a novelist’s flair and prophet’s demeanour, had the thrill of a post-racial American revolution. Boris Johnson, unarguably one of the most consequential prime ministers of post-war Britain, was a charismatic arsonist in Conservative politics, lionised by the shires and ridiculed by the grandees. The textbook politician was fast losing the constituency.
I’m more fascinated by the alchemist, one who infuses magic into a familiar, culturally intimate value system. The technocrat, slick and efficient, practises the kind of politics that looks smooth and productive but with an empty cultural core. The alchemist matches intelligence with instinct, studied gestures with spontaneous movements, bringing to politics the solidity of tradition and the fluidity of imagination. The technocrat is the god of here-and-now, with little time for the passages of the past and the abstractions of the future. The alchemist prefers the continuum to the instant. Technocrats make what is essentially dull look appealing. Alchemists excel in the politics of permanent astonishment.
The dramatic tension in Indian politics today is provided by an unmatched alchemist who has unsettled the traditionalists and those who claim sole ownership over modernity. India is yet to comprehend his influence as almost everyone is swayed by his art: breaking traditions to create one. Alchemists, unlike technocrats, are necessary subversives.