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  1. #1
    Join Date
    Sep 2010

    Their self-image Issues:

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    During the recently concluded Gujarat election campaign, one of the strange side-effects of the Bharatiya Janata Partyís 2014 victory in national elections was on full display: Indiaís transformation into a nation run by underdogs.

    Letís start with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. You might expect someone in his position to shun self-pity and wield his enormous megaphone with care. After all, Modi is Indiaís most powerful prime minister in a generation. According to a survey released last month by the Pew Research Center, the PM remains popular with nearly nine in ten of his compatriots. No other BJP leader, not even LK Advani at his peak, has enjoyed such overwhelming command over the party.

    But the Modi we saw during the Gujarat election campaign did not seem to recognise that great power comes with great responsibility. We watched the prime minister dredge up a long list of insults he had borne over the years. Never mind that some of these were barbs by obscure politicians one would not normally expect a prime minister to notice, let alone dignify with a response. (I had to Google Congress politician Pramod Tiwari, and Iím sure I wasnít the only one.)

    Or take Modiís surreal claim that Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar was plotting with Pakistan to have him deposed. You donít have to be an Aiyar fan to see the absurdity of the proposition. And itís possible to take a dim view of Manmohan Singhís ten-year stint as prime minister without for a moment doubting his patriotism.

    For some people, Modiís comments suggest tastelessness. Itís hard to disagree with this, but thereís also something else going on. Simply put, India now has a ruling class hardwired to act as an underclass. This may be partially understandable, but itís also potentially dangerous. In a well-functioning democracy, ruling elites display grace, maturity and large-heartedness. They donít wallow in victimhood.

    At one level, itís easy to fathom why so many BJP leaders and their supporters appear to see themselves as underdogs. Counting its earlier incarnation as the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (1951-77), BJP has existed for nearly 70 years. But it has ruled India for only nine of them. In Congress Party leader Jairam Rameshís description of his colleagues, ďthe sultanate has gone, but we behave as if we are sultans still.Ē In BJPís case, many behave as if they canít quite believe that they are in charge.

    Less tangible, but no less real, is the question of social privilege. For a stranger to India, the idea that a powerful prime minister would rail against Aiyar, at the end of the day a minor opposition figure who last won a Lok Sabha election 13 years ago, may be somewhat perplexing. But for the seething hordes of the Hindutva troll army Aiyar is a villain straight out of central casting. His pedigree alone Ė The Doon School, St Stephenís College, Cambridge University Ė makes him suspect. His plain contempt for Hindu nationalism as an ideology only makes things worse.

    If you imagine a fault line running through Hindu society over the past 70 years, Aiyar represents the side that appeared to have won in 1947: English-speaking, Oxbridge-educated, invariably Left-wing, and often irreligious.

    I recall a time in the mid-1980s when Aiyarís sophomoric put-downs Ė accusing someone of wearing ďmochiĒ while Rajiv Gandhi wore shoes by Gucci Ė were held up as examples of dazzling wit and worldliness. It was a different country then, one where English alone could get you pretty far.

    The sense of being double outsiders Ė both political and social Ė may be understandably hard for many in BJP to overcome. But a slowness to outgrow it has potentially dangerous consequences for India.

    Take, for instance, the investigative story on the business dealings of Jay Shah, the son of BJP president Amit Shah. For most impartial observers, the son of arguably the second most powerful man in India slapping a Rs 100 crore lawsuit on a website for a fairly straightforward news story smacks of legal intimidation. But if your movement is steeped in a sense of victimhood, you can sell it to the party rank and file as an example of sticking it to biased media elites.

    If youíre an optimist, you can hope that over time BJP will become less a bristly underdog and more a tolerant big dog. This would require the prime minister to choose his words more carefully, eschewing wild allegations and personalised attacks. It would require senior party leaders to accept that threatening lawsuits against scholars and journalists at the drop of a hat hurts the quality of Indiaís democracy.

    Most of all, it would require an understanding that power ought to be accompanied by a sense of proportion. If you use a bazooka to swat a fly, the odds are that youíll end up hurting innocent bystanders in the process.


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