July 26, 2020
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The Feudal Republic Of India

This is the age of the Ugly Indian—scrambling for power, breathing its privilege and haemorrhaging with rage when it’s thwarted. Between our colonial past and its inner logic imported into the modern state, have we invented a new feudalism?

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The  Feudal Republic Of India
The Feudal Republic Of India

It was in a different context that the German poet Schiller wrote, “Freedom alone is the ground of the beautiful.” But its resonances in the present context, even if applied in a literal sense, leave a troubling trace. Between Nehru’s soaring rhetoric and Ambedkar’s grammar of equality, the idea of India once seemed a beautiful one. Like a delicate watercolour, or an artist’s first sketch, awaiting the colours. Seven decades later, the canvas is smeared with the ugly pugmarks of a politician’s footwear. Ravindra Gaikwad is of course more than one man. He is a metaphor for a whole lot of things that have gone horribly wrong with India.

Freedom from colonialism was meant to be a harbinger of a real freedom at all levels, an abolition of the old order built around entitlements and privilege. And yet, all around us is a scenario brimming with those signs and elements of power. A new feudal order is upon us, in a variety of forms. The political class may exemplify it, but its grandees are no sole copyright holders. Everyone wants a piece. All institutions, all spaces, all realms of life are marked by an unholy scrimmage. And it’s produced a new breed that has swamped the landscape: the Ugly Indian.

The cacophonous reality may make India’s fou­nding fathers cringe. Ugliness seems to pervade the air, like suspended particulate matter. Once, our villages were supposed to be sunk in darkness. But now the cities are fearsome places too—rape, xenophobic lynchings, and a generalised fear and misanthropy are a part of their software. As for the virtual world, it lives on cusswords, imprecations and hate. The “noble mansion” of free India that was foreseen seems like a child’s fancy. India on the move is in a perpetual state of road rage.

It’s not just that our politics is cantankerous and polarised. Power, like spectrum, is a scarce resource—and the scramble for it is like a feeding frenzy. It’s this famine of power, distributed down the line, that has produced the Ugly Indian. The logic of domination, once established, infects the whole polity. Subordinates, coveting the privilege denied to them, engage in a mad rush to climb up the social ladder—once they corner their little fiefdom, they in turn humiliate those below them.

When Indians want anything done, for best results they go to a politician, as a tenant may genuflect before a feudal master.

Take the case of Gaikwad, the Shiv Sena MP from Maharashtra who beat up an airlines manager “25 times” with his chappal for asking him to deplane after the aircraft had reached its destination. Gaikwad was angry with the airlines for its failure to give him a business class seat in a flight in which there was no business section. What makes politicians like Gaikwad feel so entitled? Was this an aberration, the worst possible example from which one may not generalise? Or was this part of a chorus of “ugly Indians”, rising all over the realm?

The political class is an easy figure of hate, because its display of power is most pronounced and visible. But look at the other institutions. The bureaucracy has invented its own caste hierarchy, with the IAS on top of the pecking order. The armed forces, their roots firmly in colonialism, have imported wholesale those categories of medieval feudal nobility—both in outer accoutrements and organisational behaviour. The recent row over the humiliating sahayak system only reinforces this (see box ). As for the judiciary, a lot of its imputed majesty has to be acted out in literally feudal ways (see Colon­ial Coattails in Feudal Fabric). The red-beaconed car of the VIP is only a norm to be imitated in all corners of the “feudal republic” we have built—its essential logic of power over the surrounding human landscape is repeated by khaps and anti-Romeo squads, its air of privilege simulated in corporate boardrooms, its anger by chest-thumping cricket captains.

But how did we manage to build this new feudal order? One line of critique traces this right back to the origin. Despite his progressive, broad worldview, Nehru was part of the English-speaking elite, as were many of his political colleagues. Many others of that era were drawn from local elites. Did they, consciously or unconsciously, reproduce the old metaphors, the old elitist ways, even while ostensibly seeking to build an egalitarian society?

Symbolism can be as impactful as the real workings of power. Soon after independence, the Governor-General took up residence at the Viceroy’s palace on Raisina Hill, one of the grandest monuments to imperial power any­where in the world. After the Republic was born, the President of India was accorded the same space. It was a role meant to be defined by its ceremonial trappings, and colonial grandeur was borrowed to invest the First Citizen with much of it. A foundational error perhaps, committed when they could choose more egalitarian symbolism. The Prime Minister too moved into the Flagstaff House—and the sense of continuity with colonial rule was writ large.

“Indian independence did involve a ‘transfer of power’ in which the Congress-led national unity government took over the state apparatus wholesale and retained most parts of it,” says historian and Nehru’s biographer Srinath Raghavan. Nehru and other Congress leaders were aware of the symbolism involved in occupying the colonial residences, according to Raghavan, and sought to moderate the impact by encouraging a new political culture. “None of this, however, takes away from the fact that the machinery of government remained intact.”

