Saturday, November 30, 2013
An empire that was built on the counterfeit
By Swapan Dasgupta
Maybe there will come a day when the National Capital of India chooses to have its very own coat of arms and a matching motto. The college of heraldry is best suited to design a crest appropriate to a city that a former Viceroy (who opposed the transfer of the Capital in 1911) described as the “graveyard of empires”. However, when it comes to the motto, nothing would please me better than the commonly-understood phrase: Jaante nahin mein kaun hoon?
If there is a single phrase that defines the ethos of a city built to flaunt the grandeur of political power, it is the imperious assertion by the few to the many: “Don’t you know who I am?”
In most cases we don’t and so we have to be educated. How does a harassed parking attendant at one of Delhi’s celebrated hotels on a Saturday evening know that the rude 20-something who has blocked the flow of traffic is the favourite younger son of the minister who controls a formidable caste vote bank? How does Mr Ordinary Middle Class who protests against the queue jumping at airport security know that preferential treatment must be accorded to Mr Self-Important, IAS?
And how is a spirited young women brought up to repudiate patriarchy and the ‘commodification’ of women, believe in feminism, women’s empowerment and so on to know that when the high priest of progressive thought makes a crude sexual advance at her in a hotel lift, the answer has to be yes? After all, Jaante nahin mein kaun hoon?
To view the ongoing saga of an individual who forgot where influence and self-importance ended and where ordinary decencies took over as an unfortunate aberration caused by an excess of drink is to misread the social context of the incident. Goa may well be a place where inhibitions are supposedly abandoned and where it all hangs loose, but this was no ordinary misreading of a situation. What took place was an act of brazenness brought about by the belief that power, influence and grandstanding generate exceptional entitlements.
It may have begun with fighting the good fight against the dark forces that were hell bent of taking India down the slippery slope of bigotry and hate. Even though the means may have been contested, that was a democratic right, guaranteed by the Constitution. However, from battling for so-called liberal values to embracing sharp financial practices and taking full advantage of political cronyism was a leap into another league, into the world of the Jaante nahin. It didn’t matter that this was not accompanied by the seedy and very vernacular social ambience of hard drinking and disreputable assignations in hotels with hourly rates. In essence, the assembly of beautiful people in festivals celebrating the cerebral but underwritten by dodgy liquor barons and victims of extortion also turned out to be a cover for an empire built on the counterfeit. Once values had been mortgaged to self-fulfilment, the descent to moral corruption was near-inevitable.
In a libertine world where anything goes, consent is somehow taken as implicit. But whether groping-gone-wrong was consensual or forced begs a larger and more disturbing question. What is the mentality of an individual who thinks nothing about making a lunge at a junior colleague who also the friend of his daughter? Did it stem from the licentious groupthink of people who flaunted their rejection of conservatism and moral orthodoxies? Or was the process also aided by a belief that in kaliyug the law is an ass, at least for those who, like the character in T.S. Eliot’s Cocktail Party can say: “You know, I have connections—even in California.”
The ‘crime’ was despicable enough; even more sordid was the attempted management of its inevitable fallout. For some, the veneer of religiosity was a cover for preying on female devotees; for others, a damaging charge of rape can be debunked as a political frame-up. Rape, radical feminists used to say is always political. Now we are told it is an anti-secular conspiracy.
The hallucination doesn’t stem from the fogging of individual minds. It happens because some people have internalised Delhi’s overriding philosophy: Jaante nahin main kaun hoon?