A back­lash to po­lit­i­cal elitism

The con­tro­versy sur­round­ing Robert Vadra and Deven­dra Kumar is proof that the Age of En­ti­tle­ment is over

Hindustan Times (Lucknow) - - COMMENT - BARKHA DUTT Barkha Dutt is Group Ed­i­tor, NDTV The views ex­pressed by the au­thor are per­sonal

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 mus­cle­flex­ing 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.


Pol­i­tics can be a 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

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