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This is serious: Indian politics moves to being great equaliser

Any muscle-flexing of power, small or big, is not kosher in a healthy democracy. Politicians still wield inordinate influence; but they no longer enjoy an expiry-free licence for bad behaviour. The shelf life of political entitlements is over, writes Barkha Dutt.

columns Updated: Nov 08, 2014 13:06 IST

During the years the Congress was still in power, it was pretty common for ubiquitous Right-wing twitter trolls to needle and provoke commentators with allegations of political bias.

They served as a noisy, inchoate but forceful pressure group online — amplifying the BJP’s political message while the Congress was still in deep slumber about the potential of social media as an electoral weapon. The last few weeks however have seen the emergence of a wannabe entity on the other side of the trenches.

It is not unusual these days for the charge of prejudice to be reversed by those still sympathetic to the beleaguered party. In a case of copy-cat aggression, it’s the Congress trolls that are now crying foul. That, however, seems to be as far as the strategy (if it can be called that) goes to counter the ascendant star of the BJP.

For all other purposes, even with revolts brewing against what the son of the former Union finance minister described as “the high command culture” of the party, the Congress seems to be still steeped in denial. It is certainly unmindful of the ways in which India is changing and how blind it remains to the writing on the wall.

It was Congress veteran Kamal Nath who first ventured into an honest exploration of why the party had performed so poorly in the 2014 elections. Calling it as bluntly as he saw it, he admitted to his party’s “disconnect with aspirational India”.

Not just did young people prefer the equality of opportunity to the politics of patronage; aspiring to a self-made success necessitated a level playing field. In other words, the Age of Entitlement was over. If anything, the result reflected the sharp backlash to political elitism, which is why Narendra Modi’s humble origins as a tea vendor’s son became almost an advantage in the campaign when contrasted with the privileged inheritance of his main challenger, Rahul Gandhi. ‘Aspirational India’ simply had no patience for the prerogatives that the powerful had assumed up until this point.

But this week as two different political sons-in-law grabbed the headlines for all the wrong reasons, it was clear that many politicians are still playing catch-up with this new reality.

Let’s start with the more high-profile son-in-law who often finds himself at the receiving end of media scrutiny. When Robert Vadra pushed away the microphone of a journalist who asked him (politely and without any abrasiveness) about his land deals in Haryana, what was especially galling was the imperiousness of his behaviour.

It reeked of Entitlement; it had “Don’t-you-know-how-Important-I-am” written all over it. Much more incriminating than his rather satire- providing “Are you Serious” retort to the reporter who was quizzing him was the order to his security men to delete the footage of the on-camera interaction.

The entitlements that come with his Special Protection Group (SPG) cover have already provoked public contempt, in particular his being listed as the 31st entity on the scroll of VIPs exempted from airport frisking; the only individual to be mentioned by name apart from the Dalai Lama. That Vadra was ‘entitled’ to privileges even military generals don’t enjoy had already reinforced his image as that of a person enjoying the spoils of the system.

Security requirements in this case only came across as an excuse for VIP culture. To now see him using the men who protect him as if they were his personal bouncers was even more unacceptable. Both the Delhi Police and the SPG have steadfastly refused to comment on how their job descriptions extended to intimidating a media person and whether it was appropriate for them to get involved in deleting video footage.

But the damage was done. In an India that no longer has patience for political arrogance, Vadra’s behaviour only weakened the case further for his family. That the Congress chose to defend his outburst only underlined that the party is still trapped in the anachronistic Right-to-Rule syndrome.

The other son-in-law has never really been in the headlines, except for this week. His father-in-law, the chief minister of Bihar, is the very antithesis of the world of privilege the Gandhi family represents. Born into perhaps the most oppressed and marginalised castes of ‘Musahars’ — rat-catchers who for generations have hunted and even been driven to eat rats because of extreme poverty, the announcement of Jitan Ram Manjhi as chief minister was a historic moment for breaking down age-old caste barriers.

This man was the very opposite of elite. And yet, this week, his son-in-law Devendra Kumar, had to swiftly resign as personal assistant in Manjhi’s office after the Opposition charged that the nepotism inherent in the appointment violated government rules. Given his background, no one could accuse Manjhi’s family of traditional feudalism or class-driven snobbery. Yet, the uproar over his bringing his relatives into his office was another reminder of what increasingly demanding Indian voters want — no special favours to anyone.

For the hierarchy-driven social elite, Robert Vadra and Devendra Kumar have precious little in common. They are unlikely to ever be at the same party, or even share the same photographer’s frame. Yet politics can be a great equaliser. This week the controversy surrounding the two sons-in-law brought home the same message — any muscle-flexing of power, small or big, is not kosher in a healthy democracy. Politicians still wield inordinate influence; but they no longer enjoy an expiry-free licence for bad behaviour. The shelf life of political entitlements is over.

Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, NDTV
The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Nov 07, 2014 23:15 IST