In the crowds at the Ramlila Maidan, at the height of the Anna fever, there was anger against corruption, but there was also anger against the rich. An ‘elite class’ milking the system, sending their children abroad and ‘looting’ benefits was the particular target of rage.
A troubled New India is screaming for respect and equality. Income disparities are becoming sharper than ever before. Even the age-old feudal relationship between the wealthy and their domestic staff is teetering on the edge of breakdown.
In these conditions, an institutionalised elitism is taking hold of the powerful. It’s an elitism that still doesn’t speak the language of equality. The UPA particularly seems to scorn New India. ‘Real’ people are out there in rural areas to be ministered to by the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) and loan waivers. Cities, where the middle class is in angry ferment, are considered politically irrelevant.
Liberalisation and 8% growth are creating social turbulence. Class stereotypes are rapidly vanishing. But our rulers practise a snobby old-fashioned elitism which approves only of the passive poor as the suitable recipients of noblesse oblige and disdains the entire swathe of liberalisation’s children as the ‘mall-going. TV-watching middle class’. A former Union minister’s dismissal of a party colleague as a ‘BA Pass from Hans Raj College’ is cruelly out of sync with the cut-throat competition that today’s young have to endure to secure a seat in a university.
The Anna Hazare movement was not just a cry against corruption. It was also India’s first protest at the inevitable injustices of liberalisation. Those unable to find jobs, youth with uncertain futures and artisans made redundant — all flocked to the rallies. With little useful education and skills, little access to basic services, ‘corruption’ became a catch-all word for the failures of development. But at a time when the government needed to provide an imaginative salve to those suffering the onslaughts of a competitive economy and the failures of service delivery, the UPA retreated into cold elitism.
This old-fashioned elitism is the leitmotif of UPA 2. Rahul Gandhi appears most comfortable striding through the UP countryside to meet ‘village people’, surrounded with the acceptable faces of the poor or the acceptable face of ‘the people’ who are ready to hail him as the leader. Today, Hindu nationalist rage and massive Sangh parivar mobilisation are taking place at all levels of society. Large sections of youth are becoming radicalised along right-wing religious lines. The only way to win hearts and minds is to urgently start speaking the language of equality, without doublespeak or condescension.
Already, millionaire ministers and babalog MPs appear far removed from daily struggles. Birth-based privilege, so much in evidence in UPA 2, is an anathema to the millions who have to compete to survive.
Rahul’s wannabe ‘I have a dream’ speech — read out unexpectedly in Zero Hour even as the Anna crisis boiled over — showed a lack of understanding of the New India. The new ‘revolutionary bourgeoise’ — empowered by the media, organised by the social media, borrowing idioms of protest from Bollywood and pop culture (even advertisements for potato chips are now set amid the backdrop of candle-lit ‘protest marches’) — is seeking a direct outreach from netas. It wants a no-holds-barred communication. A speech attempting a clever bypass from the real issues by positing the lokpal as a constitutional body will not be seen as a game changer. Instead, it appears only as a smart piece of play-acting.
Cleverness, sleight-of-hand, diversionary tactics are now seen as supremely condescending. The 24x7 media and social media are stripping away the layers of masquerade, leaving space only for direct dealing. Leaders must feel the pain of the people, whether the people are singing Vande Mataram or chanting Inquilab Zindabad. ‘The people’ are no longer custom-made.
UPA 2’s loathing of the electronic media is another mark of its elitism. Television may be noisy and in-your-face, but it’s now inescapable. The camera never blinks and is often the only recourse to those wanting to make their voices heard. To scorn the TV media is to scorn the millions who watch it. To refuse to use TV for a political outreach is a failure to recognise how fast the electorate is changing.
The 40s generation was highly educated and many came from the elite strata. The British-educated barrister who wore a loincloth and travelled third-class set the tone for an elite defined by public service. Gandhi lived among the poor in the same way as he lived among the rich. The Cambridge-educated Nehru spoke to rural crowds about foreign policy and non-alignment. Can we imagine any high grandee of the UPA respecting an audience enough to take them through the Indo-US nuclear deal clause by clause? Has any UPA minister gone before a public rally in a town and rationally explained his objections to the Jan Lokpal Bill?
Today, elitism is threatening to gnaw away at the painfully forged bridge-building culture that we inherited from the 40s generation. The entitled sons and daughters of the rich and powerful — whether in politics, the film industry or business — have forgotten the essential ingredient that built modern India: treating every Indian as an equal. Domination by star children has robbed Bollywood of its precious common touch. In the media, there is the danger of a disconnect between readers and the imitative Sex and the City-type columns that pour out of glossy outlets. Academics, closeted in their ivory towers, are failing to engage with new realities and generate new ideas.
An entitled and elitist political and cultural leadership is on a collision course with the average citizen. If the powerful don’t immediately plunge into the crowd and work overtime to repair the bridges, then ‘populist extremism’ is in danger of exploding.
Sagarika Ghose is deputy editor, CNN-IBN The views expressed by the author are persona.