H. H. Asquith’s eventful tenure as British prime minister (1908-16) in the high noon of the Liberal Party was rendered colorful by the devastatingly witty utterances of his formidable wife Margot. Her acerbic aside on the noted lawyer and orator Lord Birkenhead who rose to be attorney general is often cited by social historians. He is very clever, she said, but his brains sometimes go to his head. Put succinctly, eggheads (read intellectuals), opined Lady Asquith, were inclined to overreach themselves. More so when they muddy their minds in active politics. JDU national general secretary and spokesperson Pavan Verma’s open letter to his boss Nitish Kumar, the Bihar chief minister, spelling out his differences over extending the party’s alliance with the BJP beyond Bihar typifies a similar mindset.
Mr Verma is not the usual haranguing spokesperson seen on TV panel discussions. An erstwhile member of the Indian Foreign Service as well as the Rajya Sabha, he is also a writer, columnist, and a familiar face in literary fests. He has over the years blossomed into a public intellectual of some standing. Which is why his decision to put his letter in the public domain seems both puzzling and yet predictable. Puzzling because a man of his mental equilibrium and maturity should have had better sense than embarrass his leader to whom he owes his limited fame, and predictable because it is foolish to expect unswerving loyalty from those who live off their reasoning intellect. Loyalty resides in the heart. It is ruled by sentiment and sincerity. It doesn’t change with the weather, political or otherwise.
To cite an example, one of the finest exemplars of loyalty was Arun Singh, Union minister of state for defense in Rajiv Gandhi’s cabinet, scion of the Kapurthala royals and a Doon School chum of the prime minister. He along with Arun Nehru were two of Rajiv’s closest advisors. Singh never uttered a word once he resigned after the Bofors bust-up. Though his decision to quit was seen as an act of betrayal by dynasty insiders, Arun Singh reiterated his allegiance and constancy towards his friend even after parting ways. Not many voluntarily give up a position of power without a modicum of rancor, the reasons for which are usually leaked to the media. But his lips stayed firmly sealed — even when Jaswant Singh took him on board as advisor during the NDA’s tenure at the time of the Kargil war.
What exactly did Mr Verma hope to accomplish by publicizing the contents of his letter? To showcase his uprightness and integrity, his refusal to compromise his secular-socialist credentials? He says he was troubled by his party’s decision to back the BJP during the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Bill in the Lok Sabha. The defense is untenable because Mr Verma’s rift with Nitish dates back to the renewal of the JDU-BJP alliance in 2017. It was visible from his diffidence and demeanor in every TV debate and parleys with friends in the Lutyens cocktail circuit. His efforts to paper over his dissent were at best painful.
For all his claims of being the owner of a pristine conscience, the biographer of Adi Shankaracharya wanted Nitish to continue in coalition with the corrupt Laloo Yadav led Rashtriya Janata Dal. Ideally, he ought to have shot off a letter and quit two years ago. To now claim that the JDU decision to ally with the BJP in Delhi, where assembly polls are due on February 11, compelled him to seek “ideological clarity” in writing seems both disingenuous if not outright bogus. It is evident that the real purpose in writing the ‘letter’ was to formally table his dissent and pave the way for an exit, not entirely honorable. To which Nitish promptly responded that he was more than welcome. The letter, he rightly said, did not merit a response. To bang out an email without informing the recipient and copy it to the media, call that a letter?
Mr Verma is much too intelligent a man to have been unaware that party bosses are not bound by the opinions of functionaries and advisors. Surely, he did not hitch his political future with Nitish Kumar in the belief that all the pearls of political wisdom emanating from his maw would find ready acceptance. Political camaraderie can be shared even from the outside. There are any number of ambitious journalists, lawyers, and writers ever ready to counsel leaders closest to their ideological worldview. It is quite another matter that they use them as stepping stones. Most sidle up to politicians in power in the hope of getting a government assignment or a Rajya Sabha nomination. Limelight, a piece of the action, is what they really seek.
Mr Verma was a member of the Upper House till 2016. It is a moot point if he would have advertised his differences had Nitish given him another term. Would he have quit the RS to keep his conscience? Probably not! Those who respect the party’s overall ideology more than their own situation abide by its decisions even when privately demurring on some issues. Many continue to languish on the sidelines for years on end.
The dissenting JDU spokesperson ought to have taken a leaf from his friends in the Congress, a party choc-a-bloc with smart, clever, and successful slaves to power. Their USP: intellectual dishonesty. They have consciously accepted that sycophancy is a necessary pre-condition to survival regardless of the cerebral deficiency of their lords and masters.
Mr Verma’s persona is not that of a toady. But the lesson he singularly failed to imbibe was the limited regard and value for intellection in politics, and the premium given to loyalty and staying power. Nitish Kumar gave him a long rope whose worth he never realized.
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