In one heady moment, when he was being given a joyous welcome in Bhopal by the BJP, Jyotiraditya Scindia made an important assertion. In the entire state’s politics, he said, he and Shivraj Singh Chouhan were the only two who did not turn on the air conditioner in their cars.
Now there were some unkind taunts about a maharaja driving a Range Rover but not using air conditioning. But that’s unimportant. Politically, he was acknowledging a central reality of Indian politics: That even the most powerful and rich, from the royals to tycoons, had to appear frugal even if they couldn’t quite claim to come from a humble background, like a tea-seller’s.
Let’s talk about the most illustrious ‘chai-wala’ we know in our politics. Underlining the same reality was adman-lyricist Prasoon Joshi’s famous compliment to him in that televised conversation from London in 2018. “Itni faqiri aap mein kahan se aayi?” Or, from where did you acquire this faqir-like humility/frugality? The simple — and factual — answer would have been, because I was born in faqiri, so poor I had to distribute chai on a railway platform. But that would have defeated the purpose, which was to highlight how a man with such power and popularity could still choose to be a faqir.
Three relevant facts need to be stated here. First, despite all the elitism we usually associate with our ruling classes, no feudal land-owner or maharaja has risen to the top. At the same time, no faqir has quite made it there either. Modi’s only being complimented now to have acquired that monk-hood after reaching the pinnacle of power. And third, the one time we actually elected a popular raja (if not maharaja), his slogan was, “Raja nahin faqir hai, desh ki taqdeer hai,” (He’s no king but a faqir, he’s the destiny of this nation). We are talking about the late V.P. Singh, the raja of Manda.
Can we then say that Indian politics is not for the rich or any social elites? It is true that over these seven decades, I struggle to count three true feudals who were so popular they could be elected even within one state. The two names I have are Amarinder Singh in Punjab and Vasundhara Raje, Jyotiraditya’s (until this week) estranged aunt in Rajasthan. That’s a poor record, but only for the feudal elites.
For the rest, you see a consistent story of one generation rising from the dust and grime, and its descendants becoming the new ruling elites. The Nehru-Gandhis weren’t exactly from the working classes. But Lal Bahadur Shastri, Jagjivan Ram, Bansi Lal, Sharad Pawar, Mulayam Singh and Lalu Yadav, Karunanidhi and so many others were. Their successors mostly wear the best watches and shades, drive the best wheels, carry the finest pens. As does Modi. But they all must appear self-denyingly humble. And when they can’t be convincing looking like that, they must share with you secrets like they don’t even switch on the AC in their cars.
This hypocrisy is a secular compulsion of our politics. So, Rahul Gandhi must be seen eating in a Dalit home, pillion-riding a motorbike, eating at a dhaba, travelling in a commuter train. Never mind the long and prolific foreign vacations. Kamal Nath must keep his box of Harrods’ cookies hidden between the seats during his campaigns. And most political princelings must maintain two different lifestyles, let’s call these an AM style for politics during the day, and a PM style for socialising late evenings. My first exposure to this dual life was while following the late Madhav Rao Scindia on his 1984 election campaign in Gwalior, where he humbly delivered the Congress’ socialist message, encouraged us to address him merely as ‘bhaiyya’, but as his eyes lit up at a village stop, he proudly said, “this is where I shot my first tigress”. You can read that India Today story here.
Voters know these realities. But they love the pretence. ‘My leader humblest’ is a killer sentiment in Indian politics. Mercifully, there is zero danger here, therefore, of a Donald Trump getting elected. Too rich to be trusted with the nation’s riches, and our collective misery and poverty.
Our politics was always like that. In all our government school textbooks, the chapter on Jawaharlal Nehru, for example, noted that he came from a family so wealthy their clothes were sent to Switzerland for dry-cleaning. But the story wasn’t that. It was, instead, that he gave up such comforts for the British colonial jails instead.
That set the model: Even if you weren’t born a plebeian, and wanted a political career, you could morph into one. That’s the reason even now that those who detest Nehru, especially on the Hindu Right, flog the same old pictures of him partying with European elites, smoking, living the good life.
Of course, Lal Bahadur Shastri then followed as the real rags-to-rags commoner who, famously left behind just one old Indian-made FIAT (later Premier) car and its unpaid government loan for his family.
The subtext of this aggressive anti-elitism was that over the decades, poverty was glamourised as a virtue. This trickled down to toxify our national ideology.
I mocked as povertarianism the UPA era of Sonia Gandhi’s NAC: Poverty is my birthright, and I shall do everything I can to make sure you have it, is how I defined it. I might have had some cheap thrills doing so. But the joke is on me. Whatever ‘ism’ you want to call it, a unique brand of socio-populism is our national ideology. It is the only thing everybody agrees on, from Modi to Rahul, from the Marxists to Mohan Bhagwat, and from Mamata Banerjee to Dilip Ghosh.
Everybody wants as few of the rich visible as possible, in any case, and builds their politics around the fakery of being seen to be hurting them, and thereby giving the poor sadistic joy, and occasional giveaways. The Modi government’s latest ‘super-rich’ income tax, capital gains and dividend tax increases bring very little additional revenue. But when the rich cry and complain, it pleases the poor.
Where does India go when there is such unanimity in its political economy? No wonder, then, the only binaries we are left with are socially divisive (secular-communal-pseudo-secular) or those of personalities. It is six decades since Nehru successfully purged the Congress party’s brilliant classical liberals led by Chakravarti ‘Rajaji’ Rajagopalachari. They believed in economic freedoms and were the first — and only honest — proponents of ‘minimum government/maximum governance’. Thereafter, the economic binary in Indian politics has been who can look more socialist. Today, Narendra Modi tops all competition there, by an innings, in straight sets, or a knockout. You name the game.
That is why India is back to what economist Raj Krishna had mocked as our Hindu Rate of Growth. Because this decade is fake pink, much like the 1970s. It is also India’s default political economy. Whatever we saw under Rao-Manmohan Singh and Vajpayee in short spells was an aberration.
Which brings me to a story from Prague, 1990, when I was reporting on the unravelling of the Eastern Bloc. My young taxi driver had an engineering degree from Czechoslovakia’s finest tech university, but no job. He talked passionately about why he hated Communism. I reminded him that in India, the Communists were doing fine, and a government backed by them (V.P. Singh’s) was in power.
He said, you know what? When you had the Emergency and your political freedoms were denied, you fought back. But you do not fight back for your economic freedoms. Because you’ve never enjoyed any. We Czechs fought for our political as well as economic freedoms, which you won’t.