With India gearing up for what will be the biggest elections in human history, the next five weeks will shape the next five years of the country’s trajectory. In this context, the polls and its precursory happenings are being keenly discussed by both voters at home and observers abroad.
Amidst all the media cacophony, it is the usual suspects whose voices are the most prominent, shaping a very specific narrative both within India and overseas of what the “Idea of India” is, or rather should be.
“Intellectuals” of a certain background, whose parents had the right jobs during the Nehruvian era, and who pout the usual Oxbridge rhetoric, are the ones most visible in trying to direct this discourse and in turn the nation’s destiny.
Macaulay’s Children, as some like to call them, have a genteel aura about them, often speak in clipped tones, are the life and soul of Lodhi Road and Khan Market, love reminiscing about their boarding school and Oxbridge days, pride themselves on keeping up-to-date with the latest developments in US politics, and are on the very finest terms with every newly-arrived Western correspondent or researcher finding their feet in a strange new land.
In bookstores and literature fests, as well as embassy receptions is where one is most likely to encounter this species, which is occasionally known to talk about Indian politics, waxing eloquently on Marxist theory, post-modernism, or sometimes even subaltern studies.
And yet, as Sri Thiruvadanthai so eloquently put it on Twitter, earlier this week,
A thought-provoking and, I would even say, accurate statement. I should know, I used to be one of them, having been socialised in exactly this environment in school and university, having studied Marxist theory and historiography myself, and thus having had the chance to observe this substratum of society from within, and even analyse it with the tools I picked up as a result.
And now, with the largest elections in the history of humanity about to begin this week, it is my bounden duty to bring to light the blatant hypocrisy, intellectual vapidity, and moral bankruptcy that I have been so surrounded by in these circles.
So, why is it that our Macaulayan Marxists, instead of focusing on empowering India’s poor for the challenges of the twenty-first century, prefer to hark back nostalgically to a “simpler time”? They fill our bookstores, airwaves and social media feeds with a sepia-tinted view of Nehruvian socialism.
If one truly cared about the communist cause or the working classes or even liberal values, why of all periods would you have warm, fuzzy feelings for an era when democratically-elected communist state governments were dismissed by the centre, the Communist Party of India’s armed insurgency in Telangana was crushed by the Indian Army (whom you never miss an opportunity to criticise today), and freedom of speech was restricted through a constitutional amendment because a paternalistic leader saw our masses as infantile?
Why on earth would you look back on that period, and proclaim it to be one wherein politics in India was supposedly about “kindness, civility and pluralism” – a fabric which they claim is under threat today, and must be protected at all costs?
The rest of the country is well aware that this India of the elite’s memories has only ever existed in their minds. This is typified whenever one of them says, “I miss the pluralist India that gave us pluralistic films like ‘Amar, Akbar, Anthony’. That was the real India. What has happened to our liberal, secular values since then?”
So, in addition to Nehruvian times, they miss the “liberal”, “pluralistic”, “secular” India of January 1977, when Indira Gandhi’s Emergency was at its peak; when Opposition leaders were placed behind bars for sedition, without trial, be it socialist trade unionist George Fernandes, future Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, or even the Marxist firebrands from the CPM like Sitaram Yechury and Prakash Karat. Or, when the Muslim community of Delhi’s Turkman Gate were shot and run over by bulldozers for protesting the demolition of their homes under the euphemism of a “beautification drive”, and when of the 140,000 political prisoners arrested without trial, 40,000 were from our Sikh community.
When looking back at 1977, is this what these people remember? Of course not. They do not remember any of this, either because it did not affect them, or because they were actually complicit in the crimes. It must be a shock to our fine “intellectuals” to find that their beloved left-liberal values only ever existed in the living rooms in Delhi’s Inner Ring Road and along the western line of the Bombay Suburban Railway. Or, that even where they existed in the living room, they were carefully left exactly there, like one’s spare reading glasses, when it was time to be chauffeured in a Hindustan Ambassador Mark II to one’s office in North Block, South Block, and Shastri Bhavan and plan population control measures, urban beautification, and the maintenance of internal security.
So instead, they choose for their enduring memory of 1977 a feel-good movie about how Hindus, Muslims, and Christians are all “brothers”. After all, isn’t this superficial, patronising tokenism, which papers over a heinous, illegal, and unjust state of Emergency, their true “Idea of India”?
