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The morning after

Published by The Straits Times, Singapore on 2004-11-03

SO yet another election in the United States has been concluded, its clangour, clamour and voting counts soon to be dispatched to the archives of history. Winners and losers - in races for the US presidency, the Senate, the House of Representatives, state governorships and legislatures, and scores of municipal councils - have not a moment to lose. The boasting or bewailing is ephemeral. Everyone this Wednesday morning is already on to the next thing.

That next thing has little to do with good governance, political transparency and pledges of making the world safe and secure - all the sonorous, scripted, rhetoric we heard endlessly from the candidates over these past many months. It's not even entirely about winners finding the right set of aides to help transform them from mere politicians on the hustings to masterly policymakers perceived to be hustling in the public interest. It's not about losers slinking off ignominiously to some sun drenched island to reflect on why voters rejected them.

The real challenge now - the next thing - is really about two things. For the winners, it's pay-off time for their generous donors who will demand choice ambassadorships or cabinet positions; for the losers, it's pay-down time for debts accumulated during the 2004 campaign which the Washington-based Centre for Responsive Politics - a campaign-watchdog group - estimates to be in excess of US$4 billion, some 30 percent more than what was spent in the 2000 election.

The exercise that ended yesterday was, in fact, the costliest election since George Washington became the first US president on 30 April 1789. Washington didn't even have to campaign; America's founding fathers unanimously chose him. The former farmer and military hero put on his hippopotamus tusk dentures, and made a reasonably modest acceptance speech in New York as the first leader of the free world. He used laudanum - a tincture of opium - to cope with the discomfort of his dentures, which is why commentators of the time remarked about his grimacing.

That grimacing would have gone against Washington had he been in contention for public office today. Madison Avenue, which has pretty much become a metaphor for political image shaping all over the world, would certainly not have countenanced a candidate who wore ill-fitting dentures. And the opiate? Washington would have been indicted before he even declared his candidacy. So what if he gave forceful orders to ragtag American militiamen who bested the better-equipped troops of Britain's King George III? Washington wasn't capable of sound bites, those canned 30-second earnest but cliched phrases that masquerade as political debate these days.

Washington governed by the sheer force of personality. Today's politicians and political wannabes need to be forced to take on a public persona that's become standardised around the world. Pricey consultants - some of them charging more than US$10,000 a day for advice - have become a cottage industry. As a journalist - or, in the parlance of the trade, a working stiff - I'm quite willing to dispense what I call "The Pranay Principles for Political Prosperity." No cost to incipient pols other than the time it takes to assimilate this prose.

Principle One: It helps to be born wealthy and good looking. That's why, in my view, the manor-born Mr Jawaharlal Nehru was made India's first prime minister, and not the more capable but crusty Mr Vallabhbhai Patel. Nehru's dreamy version of Fabian Socialism resulted in a Statist economy that widened, not shrank, India's poverty. The openly capitalistic Patel was sidelined; unlike the Cambridge-educated Nehru, Patel was a homespun nationalist whose accent was thick with viciously spicy vegetarian curries. He would never have been feted at Buckingham Palace; Nehru practically made it his second home, usually in the company of Lord Louis Mountbatten's highly sexed wife.

Principle Two: You must learn to work the room, or the courtyard, or the village chieftain's compound. When I covered Africa for the New York Times from my Nairobi base, I was convinced that Kenya's phlegmatic - and highly corrupt - President Daniel arap Moi (correct) invited dislike from everyday citizens not only because of his isolation from them. He rarely plunged into a crowd to engage in good old fashioned pumping of hands and slapping of backs. One of his aides confided in me that Mr Moi was paranoid about his body odour, which he felt would turn off his constituents. But his plundering of the Kenyan treasury had already alienated them.

Principle Three: Smile on the campaign trail, especially when television crews are converging on you even in the toilet. Mr P. V. Narasimha Rao, who as India's prime minister in the early 1990s reversed years of Nehruvian socialism and began economic liberalisation, never quite got his due. I attribute it to his perennially dyspeptic expression. During his tenure in office, the phrase that most aptly described him was: "When in doubt, pout."

Principle Four: Listen to your spouse. While Prime Minister Rao was always dour in public, his finance minister Dr Manmohan Singh, on the other hand, was always smiling. His wife, Gursharan Kaur, reportedly chided him more than once that a finance minister needed not only to sport elegant blue turbans - as the Sikh did - but show some gravitas. Dr Singh is now India's Prime Minister, while Mr Rao is trying to eke out a living by writing novels featuring steamy sex.

Principle Five: Choose your friends well, and make sure than they don't take from you more than what they contribute to your political kitty. When Alhaji Shehu Shagari, a mild mannered Muslim from northern Nigeria, took over as the oil-rich West African nation's first civilian president after decades of military rule, I found out that his close associate and financial contributor Alhaji Umaru Diko, was allowed to run just about everything in the country. Mr Diko's personal wealth grew exponentially. In barely a year, the military deposed the president, who was kept under house arrest for many years. Mr Diko fled to his apartment on New York's fashionable Park Avenue.

Principle Six: Even if your mother made you memorize Karl Marx, just throw away your copy of Das Kapital. Socialism is passe. I once interviewed President Daniel Ortega Saavedra, a Marxist who ran Nicaragua with typical leftist unsentimentality from 1985 to 1990 through his Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). He spoke loftily about the resurgence of Leftism, even while the Berlin Wall was being brought down. A private citizen now, Mr Ortega converted after his defeat by a rightwing grouping to a new cause: capitalism. His new mantra: growth, growth, and growth. In politics, as in fashion, you've got to go with the times.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist


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