The inescapable lifeline of the bluffocrat is the number of Facebook page ‘likes’, Twitter or Instagram followers totted up per millisecond.
Column in Business Standard, August 25, 2018
In Britain, they have just coined a new phrase: Bluffocrats. In a new book Bluffocracy, part of a series titled “Provocations”, James Ball, a journalist, and former civil servant Andrew Greenway, argue that their country is overtaken by chancers — “In a nation run by people whose knowledge extends a mile wide but an inch deep; who know how to grasp the generalities of any topic in minutes, and how never to bother themselves with the specifics. Who place their confidence in their ability to talk themselves out of trouble, rather than learning how to run things carefully.”
So who is a top-of-the-line British bluffocrat, really? Is he — for the category is predominantly male—also a buffoon like the former mayor of London and former foreign secretary, Boris Johnson? Or a perpetual itinerant like current home secretary Sajid Javid, who has held seven jobs in six years? Or George Osborne, a prominent editor with a few weeks’ experience in journalism?
In a forceful, often rollicking ride the authors take you through a broad swathe of the political, bureaucratic and media establishment populated by figures unable to come to grips with governance. Their caustic findings are bolstered by polemical conclusions. A blufflocrat is “someone who knew how to come up with a headline-grabbing idea, and how to make it sound convincing and radical — but didn’t ever have the faintest idea how to implement it.”
By that definition many masters of our universe are in competition for ace slots, from Donald Trump — for his outrageous views on everything from immigration to sexual shenanigans — to Russia’s Vladimir Putin — for his expansionist dreams — to Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif — for running their economies into the ground.
If the school of bluffers includes those who get to the top not from deep knowledge but from delivering “a clever quip or a leftfield surprise argument,” then India’s Narendra Modi is the undisputed Bluffocrat Emeritus. An endless stream of ill-starred or half-digested ideas including demonetisation and GST have been propped up by a series of welfare schemes — public toilets, rural electrification and housing, instant banking and health insurance — couched in catchy slogans and drop-dead deadlines. All were to contribute to the “Achhe Din” utopia promised in 2014. Less than ten months to the next election several are a fading mirage.
To the cast of bluffocrats in public life — described in characteristic British idiom, “as the same sort of chap with the same sort of chat” — India has the added distinction of creating a new class of politician with a novel idea of body language. These are Hug-o-crats.
Through much of his term, the Indian prime minister was subjected to ridicule for clasping world leaders close to his 46-inch chest. Where a polite handshake or a decorous namaskar or salaam customary among his compatriots would have sufficed, Mr Modi took to embarrassingly deep clinches. Then Rahul Gandhi turned the tables with his surprise hug-and-wink in Parliament. The latest member of India’s Hug-o-cracy is Punjab minister Navjot Singh Sidhu whose unexpected free hugs to Pakistan’s leading general invited censure from his chief minister and a jaded public reaction. The 54-year-old party-hopping former cricketer and TV joker is a classic bluffocrat. Well past his sell-by date, his heyday of “Sidhu Sixers” on the pitch or the screen consigned to a hazy past, he depends, like most bluffocrats, on the dubious gratification of social media.
The inescapable lifeline of the bluffocrat is the number of Facebook page “likes”, Twitter or Instagram followers totted up per millisecond. Party spokespersons such as Sambit Patra and Randeep Singh Surjewala are professional bluffmasters, fielded for their acerbic, below-the-belt one-liners as much for their dexterity on smartphones.
Their daily slog at pressers, however, must cede space to the arresting visual image a bluffocrat can speedily disseminate. A misplaced example of bleeding-heart solidarity this week came from bureaucrat-turned-Union minister K J Alphons flashing a picture of himself bedding down in a flood relief camp Kerala. Meanwhile, Shashi Tharoor, MP from the state capital, Thiruvananthapuram, a gilt-edged bluffocrat of high polish and well-honed lines, hopped a ride with party leader Rahul Gandhi on his four-day outing in Germany, leaving endangered lives and life-savers to their own devices. An accomplished bluffocrat always knows which side of his bread is buttered.
Among the assertions that the authors of Bluffocracy make is that there were few women bluffocrats that made the cut, perhaps because men far outnumbered women, in this superior male-entrenched class. In India, there is the honourable exception of Textiles Minister Smriti Irani. She is an itinerant bluffocrat, now into her third ministry in four years. Indeed, it would be difficult to decide where she proved her mettle better in bluffing skilfully, as TV actress or leading light of the ruling party.
In Britain, the finest flower of bluffocrats is acknowledged to be Boris Johnson. Here is his definition of how he achieved that hallowed status. “My friends,” he said, “as I have discovered myself, there are no disasters, only opportunities. And, indeed, opportunities for fresh disasters.”