There is so much instinctive, and legitimate, contempt for politicians that it is forgotten just how difficult the profession is. For someone without a family connection, it takes decades to rise up the ranks before a political worker is considered for a ticket even for a municipal election. That period of wilderness is when he makes peace with his morals and develops a hide that can take any humiliation. The true politician’s actions and ideals have an objective: the acquiring and retention of power. This is also their main difference with activists for whom the action is an end in itself. Few remember this now, but Bal Thackeray and the Shiv Sena started off in activism and he would sarcastically remark later the reason he got into politics was that he had had enough of submitting petitions. Someone like the activist Medha Patkar, on the other hand, would never think of a dharna as a fruitless endeavour.
A politician has to give up much of his decency and relentlessly develop the faculty of cunning. He can still say it is a fair trade because in the end, depending on his disposition, he can wield power for the greater good. However, those who don’t adapt to the rules of the game end up with 90 votes, like Irom Sharmila. Why did she lose as badly as she did? Because of one fundamental mistake. A genuine open-ended political fast leads to great moral authority, but only while it is being undertaken. The minute it is called off, the deity is hurled back to earth. Recollect the admiration that Anna Hazare commanded while starving and how suddenly he was ignored after he called off his fast for the most unpardonable of all reasons—that it was affecting his health. The veneration came precisely because he was gambling his health. If Irom Sharmila wanted to make an immediate impact in mainstream politics, then all she had to do was contest elections while she was fasting. Then, having won and built an organisation, she could have called it off. That was the clever path and any politician could have told her this.
Instead, what she offered was her past record, a glorious resistance but one that ended in defeat for the mundane need of a normal life. This is also a noble aspiration, even if it has no worshippers. Crowds demand the invincibility that they don’t possess. If their god were just like them, then they would turn to the person who is likely to bribe them best—the traditional politician. Without strategy and cunning, idealism is wasted in electoral politics. Arvind Kejriwal might no longer have the respect he once had among activists, but he gets 20 per cent of Punjab to vote for him. This is a trade-off that he has consciously made. It is one that Irom Sharmila would also have to, but she has probably lost her best opportunity.