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India’s elite Socialism, Scindia’s non-AC Range Rover & the low income country trap

A unique brand of hypocritical, self-destructive socio-populism is our national ideology. It’s a game of who can look more socialist. Today, Modi tops everyone.

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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.

Also read: How Jyotiraditya Scindia’s departure shows Congress is an HR disaster

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.

Also read: One Dynasty Dimming, we said of the Gandhis & Congress

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.

Also read: Inside story of how Rahul Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi forced Jyotiraditya Scindia to dump Congress


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  1. I wish influential media folks like Shekhar Gupta wrote 1 0 times more articles pushing for economic freedoms and campaign for ending the freebie culture followed by Modi in center and most states. If in every issue of The Print (and India Today and Indian Express where your proteges are editor now), you carry a column comparing how China handles these exact same issues, it will be a great service to India. When covering NREGA, JNU tuition, loan waivers, always compare how China does it. Tell Indians how the excessive pay raises in 6th and 7th pay commissions have made govt. drivers and peons salaries much higher than those in private sector. Tell Indians in every issue how ministers and bureaucrats in advanced countries do not have so many peons, drivers and other subordinates and why this has made the cost of governance excessive. Tell Indians why China is still preferred as a manufacturing place compared to India because even though India’s per capita income is 1/5 of China, India’s organized labor is still paid more than that in China.

    • A major part of labor force is employed in unorganized sector in India. About 7% labor force is employed in organized sector and remaining 93% are in unorganized sector. All labor data from the govt. is based on organized sector and is a joke.

  2. Those who seek power need to tell people who give them power in democracy what they will do with power. For this they need an enemy of people who the political party or heroic leader will slay that enemy.

    Modi identified corruption and dynastic politics in 2014 as twin enemies of Indian voters and sold the hope that he would kill these enemies. The narrative was mixed with hope of better days as consequence. However, there was no sincere intention beyond getting into power as past six years have shown.

  3. 1. This is an interesting, thought-provoking view. However, I feel that the author should have probed further to find out how this tribe of socialist elites has been created in our country. (Incidental observation, this tribe of socialist elites, I think, exists in some other democracies too, especially in Great Britain and USA.) 2. As we all know Indian National Congress (INC), or the Congress for short, was in power for a long time. However, many top Congress leaders did not make any sincere efforts to strengthen democracy or to demand implementation of policies which create a welfare State. 3. Is it not true that the Congress party, which was established in 1885, had a special responsibility in this regard? Unfortunately Congressmen did not realize historical responsibility imposed on them. 4. I say that successive Congress governments in the Centre as also in the States miserably failed to curb generation of unaccounted money in the first place, and then, good many Congress leaders also abetted subsequent use of unaccounted money in elections. I believe that this big failure on part of top Congress leaders is one major and important reason why the tribe of socialist elites was created and it flourished and also why it exists today. 5. It is no wonder that this tribe of socialist elites, while enjoying comforts of capitalism has provided ‘ideological support’ to the Congress governments all along, and that is why our democracy is weak today.

  4. “India has a tradition of bureaucracy” said Upamanyu Chatterjee in English, August. Likewise India has a tradition of “Mai-baap sarkar”. Example of Yes Bank will suffice – a private entity rescued with public funds. No wonder everyone wants economic freebies – poor, rich, middle-class. The current dispensation has been able to parry and even counter the opposition’s secularism at the risk of damage to the country’s social fabric but it has co-opted the socialists big brother government and I daresay even expanded it. I wonder why a large majority of readers of this (or any other Indian news site) feel that we are well on our way to becoming an economic super-power. With this kind of economico-political plan, such an outcome appears to be a pipe-dream. Perhaps that is what Mr Gupta wishes to say. And may I add – that if we Indians don’t manage to change such politics in this generation, then the coming one will also be stuck with this “Hindu” rate of economic growth.

  5. Looking at some of the comments here, it seems that Modi supporters have an immediate Pavlovian response when they sniff the slightest criticism of their Great Leader.

