Why do you want to become an ‘insider’?

I had long wanted to write a detailed review of Yanis Varoufakis’ book, ‘Adults in the Room’ which I finished reading some six months ago. But, never got around to doing it. I shall post separately a long review of ‘Adults in the Room’ – a simplified and shorter version of which appeared as a MINT column. It appeared in MINT in April 2018.

As my good friend Gulzar Natarajan remarked recently, the drawback of YV seems to be that he does not seem to admit to any mistakes or frailties or failures on his part.  In fact, some in Europe have claimed that he failed not so much because the ‘Troika’ (European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund) did not agree with him but that his personality was abrasive and somewhat insufferable. We will not know which version is true.

But, one of the first things that strikes you from the book is the question that Larry Summers poses to YV:

There are two kinds of politicians: insiders and outsiders. The outsiders prioritise their freedom to speak their version of the truth. The price of their freedom is that they are ignored by the insiders, who make the important decisions. The insiders, for their part, follow a sacrosanct rule: never turn against other insiders and never talk to outsiders about what insiders say or do. Their reward? Access to inside information and a chance, though no guarantee, of influencing powerful people and outcomes. So Yanis, which of the two are you?

This is a very profound statement. In the context of Greece, both Alex Tsipras and Varoufakis were outsiders who became insiders. But, Alex internalised his ‘insider’ role too much while YV retained his ‘outsider’ spirit and could not continue and came out to become an outsider, again. That Alex Tsipras chose to agree to the demands of the Troika after the referendum he called gave him the mandate to reject the EU conditions was a dramatic about-face. Notwithstanding everything that must have gone on before, including possibly YV’s personality playing a role in the debacle of negotiations with Europe,  this must be a sad moment for all those who harbour romantic notions of challenging power and coming out the better for it.

Actually, Larry Summers’ quote above might sound utterly cynical but is very close to the truth. All change agents succeed only when insiders permit them to. Otherwise, most end up as rebellions without success. Even if they succeed in overthrowing a particular regime and come to office and then turn into ‘insiders’ themselves, did their cause or the ordinary citizens who trusted them succeed?

‘Insiders’ are those who control the discourse, the narrative, wield power, influence and usually benefit smaller power centres and narrow interests than serve large interests. ‘Outsiders’ are like Don Quixote tilting at the windmills.

If you become an ‘insider’ by accident as YV did and if the ‘insiders’ already inside permit you – assuming that you retain the spirit of the ‘outsider’ in you, you may be able to achieve a few things that are consistent with your ideals. That is the bitter reality of the balance of power. All democracy in that sense is a fig leaf for the balance of power that rests firmly with the powerful. The power of power is powerful!

A rising tide might turn some boats into giant steamers andin the process may lift some boats. But, we mistake it for the power of our ideas, power of our persuasion and the triumph of the underdog, etc. It might simply be the case that you were allowed to succeed for various reasons.

The question, at a personal level, is whether one wishes to remain an outsider or an insider. IF one wanted to become an insider for the sake of ‘doing good’, then it is important to remember Summers’ advice. IT is sound, practical and true. The risk is that one might become a quintessential ‘insider’ oneself. The system digests you completely.

Or, one retains the spirit or remains loyal to it, remains untouched by the trappings of becoming an insider and achieves whatever possible. At the margin, he or she would have made the world a better place. It is possible theoretically but happens relatively rarely or to a few. It is possible for policy advisors and some technocrats but less so for politicians and for those who hold political office.

Or, one comes out; becomes an outsider again and remains true and loyal to one’s beliefs and values and sleeps soundly. If one were lucky, a crisis occurs and one’s ideas are sought and one pushes them through in a crisis. Otherwise, insiders would never permit them. One’s ideas see the light of the day and make a positive impact and one remains an outsider. That is the ultimate success story. But, it needs a lot of luck or divine will.

In India, many political parties started out as outsiders. The DMK in the South, the All Assam Students’ Union come to mind. Laloo Prasad Yadav started out as a Lohia-ite socialist. Tamil movie, ‘Achamillai, Achamillai’, is the story of how the insiders turned an outsider into one of them – a school teacher who joined politics to do good; becomes a politician, engineers a caste conflict and killings. His wife does not ‘recognise’ him any more and kills him in the end.

Tamil Novel, ‘Mayaman Vettai’ by Indira Parthasarathy is another tragic tale of a returning non-resident Indian becoming an insider – part of the system that he sets out to change.

Just right now, notice how in the tragic turn of events in Sri Lanka, Arjuna Ranatunga, the hero of their World Cup victory in 1996, has been arrested as his bodyguards fired at demonstrators or opposition supporters. He was the leader of the underdog team – an outsider – that challenged  ‘status quo’ powers.

One of the most brilliant articles I had read this year was about the current Pakistan Prime Minister and the brilliant cricketer cum captain, Imran Khan, who led his team to victory in 1992 World Cup. The story is that of an outsider for whom becoming the insider became an end in itself.

Very few remember why they became insiders in the first place. IF they do not truly become insiders – at least, they forget their original ideals and settle for their personal career advancement. That is, becoming part of the system becomes an end in itself. They may not be as harmful as true insiders usually are but they drift far away from their ‘outsider’ spirit. Very little of it stays with them. There is little public welfare gain from them becoming insiders. There are many in this category.

Personally, I feel very comfortable imagining myself as an outsider. I must consider myself lucky that, in my corporate career, I was allowed free reign of my ‘outsider’ spirit. That was partly a matter of luck for my role never really threatened the insiders and my research calls, predictions and views – out of consensu as they were – did not turn out to be systematically and persistently wrong. In fact, they were right, for the most part. It was a lucky confluence of many things that helped me remain an ‘outsider’ for most of my corporate innings.

Things became difficult in more ways than one, after 2009, with the engineered economic recovery. I never could come to terms with it, until today. No wonder I quit in 2011, feeling confused about many things! I still am.

[Cross-posted in http://www.jeevatma.wordpress.com]

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