That, on occasion, we’re dreadful hypocrites is undeniable. Indeed, there are times when we’re quite shamelessly two-faced and, even, unrepentant when publicly exposed. I guess that’s just the way we are. However, the display of hypocrisy last Saturday at the prime minister’s first town hall was not just astonishing but almost unbelievable. Let’s see if you agree with me.
On the one hand we don’t disguise our contempt for politicians. In fact we’re almost proud of it. We believe it’s a quality that proves how free our speech is and, therefore, underwrites our democracy. Yet last Saturday the young men and women summoned on stage to shake the prime minister’s hand couldn’t resist bowing down to touch his feet. Try hard as he did to stop them, they persisted. Their enthusiasm suggested they were determined to do so.
What greater proof can there be of our inconsistency? That, by the way, is a polite euphemism. For this is not inconsistency, it’s shameless two-facedness. I’m sorry if that’s harsh but it’s the truth.
In our conversations we hold politicians in contempt, censure them on most occasions and doubt them all the time. We disbelieve them and even, metaphorically, spit on them. So one would imagine the act of touching their feet would be not just abhorrent but impossible to conceive of. Yet on Saturday the gesture came so naturally and automatically you might think we are a nation in love with politicians!
I have nothing against touching one’s elders’ feet. I was brought up to touch my grandmother’s twice a day. This is a traditional form of respect for those we love and treat as special. It’s as much reverence as affection.
That’s why it’s out of place with politicians. Not just the prime minister but all of them. In a democracy they are our chosen representatives. We elect them and we have the right to defeat them. Their longevity or their termination is determined by us. We are the “masters”, they are our “servants”.
So to touch their feet is not just to invert the relationship but get it badly wrong. It puts them on a pedestal when, in fact, they should be in the dock. It inflates them when, in fact, they should be questioned. And, therefore, it exaggerates their importance when, in fact, they should be treated like one of us.
How different is the practice in the world’s major democracies — and, yes, I’m deliberately excluding India from that category. In Britain they mock their politicians. They satirise and parody them. In America they expose their private lives to full public scrutiny. Often they humiliate them. In Canada they expect them to sit on the floor in gurudwaras and dance the bhangra! And everywhere they’re heckled on television, often shouted at, but they grin and bear it because they have no option.
Now look at us: Our lot stops the traffic so they can whizz past. They have special electricity and water connections while we’re left in the dark and our taps run dry. They behave like lords and we respond like serfs and servants.
So my advice to young Indians is stick to shaking hands or doing namaste. Whether it’s the PM or an MP, treat them as equals. Not supermen. In fact, treat them with scepticism, not admiration. Don’t make them heroes and certainly not icons. Your own self-respect requires you do this. Otherwise they’ll simply take you for a ride.
The views expressed are personal