I don't quite know why, but for some reason most Indians seem completely unacquainted with the concept of 'dignity of labour'. It could be because we are so used to paying other people a pittance to do our dirty work for us. It could be a hangover of the caste system, in which manual labour was the province of those way down on the sliding caste scale. But whatever the deep, sociological or even anthropological reason, the truth is that most of us have scant respect for those who do menial jobs, and certainly no intention of granting them any dignity as they try to earn a decent wage.
You only have to see how even the most educated Indians behave with their domestic staff to know this to be true. Or just observe how people behave with waiting staff in restaurants or even with flight attendants on an airplane. There is no attempt at even minimum courtesy; instead there is an imperial insistence on being served, and right away if you please (and no, there is no question of appending a 'please' to that demand).
It is hardly surprising then that the same attitude has spilled over into our public discourse where the worst insult you can throw at someone is to accuse them of having performed some sort of menial job in the past.
It started off with Sonia Gandhi, who was dismissed as a 'waitress' and an 'au pair' by right wing trolls. The suggestion was that while she was a young student in Cambridge, studying languages in a college, she had supported herself by working as a waitress or an au pair (depending on which version you believed). And how could such a woman - who had been a waitress for crying out loud! - expect to rule over a billion people? Surely, India could do better? After all, why would we want someone who worked hard for a decent wage to put herself through college as a leader? Right?
That kind of rhetoric was all the rage until a certain Narendra Damodardas Modi came on to the national political scene. He announced proudly that he had grown up selling tea at his father's stall near a railway station, and told us what an enormous tribute it was to Indian democracy that a simple 'chaiwallah' could aspire to become the Prime Minister of the nation. Of course, he was completely right. And from the moment he made this statement, the right-wing attacks on the 'waitress/au pair' avatar of Sonia Gandhi began to die down.
But then, it was the turn of the Congress to get into the act. The charge was led by the redoubtable Mani Shankar Aiyar, who proclaimed grandly at a Congress session that while Modi would never get to be the Prime Minister of India (talk about famous last words!), the party would be glad to set up a tea stall for him so that he could sell chai to all the Congress delegates. Of course, this boomeranged on the Congress when Modi, embracing his chaiwallah past, announced that he would be holding 'Chai pe Charcha' meetings all over the country to get to understand the needs and aspirations of the people.
You would think that by now everyone would get with the programme and understand that there was nothing wrong with working at a menial job if that was what it took to raise yourself out of poverty or to get yourself an education. But clearly, expecting that people would begin to appreciate and value the dignity of labour was asking for far too much.
And so, we had the sorry spectacle of the national media and the Congress party attacking the newly appointed Human Resources Development minister, Smriti Irani, for working in a McDonald's during her early youth. Flipping burgers, they sneered, could not be a qualification for a job that involved overseeing the education system of our country. It is a different matter entirely that Irani never did, in fact, flip burgers. From interviews she gave at the beginning of her television career, I remember her saying that she swept the floors to get a minimum wage that would pay some of her expenses.
If anything, we should be crediting Irani for having the spunk and grit that got her from a job of sweeping floors to becoming the best-known television actress of her generation; for taking a plunge into politics and shining brightly as a star spokesperson in record time; for taking on a no-hope constituency in Amethi and giving the entrenched MP, Rahul Gandhi, a run for his money; and now becoming the youngest-ever Cabinet minister in charge of a high-profile portfolio like HRD.
But no, we can't see beyond the 'flipping burgers at a McDonald's' image. And instead of appreciating it as a measure of Irani's guts and determination to make it on her own, we deride it as a symbol of her inherent mediocrity. In our eyes, only the inferior take on menial jobs. And once they do so, they should just stick with them instead of trying to get above themselves.
Well, that's not how things work now. And the sooner we come to terms with this change, the better.
From HT Brunch, June 8
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