With rising socio-economic mobility and democratisation of the marketplace of ideas through social media, ordinary Indians no longer need nor desire the well-off and well-educated to speak on their behalf. And when it was clear to the elite that these new, aspirational classes have their own minds, their own values, and their own opinions, developed through their unique socialisation in the India of the non-elites, it was a shock to their entire conception of India, and their perception of their place in Indian society, at the very top.
It is an unfortunate truth that the vast majority of this Indian Anglophone elite is so deracinated and disconnected from Indians outside their South Delhi, South Bombay, and Civil Lines gated communities, that their only response to such alienation was to “Orientalise” and “Other” the ordinary Indian, the way they saw the “other” only as outsiders in their circles – the method adopted by expatriate western scholars and journalists, with aplomb.
Most of these “intellectuals”, despite their token Marxism or leftism at literature festivals or bookstores, have abandoned any form of resistance to neo-colonialism or neo-imperialism, to act as a new “comprador bourgeoisie”, repeating and amplifying occidental and eurocentric biases and agendas with their views and writings.
They don’t find the heinous poverty, inequality or injustice around them offensive. Instead, they tried to maintain their monopoly during the Licence Raj, over cars, bungalows, private English boarding schools, foreign education, and political proximity, which are now being challenged by vernacular-speaking, ordinary Indians from far-flung suburbs like Kandivali or Ghaziabad, or heaven forbid, mofussil towns like Bareilly or Coimbatore.
Being forced to share their material and social privileges for the first time in three generations, these well-educated “intellectuals” act like petulant children, unwilling to share their toys. For all their public rhetoric of liberal values and uplifting the poor, simply scratch the surface, and one finds reactionary conservatives looking to preserve the Nehruvian ecosystem that rewarded them for going to the right schools, speaking with the right accents, and holding the right views.
The fact that these new, aspirational Indian middle classes (and for that matter, working classes as well) have Asian values rather than the western bourgeois, liberal values that mark one’s acceptance into polite Anglophone society, means that these “upstarts” are automatically seen as lacking the “social capital” our elites monopolised for decades during Nehruvian socialism.
And yet, these provincial nouveaux riches and suburban hoi polloi not only wish to sit at the same table as the postcolonial aristocracy, but have even succeeded in crowding the latter out.
So, now that their social capital no longer buys them entrance to the corridors of power in their homeland, they either thrash about like fish out of water, on TV panels, news portals, Twitter communities, and other echo chambers, or slavishly prostrate themselves to the gatekeepers of the one community where they still feel like they can belong - the western-centrist establishment. They abandon class struggle and people’s revolution in order to say what western liberals like to hear, and humiliate themselves in the process of demonstrating that they are “worthy” of joining this club, their one last chance to capitalise on having the “right accents” and holding the “right views”.
Which means that, instead of working to dismantle the structures designed to maintain the status quo, where post-colonial countries are poor, unequal, and chaotic, they betray both their claimed Marxism as well as those naïve ordinary Indians who looked up to them like feudal “mai-baap” lords to lift them out of poverty, in order to ally with those who designed and benefited from these structures.
Steinbeck said that the American poor “see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” Having observed them from within, I must say that the Indian rich see themselves not as a comprador bourgeoisie, but as future US/UK citizens, temporarily inconvenienced by Indian passports.
Those who rant in the media about “lynchings” and “cow vigilantism” are the same ones who, when one night in my suburban Delhi gated colony, the chowkidar caught a thief stealing a stereo from a Hyundai Verna on our street, gathered hockey sticks to beat him up until the police came. I still remember his screams as the blows fell upon him that winter night - he begged for mercy, saying that his mother was dying of cancer and he needed money. To which the gentleman from the villa down the street stopped hitting him, and said, “Which hospital is she in? When we’re done with you, we’ll make sure you end up dying there too,” and then resumed their attacks with renewed vigour.
Now, even if one is to condemn all forms of mob violence, one can at least understand the motivation behind those villagers in the Indian heartlands who have created patrols to save their cattle from theft.