Others look at a different point at which the sense of privilege was inserted into the new frame. In a feudal structure, birth is the biggest certificate of capability. Therefore, they say, the new dispensation also celebrated the privilege of birth by inviting princelings and pretenders to be members of the new government. The new ruling class that emerged was a mixture of the old feudal class and a new elite that retained, copied and also strengthened all trappings of the pre-modern social structure. The expectations from a new entrant, thus, were to behave in the same manner as that of his or her predecessors.

Raghavan does not entirely concur with that view. He cites the way the princely states were integrated rapidly and how the prince’s power was effectively stripped down. Although some were given a token presence in politics, their political standing was very different now. “This was a major transformation and, therefore, ideas like persistence of ‘pre-modern social structures’ can be misleading in this context,” he adds. Yet, the ubiquity of old royal houses in politics indicates they no longer need a sectoral party like Swarajya—many have managed the transition without so much as a crease on their fineries.

Either way, the effect is an uneven graph of power. “We are living in a graded system of rights that allows the new Indian elite to rule alongside a few surviving traditional feudal lords,” says Saby­a­s­a­chi Basu Ray Chaudhury, politi­cal scientist and V-C, Rabindra Bha­r­ati Uni­­versity. “After 70 years of ind­ependence, differential ent­itle­ments have been reinforced in the name of ‘special status’ of the ‘chosen few’, either for their political or administrative positions in the post-colonial system of India.”

Most observers admit that, irrespective of political systems, almost all societies are hierarchical in their own way. Even Communist China has its own category of “pri­ncelings”—like President Xi Jinping, whose father was a founding father of the republic along with Mao Zedong. But irrespective of clout, in the public domain, especially in democracies, most leaders are conscious of their conduct.

In Situ

Top left, Mayawati gets her shoe cleaned by an assistant, while Mulayam and Jayalalitha are generous with their benediction

Photograph by Nirala Tripathi and PTI

Why do Indian public figures behave so differently? Sociologist Dipankar Gupta offers a paradoxical reading, locating the cause at the other end. “It is a byproduct of administrative inef­ficiencies and failure to provide what is due to citizens,” he says. According to him, in a country so vastly stratified in terms of wealth and status, people tend to be more dependent than in a middle-class society. “It is this that strengthens old practices, norms of a feudal past, where patron-client behaviour predominates. This is activated, strangely enough, when in a democracy institutional delivery is weak,” says Gupta.

In public life, a farcical theatre is enacted, as if an Indian with authority turns into a ‘gora sahib’ lording over the rest.

He points out that when citizens want anything done, even though they may be entitled to it, they approach a politician as a tenant may genuflect before a feudal master. This goes against the ethos of democracy, but as a tried-and-tested way of accessing facilities of health, education or civic amenities, people tend towards what ensures they get what they want instead of fighting over principles.

Successful politicians, Gupta argues, grow into powerful patrons and they demand more power so as to be more effective patrons, always delivering outside the institutional system. “As a result, politicians begin to look at people around them not as citizens but as real or potential clients. Consequently, they expect others to act subserviently. When this is denied to them, they get hurt and upset,” he adds.

It’s a form of insecurity, the anger of those who are not yet firmly footed in authority, the anxiety of the pretender. Most Indians today have not seen the ‘gora sahibs’, or even interacted with the intervening layer of homegrown ‘brown sahibs’, the first imitators. But in public life, that farcical theatre is re-enacted at every level—almost as if someone with a seat at the high table overnight turns into a ‘gora sahib’ and the rest into their menial Indian servants.

“There is a hierarchy of misbehaviour,” says Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd, rights activist and professor of political science. “The Ugly Indian in power shows his/her ugliness in several ways,” and there is a capacity and potential among various classes of Indians for “manhandling, humiliating, and even beating in public spaces”, but the graph of its distribution shows the country’s unequal power indices, says Ilaiah.

Some, paraphrasing Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, might say, “the fault...is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings”. But who are the underlings in today’s India? That role keeps changing with a perpetual movement up and down the social ladder where every Indian with a stab at authority reproduces the systematic humiliation of the powerless. No one in power thinks of abolishing or attenuating power. What obtains is a snakes-and-ladders board filled with resentment and revenge, the classic traits of the ugly Indian.

“Those who behave like tail-wagging dogs before their political bosses would behave like that with their own subordinates,” says Ilaiah. Shiv Sena MPs, MLAs and other members, he points out, would behave like “shivering rats” in front of their “snake leaders”. Bal Thackeray was known for that kind of a domineering air with his generals—and in turn “the rat becomes a snake” when it comes to their subordinates.

Of course, this is not restricted to any one party. Many other politicians behave the same—including Dalit leader Mayawati, who is said to make all other BSP leaders sit on the floor while she sits in her chair. Former Tamil Nadu CM Jayalalitha also made all her partymen prostrate before her when in her presence. “That culture has destroyed self-respect in India,” says Ilaiah. Depending on the situation, “the ugly Indian turns either into a lion or a fox”. The new Indian politics may have thus reneged on the old pledge as a whole.