  6. The crucial difference between today’s young Turks and the older politicians of the COngress is that the old leaders were prepared to forgo their accustomed comforts and even go to jail for 8 or 10 years . Patel, Nehru , gandhi all belonged to this category. Even Savarkar was willing to risk a terrible time in the Andamans Jail, fighting for freedom. Today’s Priyankas, Adityas and Rahuls have not been tested in this manner at all and are sitting pretty in their farm houses and SUVs. And they dared not come out on the roads to quell any communal riot and nip it in the bud. The same is seen in the current crop of Union and State Ministers .

  7. Put Modi’s name in the headline & grab eyeballs. Shekhar has been reduced to this. How Modi is having double standards he couldn’t explain. Has PM’s family become billionaire like others? Has Pm amassed overseas properties & bank accounts? If he travels in a plane or a vehicle, its the PM of India, not a person named Modi. Any incumbent who comes after him will use the same facilities. I think the liberals have really lost it. They dont know how to tackle this phenomenon named Modi. Yogi will b a similar predicament one day for these people.

    • Men are susceptible to women, money and or power. The Mob in New York would read the weakness of the victim and classify them in such groups each. Just because a chai wala is power hungry is no excuse for his non ending politics..But for many, his weakness is OK because it is not money related!!!

      • In my opinion, it is not Modi’s weakness for accumulating power that is doing harm to the country. It is his cause. Not women, not money, not power – but a very very wrong cause.

        • You are typical Nehru follower, putting cart before horse. It is because of this nonsense of secularism in India that Pakistan was able to get rid of it’s minority population, which ultimately caused unending grief to whole south Asia by allowing fundamentalism to spread. whole south asia would have been prosperous and tolerant if India had Modi- Amit Shah type people in power in1947.

  8. A let down essay that goes nowhere from Shekharji. Let’s face it – India’s media has a tremendous burden of being complicit and pliant in creating and propagating the myths about our humble rajas.

  9. “But when the rich cry and complain, it pleases the poor” – Shekhar Gupta is dead right here. Nowhere was this more evident than in the case of demonetisation. A terribly planned and horribly executed exercise causing severe hardships and unimaginable economic loss for the nation, was hailed as a ,”masterstroke ” by the poor and the middle class. Why? Only because, “The rich were standing in queues as well”. More than what it says about our politics – what is says about us as a people should worry everyone.

  10. This baldy Shekhu ridicules Indians’ sentiments and ethos and thus stands unique and alone in the crowd, which reflects his western/ colonial mindset. He should leave India and settle abroad. In his eyes everything is vice, thuggery and pretension in India whereas these defects he has in ample measure.

  11. Even then democracy is better with warts and all. In dictatorships even the crumbs will not come for the poor.

  12. It is said that the people get the government they deserve. Ours is a country which expects Government to be a maa-baap sarkar. We habitually look up to government to solve all our problems, starting with clearing the blocked drain, cheap breakfast, jobs, free education, reservation etc. Socialism or socialism in its insipid form now adopted by BJP is the best garb. Even the public does not expect the politicians to deliver on their promises. We have seen same defaulters of promise voted back to power again and again.

    • Any civilised society should provide free education and free Health Care to its citizens. In a society where casteism ruled supreme for 3000 years and still going strong providing reservation to the most backwards is only being civilised and democratic. A civilised society is one which looks after it’s disadvantaged section well. If you want to take the society back to 3000 years old bliss, you have to be prepared for the backlash. As swamiji said great things can’t be achieved by cleverness.

  13. Statistics prove that the chances of winning elections is not merely SUBSTANTIALLY MORE if the candidate is a Crorepaties OR a Criminal – BUT – SHOCKINGLY MORE if you are either one of these – AND – AMAZING if you qualify both requirements.
    Add to this the POWER of Dynasty.
    Like Ornwell said “all animals are equal BUT some are more equal than others”

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