Sunday, September 09, 2012

The India of today: Griping tiger, brazen swagger

By Swapan Dasgupta

To be a successful politician in India, an individual must be blessed with three attributes: the art of listening patiently, the ability to tolerate fools and the skin of a rhinoceros. Most of the successful practitioners of what has come to be a disreputable profession in India normally manage the first two—witness the career graph of Manmohan Singh. However, when it comes to the third, there are too many that falter.

Last month, Mamata Banerjee became a target of derision because she couldn’t countenance the insolence of a farmer who heckled her at a public meeting. He was dubbed a Maoist and spent a week or so cooling his heels in prison.

The man was lucky. On the evening of November 1, 1975, the Government of the day had organised a reception for delegates to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference in Delhi’s Red Fort. This being at the height of the Emergency, a group of young men suddenly got up from their seats, shouted a few slogans against the murder of democracy and threw leaflets in the air. The police and some Congress activists rushed in and began rounding up the demonstrators.

According to the Interim Report of the Shah Commission of Inquiry into the Emergency’s excesses, a reporter “saw that one of the demonstrators was caught by the wrist by a lady, who—he later came to know—was Mrs Ambika Soni.” The journalist, in a fit of misplaced meddlesomeness, is said to have told the all-powerful right hand woman of Sanjay Gandhi, “to leave the job of arresting the demonstrators to the police”. Upon seeing this exchange with Soni, “the then SP (CID) came running to the spot and after speaking to Mrs Soni briefly ordered the policemen to arrest” the journalist who was then led away to a police van.

It is said that Soni, on learning that the difficult individual was from the media, asked him: “Don’t you think it was your duty to help me arrest the boy instead of preventing me?” Pat came the reply: “…it was none of your business when the police are there in large numbers.”

This was no way to talk to the head of the Youth Congress. Soni’s reply was terse and to the point: “OK then you go in.” And in he indeed went, detained under the draconian Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) for nearly nine months.

It is unlikely that the Minister of Information and Broadcasting in Manmohan Singh’s Government would want to be reminded of this incident today. Much has happened in India in the intervening 37 years for anyone to seriously believe that the whimsical highhandedness of the Emergency can ever be repeated. Media insolence has become a feature of contemporary life, despite the consternation of the Establishment. Yet, at odd times the ingrained imperiousness that comes with a hierarchical society resurfaces.

Last week, incensed by a report in Washington Post detailing the falling stock of the Prime Minister,  Soni flew off the handle again. She called the report—which merely replicates what is being said in the domestic media on a daily basis—“yellow journalism” , demanded an abject apology and, failing that, a formal complaint to the US Government. The Prime Minister’s media minders also plugged into the outrage and, given the outburst of ugliness, there could even be a threat to cancel the reporter’s visa.  

There are two issues involved. First, there is an astonishing show of prickliness over anything critical that appears overseas. This suggests a deeply ingrained inferiority complex that most foreigners find deeply amusing. Whereas Chinese xenophobia stems from the country’s upward climb, India’s gripes are centred on either frustration or plain pig-headedness. Somehow we seem to believe that the rest of the world lives to undermine India, its beloved leaders and subvert our pre-destined journey to greatness.

Secondly, despite all claims of treasuring democracy and pluralism, the culture of public discourse remains grounded in assertions, conspiracy theories and sloganeering. The phrase “argumentative Indian” doesn’t imply Indians appreciate arguments. It merely suggests that the country is dotted with rival, unflinching beliefs. Democracy implies irreverence but India dotes on deference. Our politicians mirror society.

Sunday Times of India, September 9, 2012 

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