Despite the dominant narrative, rural “cow vigilantes” are not state-sponsored or sanctioned, and have even been condemned by the BJP government and Prime Minister Modi himself, but are often village-level, neighbourhood watch groups, set up by those among the poorest subsistence farmers, to protect their cattle (whom they often view as family members the way westerners view their pet dogs and cats, and additionally, without whom they cannot plough their fields or supply their families butter, yoghurt, or milk) from cattle rustlers, who try to steal cows to feed illegal slaughterhouses.
And, if we look at the broader issue of restrictions on cow slaughter, these laws were passed by Congress governments, and are only being enforced rigorously now. One should also note that when our media “elite” cry about how “cows have more rights than minorities in Modi’s India”, that is the laziest form of lying. First, cows are treated as private property, and are slaughtered by the millions in India, in government-licensed as well as illegal slaughterhouses and butcher shops.
I am yet to learn of any such facility processing humans at an industrial scale, in India or abroad. Secondly, if you would like an example of a country where the prison term for killing a cow is higher than that of killing a human, I would advise you to visit the tropical communist paradise of Cuba, where the leftist, revolutionary government has had a long-standing ban on cow slaughter by private individuals; where all cows are property of the state, and the state protects its property with its monopoly on violence.
Does that make the shining light of Third World socialism a “nation of mob lynchers”? The state not only sanctions punishing people who illegally kill cows, but mobilises its full panoply of power to do so.
In contrast, villagers taking the law into their own hands to protect their bovine wealth (or non-human family members, if you prefer), is less a reflection of creeping fascism or religious bigotry, as it is a reflection of the poor reach of police and judicial services in rural communities, and an expression of the lack of power that poor farmers enjoy when it comes to interacting with the apparatus of the state.
However, there is no justification for wealthy, educated, urban Indians to dispense this sort of demented and heartless violence on the poor for a victimless crime (their insurance would have paid for the broken car window and stereo), in the capital city of the country, where the police and the justice system exist to do their bidding.
The icing on the cake was that when the police finally arrived to arrest the thief, they thanked the neighbours for doing such a “good job” in apprehending this “criminal”. To use leftist terminology, the mentality motivating them in this case was about demonstrating bourgeois power over an impoverished proletarian, sending a message that in the India of the elite, it is not just the state which enjoys a monopoly over of the legitimate use of physical force, but its lieutenants among the Establishment.
And now, I see these neighbourhood uncles on Twitter and Facebook, talking about how they “miss” the “old” India of “decency and civility” and how they can “never forgive” the voters or politicians who “turned this country into a lynch mob”. What can I say except, “Enjoy your holiday to Cuba this summer, Admiral.”
This hypocrisy can be seen not just from such neighbourhood retirees who talk about “fascist gau-rakshak Modi bhakts” on their evening walks but happily engage in mob justice when a cyclist scratches their car or a homeless kid throws a stone at their pet dog. It can also be seen from the Pankajs among us, who achieved the Indian leftist dream of marrying into the aristocratic family of the British Prime Minister, while regurgitating and reinforcing neo-colonial tropes to please the liberal-at-home, imperialist-abroad Blairites at The Guardian.
It could equally be seen from our Arundhatis who believe that the nation-state model of interbellum Europe - which created chauvinistic ethno-linguistic fascist states that either led the world into war or willfully collaborated with the Nazis - is a better model for Jammu, Kashmir, and Ladakh than being part of a multicultural, democratic India with longstanding Indic civilisational values of not mere tolerance, but coexistence, acceptance, and pluralism.
Perhaps, it is from the Rams among us who were vegetarians until the 2014 elections, but now provocatively chirp on Twitter about eating beef, as their fans cheer them on for “triggering the bhakts”, squandering their impeccable intellectual image to become a discount version of a halfwit caricature like Charlie Kirk.
Maybe, it even covers the Aravinds who win western literary awards for writing gritty bottom-up novels about working-class Indians, while losing no opportunity to signal their discomfort or disgust with such people’s cultural choices or consumer preferences in real life.
And it definitely includes the less famous ones - those among my peers who entered the gates of JNU as Marxists but came out as “western liberals” with an Indian veneer. If I were to ask them, who said these lines in response to terrorist attacks in their country, who do you think they would say?
Were these nuanced, balanced, and inclusive words those of Jacinda Ardern, the latest darling of the liberal centre-left, grieving at the mosque after the Christchurch attack? Was it the media-anointed “leader of the free world”, Angela Merkel, after the Berlin Christmas market attack? Was it Barack Obama, the one man who makes sense in a world of Trumps and Orbans?