There may be some levelling factors that help retain a semblance of balance. Gupta feels urbanisation and the wide playfield of national parties put pressure on the old-fashioned patron-client relationship. National parties know purely local obsessions do not go well with a sense of the nationally acceptable or viable. In addition, bad behaviour by politicians of parties like Congress, BJP or the Communists can embarrass colleagues elsewhere. “This does not make them models of virtue, but perhaps a little less egregious in their behaviour,” he adds.

Ilaiah points out that older figures like MGR and NTR—besides the Jayalalitha or Mayawati people are recently acquainted with—intimidated their subordinates so much that they would be treated like divinities, especially those with fully weaponised bodies. The sense of surreal theatre here takes it even beyond the normal bounds of feudal power as mythical images get reincarnated in a political leader.

“The devotion to leaders is out of fear,” Ilaiah says, pointing out that MPs, MLAs and ministers who crawl before “casteist and supremacist leaders in turn intimidate their subordinates”. The culture of ugliness “operates in as many layers as caste in India”. Mayawati’s case is more complicated because the idea of a Dalit woman exuding wealth, mobility and power—as exemplified in her controversial statues—were as much a source of symbolic empowerment for her followers as it was a source of revilement for her savarna critics. But, at the individual level, power was wielded the same way.

Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee presents another complicated case—invested with all signs of personal austerity, and yet the same imperiousness up close. She reportedly prescribed medicines to one of her MPs, who happens to be a reputed doctor. Her penchant for breaking into Rabindrasangeet when in the mood often forces all those present to join in, irrespective of whether they can hold a tune or not.

Even some Communist leaders, members of a breed that at one time exemplified the ideal of an honest, simple life, have got so used to enjoying power and privilege that they no longer hide their wealthy lifestyles.

“It’s the product of small men and women acquiring power in a state that is the repository of concentrated power,” says Peter De Souza, professor, CSDS. “They feel it’s their personal property. They wield it with arrogance and without the sense of deep responsibility.” He argues that democracy is not just access to power but also its responsible exercise. “Because we have a culture of treating persons as subordinates and seeing ourselves as superior, we have these incidents, the ugly manifestation of power.”

Veteran RSS swayamsevak and BJP national executive member Sheshadri Chari feels the concentration of power in the hands of a few, in fact, allowed its copyright holders to fine-tune the old colonial ways to suit their insatiable greed. “The question is whether our ruling elites consider themselves representatives or trustees of people’s power and faith,” says Chari. “Often, these trustees are the ones who build a wall around them to insulate them from these very people.”

Experts like K.S. Jacob, professor of psychiatry at the Christian Medical College, Vellore, who have studied the subject, would say the tendency to misuse power is a global phenomenon—a universal human failing. But Jacob agrees South Asian societies, “feudal societies with a marked inequity, attempting to get prosperous quickly, may be more prone to such behaviour”.

The wonder is the extent to which this spreads to even modern sectors of life. The bureaucracy, the media and the corporate world are no exceptions. A senior official of state-owned GAIL, for instance, describes former CMD Prashanto Banerjee as ‘autocratic’. He “ruled with a firm hand and dispensed with many he did not like”, i.e. shunted to other units, almost like a premptory politician would transfer bureaucrats.

Senior officials say though this may not be the norm, it’s not exactly uncommon in PSUs because of their autonomous status. A senior bureaucrat recalled how even directors could not take a chair when called in by CMDs of at least two PSUs. It was “an appalling sight to see senior officials standing and being chided or even shouted at in the midst of all these people, inc­luding outsiders”.

“The brown sahibs of today’s India are indeed able to coexist with the emerging interests of a democratic and egalitarian society,” says Basu Ray Chaudhury. The IAS cadres are known often to flaunt their power. Even in the more genteel Indian Foreign Service, where you are expected to be restrained and diplomatic while showing displeasure, misbehaving with juniors is not totally alien. In one instance, an ambassador who went on to become the foreign secretary was found chasing his junior officer down the corridor building, threatening to physically assault him for being shoddy in his work. There have also been several complaints of diplomat families mistreating their domestic help while on foreign postings. “This attitude is also very gendered,” says writer and feminist activist Urvashi Butalia. “Men feel they are entitled to tell women anything, expect them to behave in a particular way, and they do.”

Urban architecture reinforces the hierarchies at fairly fundamental levels. There are posh gated communities that keep out “outsiders”—mainly the poor. Journalists and lawyers have been known to take over the roads as their private parking space and deflate tyres of other cars. “In some ways, hierarchies are so deeply ingrained in our minds that those in power exercise it with impunity, knowing full well that they will not be held accountable,” says Butalia. The impunity has by now spread to the level where Indians can freely lynch an Akhlaque or a Nigerian, not even capable of pausing to examine their biases or the meaning of their action.

By Pranay Sharma with inputs from Lola Nayar

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