My alma mater, St. Stephen’s College has always boasted at having a rich history of producing leaders of tomorrow be it Cabinet Ministers or Chief Secretaries. I have often heard that more than a quarter of the History honors class made it to the IAS and there was a network of Stephanians working in the corridors of power be it in Delhi or in the states. Leadership, integrity and strength of character are qualities we are still taught in the College. Yet, the recent episodes of Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev have made me very weary of the kind of leaders College is producing.
On of the people I was following on Twitter posted a tweet where he compared what he called the ‘Oxford-Harvard’ nexus to a rustic Anna Hazare and how the latter has got the better of the former. What he did not point out is that two out of the three leaders mentioned in the ‘Oxford-Harvard’ nexus also belong to St. Stephen’s College namely Kapil Sibal and Salman Khurshid (the third being Chidambaram). It is their actions vis-à-vis an Anna Hazare which provoked me to think on the sort of leaders St. Stephen’s College has produced in the past few years and whether there is something to be proud of when Cabinets are formed and we learn of Stephanians becoming ministers.
To begin with, let us see our College history after 1947. We have taken great pride in stating that we have produced three heads of states. But what we have not taken in to consideration is who these heads were and what were the consequences of their actions. I am stating the obvious when I say that the actions of at least two of them have adversely affected the democratic fabric of their respective countries. The conduct of a Stephanian, Fakruddin Ali Ahmed was heavily questionable in 1975. The second leader, Zia ul Haq needs little mention in his lack of commitment to democracy and secularism in Pakistan. A lot of mindless terror in the region, rampant hostilities could well be traced back to his period in the seventies and eighties. Thus, despite my hesitations I have to state that the two Heads of State Stephen’s produced have been disastrous.
Coming to more recent times, there has been a great representation of St. Stephen’s in the executive ever since the UPA came to power that has only increased since UPA 2. If the NDA rule was characterized by the dominance of SRCC (another Delhi University College- alumni are Ranjan Bhattacharya, Arun Jaitley, Vijay Goel, Sudhanshu Mittal) the Stephanian dominance was the hallmark of a Congress – led government. But, have Stephanians been worthy of the responsibilities that were given to them? Sadly we cannot reply in the affirmative.
Back in 2005, the first resignation of a Congress minister happened when Natwar Singh resigned. Singh, a Stephanian was also the first elected President of the College back in 1950. The charges against him were very serious in the wake of the Volcker report. He eventually had to resign in disgrace, shift parties before political wilderness awaited him.
Next comes the case of Shashi Tharoor. The hype with which he entered public life matched the height surrounding his exit and the repercussions thereafter. Once he became a minister his statements in the media showed just how much out of tune he was with the pulse of the ‘aam admi’ his party swears by. Then came the controversy surrounding the IPL when it was proved beyond doubt that sweat equity was given to Sunanda Puskhar once a team was allotted to Kochi. Such a conduct was not only unbecoming but also prompted Shashi Tharoor to issue a series of denials before he was asked to quit office by the Prime Minister. The consequences of his actions were the standoff with Lalit Modi and attempts to reign in the BCCI by the UPA (read Congress vs Sharad Pawar). As things stand today, Tharoor is happily married but without the ministry, Lalit Modi has fled to London and Shashank Manohar has to appear before the ED officials time and again. Again, this is not quite the conduct one expects from a Stephanian, atleast if the legendary Morning Assembly in College is to be believed.
Coming back to the talk on the Oxford-Harvard nexus, it is the actions of these two individuals leaves very little to be desired. Ever since taking over as an important trouble shooter of the Congress, all Kapil Sibal has done is adopt a confrontationist tone be it by offering a shallow excuse of blaming the NDA or being involved in negotiations with Anna Hazare and Ramdev. Let me also make it clear that I am not saying the actions of Anna and Baba were completely correct but the counter action of the UPA think tank, which had two Stephanians, is intriguing.
The allegation that they may be out of touch with the ground realities of the day may well be correct. From the very beginning, they did not understand the impact of the campaign against corruption, however middle class or bourgeoisie it may be. Ramdev may not be a good politician but he is surely a very popular yoga guru on whose tunes Indian families dance to every morning (literally). First to receive him at the airport and then arrest him in a midnight swoop is not so called Stephanian intelligence. Even in the current (which can safely be called Anna 2 vs UPA 2) this clique has demonstrated its different wavelength with the rest of the country. They failed to realize that those protesting were not supporting Anna’s Lok Pal or any other measure, it was just an expression of dissatisfaction against what has perceived to be the most corrupt government in the history of the country. Rather than bring out the flaws in Anna’s protest (there are no doubt many) they preferred to arrest him. They failed to understand that the power of articulation can only get them till a point after which reason; logic and popular aspirations also play a major role.
Even within College, the conduct of elected representatives of College gives little solace to those around. A few months ago, Sandeep Dixit went on a personal tirade against the College establishment even labeling it was communal. The usage of such a loaded word against the College was evidently more a product of a lack of understanding of the word ‘communal’, the Constitution of India and a consequence of a historic bias against select individuals in College. Neither did his appearance on national television inspire any confidence.
The point I am making is not to attack what College has stood for or reduce it to a factory of producing irresponsible politicians but an introspection and the need to think twice before we celebrate the culture of leadership among ourselves. Let us ask ourselves is this the kind of leadership we look towards or can be proud of? At various points of time the Stephanians I have mentioned have done the unthinkable- they have made the likes of Janata coalition, Lalit Modi and Baba Ramdev see sensible (a remarkable feat). Thus, the next time we laud the number of Stephanians making it to office, do see whether they are just another addition to the ‘babalog’ or people who are actually going to bring back sense and logic to public life as what one would expect. Perhaps it is actually time to open the doors of College for some fresh air before it is too late.
PS- I am reminded of an anecdote when Natwar Singh said “All I am is because of the College” to which Mani Shankar Aiyar replied “Why blame the College?”