Well, in fact, these were the words of the supposedly “far-right”, “Hindu nationalist” Narendra Modi.
If I were to ask the students demonstrating at the next Free Palestine protest at JNU, which Indian Prime Minister was the first to visit Palestine, was awarded Palestine’s highest civilian honour, and affirmed India’s support for Palestinian independence, who would they say?
Chacha Nehru? Indira is India, India is Indira? V.P. “Mandal Commission” Singh?
Yet again, none of the above; it is the “Muslim-baiting”, “majoritarian”, “paramilitary RSS group member” Narendra Modi.
These trendy left-liberals are so blinded by their awe for foreign paradigms and approval that they are rendered blind to the fact that any Indian leader, even from the RSS, is more often than not, in both rhetoric and policy, going to be more pro-poor economically and more committed to pluralism socially than a Hillary, Trudeau, Macron, or Merkel, simply on account of the legacy of colonial, economic trauma and Indic civilisational values of plurality and acceptance.
It is this blindness to our own civilisation’s values that lie at the heart of the Indian Left’s moral bankruptcy and growing irrelevance.
Allow me to give our eminent “intellectuals” and their idols among the ruling classes in the colonial metropolis a little public service announcement. Postcolonial societies are not a canvas for western liberals to project what they are uncomfortable about in their own societies but unable or unwilling to change. Our civilisation, culture, and polity do not exist for your benefit, to give you a sense of validation.
The Dalit experience is not analogous to that of African Americans, that of Indian Muslims not analogous to the Roma, that of the Brahmins not analogous to WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant), that of the BJP not analogous to the Republicans, nor the Congress to the Democrats, nor Modi to Netanyahu, nor Rahul to Trudeau.
We have our own, unique historical contexts, our own indigenous philosophies and value systems, and are bound together by a shared colonial trauma. And despite the hollowing out of our economy and society during centuries of imperialism, we can say with pride that our people are trying to improve their lives the best way they know how - seeking dignity, not charity, seeking empathy, not sympathy, and seeking equality, not revenge.
A sharp contrast to the manner that “superior” western cultures deal with historical trauma. No serious politician engages in revanchist fantasies like the postbellum American South or Weimar Germany, and if they did, they would be ridiculed. Sometimes one sees British tourists online asking if it is “safe” for them to visit India, lest they be “shunned” or “mistreated” out of vestigial anti-colonial sentiment. I laughed. If anything, Indian people, even the poorest sections of society, whose daily reality today is still defined by centuries of British imperialism, far from holding a grudge, would be genuinely curious to meet people from the west, and even open up their homes to them and invite them for a meal.
A far cry from when Commonwealth citizens from Kenya, Uganda, and India moved to working-class suburbs of Birmingham to work in factories in the 1960s, and found themselves barred from renting homes in Smethwick, encouraged by a Conservative Party which ran an infamous election slogan, “If you want a N****r for a Neighbour, Vote Labour”.
This is the difference between the civilisational ethos of our former colonisers who treat everyone who looks different as a barbarian, and the quiet, understated dignity of the Indic tradition which subsumed and found a place for every culture that developed or came to visit. It is also the reason why socio-political paradigms or bourgeois value systems developed a century ago by the ruling classes in the colonial metropolis to pacify and “civilise” their primitive, brutal, warmongering societies and economies, have little to no applicability in Asian societies with millennia of indigenous knowledge on statecraft, ethics, and non-violence.
This is why countries left, right, and centre across the postcolonial world chose their own path, be it Singapore with Lee Kwan Yew’s “Asian values”, be it Deng Xiaoping building “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, or Julius Nyerere’s “Ujamaa” in Tanzania. Now, if India has built itself into a stable democracy, unique in the greater region, it should be to create a polity that works for the benefit of its people, with a priority on undoing the horrific economic injustices of colonialism, and lifting a billion people out of poverty and into prosperity.
It should not be for the benefit or approval of those who perpetrated colonial injustices, a blank canvas for liberal neo-colonialists to influence our politics by shaming or forcing us to conform to and aspire to Western bourgeois values as the gold standard, while our poor lived without roofs, healthcare, education, or clean water.
Like giving up on our dreams of building a democracy with Indic characteristics, to chase the false promise from the colonial metropolis that if Indians do as they’re told, one day, they can be “rich like us”.
The western paradigm of liberal-conservative or left-right is not something to superficially apply on postcolonial societies like India just because a journalist or scholar wants to inform their audience overseas about who the “good guys” are, who the “bad guys” are, and who “our guys” are.
Closer to home, it’s barely even something one should apply to post-communist countries in Central and Easter Europe, for that matter.
We get it, your readership doesn’t think of other countries much at all, and when they do think of India, it is either as a backward country of snake charmers out in the exotic Orient where the air smells of spices (among other things), or as the eclectic home of Yoga, Ayurveda, and IT companies. With this background, some media portals act as though the only additional thing that their audiences need to know to make sense of the country are simplistic analogies to their own domestic policies or history.
It’s cheap to produce and easy to sell. And if any of us owned a media house that wanted to make money in a dying newspaper and TV news industry, I must say, that does represent an irresistible value proposition. It is as if Justin Timberlake’s character from The Social Network came over to BBC or NYT's editorial board and said, “Nuance and informative journalism isn’t cool; you know what’s cool? Validating people's pre-existing biases and stereotypes.” After all, what are modern news portals today, if not extensions of the Facebook algorithm?
Just for the record, all Indian parties are to some extent economically left-wing, all of them are to some extent socially conservative, yet pluralistic. Our parties differentiate themselves through their strategies to address colonial trauma - some are focused on cultural revivalism, some on self-respect for indigenous philosophies, some promote parochial, regional, or subaltern interests, and some are even focused on enriching their founders (or their descendants).
This impression that the “liberal-conservative” divide in postcolonial societies is somehow analogous to western politics is worthy of no attention, being either a projection by western media and academics or a reflection of the deracination and mental colonisation of the anglicised postcolonial elite, who act as the west’s interlocutors to a set of indigenous cultures and languages they perceive as inferior.
On a lighter note, it’s not taxi drivers whose jobs are at risk from self-driving cars in India, it’s these English-media journalists who will be rendered unemployed, as their only window into the political or cultural views of India is conversations with the driver who picked them up from the airport.
And, if I were to be generous to my peers, and accepted that it indeed were the case that these anglicised, Indian elites genuinely cared about the left or liberal cause, and genuinely felt that they can’t relate to Indian culture enough to be a part of politics in India, fair enough. By all means, move to the UK, join a party, and campaign door-to-door.
Indian citizens resident in the UK can even vote and stand for some elections. Or move to the USA, and host an MSNBC news slot on the great debates of American domestic and foreign policy. If even embarrassingly mediocre journalists from Australia and the UK can make it big in the States, so can you! Surely, you have the credentials, track record, and talent to do better than a Piers Morgan, after all?
Now, if they did that, we would have respect for them, as we do for Sir Dadabhai Naoroji. But the reality is, they won’t do that. They can’t do that. For they are not allowed to. They are only useful to western liberals as compradors and fixers who help them navigate Indian politics, history, or culture.
They can only get a column in The Guardian, BBC, or Washington Post if it’s as a neoliberal, neo-colonialist voice of colour, to lecture Indians like naughty schoolchildren or write about them like David Attenborough observing a man-eating tiger from a safe distance.
They regurgitate Orientalist tropes that respectable liberal white staff would not dare get away with, and shame those ordinary Indians who live outside of their gated communities for their cultural, consumer, and electoral choices, robbing them of their voice and agency.
The multiple awards they have won for their journalism in India are merely pats on the head for being pliant and taking care of the work too distasteful for their western peers. If they were actually respected, they would be entrusted with using their no-doubt razor-sharp analysis on UK or US politics. Heavens knows those countries could use it.
But they are not. Nobody takes them seriously outside of their established Uncle Tom role, simply because they have no self-respect. That is why all they can do in these twilight years of their political and cultural relevance is pontificate from a studio or newspaper column, write clickbait for elite echo chambers, or get into fistfights with aspirational middle-class Indians when to their distaste, they accidentally run into them overseas.
As soon as they stop toeing the line or try to engage with politics in the west the way they report on India, they are brutally cut down to size. They don't get to host debates on CNN or the BBC. Because just like in their South Delhi homes, servants don’t get to eat at the table.
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