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January 20, 1998


Amberish K Diwanji

Sonia Gandhi exposes middle-class Indian hypocrisy

Sonia Gandhi has campaigned in Sriperumbudur (near Madras), Bangalore, Hyderabad, Cochin, and Goa. At least at Hyderabad and Cochin, the crowd turnouts are conservatively estimated at 80,000 each. In Tamil Nadu, the Congress has almost ceased to exist, and no one but no one expects it to win more than one or two seats. And while the general public had perhaps attended (or were induced to do so by the lure of pecuniary benefits) to catch a view of this inheritor, the Congress workers even in lost-case Tamil Nadu were thoroughly charged up, believing that things could only improve from this point onwards. Their enthusiasm was indubitable.

Yet, Sonia's presence in Indian politics is deeply disturbing for middle-class India, who no doubt harbour mixed feeling about her attempts to salvage the fortunes of India's oldest party. This middle-class, English-speaking urbanites and mostly upper castes dominate much of India's public life. They are the ones who prominently feature on BBC and CNN, on Star TV and English print media. Why, asks this chattering class in disgust, can't an Indian be at the helm of the Congress -- the party of the Freedom Fighters, the pivotal organisation in winning India's freedom, the party of Mahatma Gandhi.

Strangely, Sonia Gandhi represents most middle-class values: she speaks fluent English (albeit with an accent); looks good and sophisticated. Only her Italian origins are painful; how do you explain to foreigners why a white is once again running the country. It means that out of 940 million Indians, not one decent leader for the Congress could be found.

She has a colleague in I K Gujral, prime minister of India (even his most ardent supporters don't doubt that these are has list few days at the helm of India's affairs). Gujral is suave, urbane, quotes Urdu at the drop of a hat, is widely travelled (around the world), and a clear misfit in his own government. He simply has been unable to cope with the rough and tough of today's politicians, and has in many ways remained a foreign minister an alien in his own government.

And therein lies a tragedy. The middle-class is disgusted and simply unable to stomach the new breed leaders such as the Yadavs and Kanshi Rams. A popular news weekly, rather representative of the urban middle-classes, claimed that Kesri was India's 'Villain No 1.' Sonia, incidentally, was second! Kesri is rustic, cannot speak English properly, looks (in polite terms) not too good, and is considered sycophantic and greasy. All these combine to make him the villain. Certainly, Kesri is a person of dubious records and no charisma, but not all the others.

Cut-off from its roots, the middle-class has not been able to understand the new emerging forces and politicians. Persons such as Mulayam Yadav and Laloo Yadav, Kanshi Ram and Mayawati, H D Deve Gowda and Vaghela -- lower caste, rural or small town backgrounds, often comfortable only in their own language. In many ways, the south went through this process earlier, which saw the rise of the DMK in Tamil Nadu, the Telugu Desam in Andhra Pradesh, and the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra. Again, the very rise of these very parties was always at the cost of the Congress.

The middle-class has increasingly turned towards the Bharatiya Janata Party, but their support, along with that of some allies, has not been able to help the party come to power. Today, the picture is different. The party has overcome its brahmin-bania image, includes a variety of other groups (often left out by the other political parties), and to its credit, is seen as much less corrupt and more efficient. Moreover, in Vajpayee, the party has probably India's most acceptable leader. If the party does come to power (as many expect, and the middle-class sincerely hopes) it will have to tackle its internal contradictions.

Leaders are a reflection of their people. The new crop of leaders represent fundamental changes in India, the growing consciousness of the millions of deprived, a shift from urban to rural. For millions -- the villagers and the mass of humanity struggling in the cities (many first-generation migrants), these are the very leaders they turn to. In fact, one reason such people have been disenchanted with the Congress is because that party has been simply unable to provide the necessary leadership to the new emerging forces. The newly politically conscious backwards and dalits would no longer take the nonsense doled out by upper caste Congress leaders, who remained unresponsive to their rising aspirations. Thus, while Sonia does remain popular, it has to be seen if she can actually bring in the votes.

Incidentally, a primary reason for Sonia Gandhi's popularity is the legacy factor. Asia has seen an abundance of members cash in family links: Aquino in the Philippines, and the numerous cases in South Asia. In India it is aided by the caste system, which subconsciously imbibes the belief of inheritance. It is everywhere: politics, sports (Manjrekar and Kanitkar), movies (Sunil and Sanjay Dutt, Tanuja and Kajol, the Kapoor family), business (most of India's top industrialists inherited their businesses), etc.

Who objected to Rajiv Gandhi succeeding Indira Gandhi? For the millions of poor, such inheritances are an evil they live with: it reduces their own social mobility and opportunities. It forces them to curb their own rising aspirations because ties and kinship today still decide the next successor, the next promotion. With such cases a part of their life, is it any wonder that for them Sonia's origins matter little, but her name so much. So how much does it matter if Sonia takes over Rajiv's mantle?

This obnoxious attitude unfortunately has the middle-class's tacit support. We'd like our children to take over the decent jobs, the top positions in society. Too much competition from below only makes life difficult. Do we object when sons take over huge industrial conglomerates, controlling the fortunes of million of share holders, when offsprings go into the same field as parents, regardless of ability? But doubts are immediately expressed if such a situation occurs with those for whom the middle class has only contempt.

Take the case of the middle-class's attitude when comparing Rabri Devi and Sonia Gandhi. When the former took over from her husband Laloo Yadav, there was a national outrage. Rabri Devi was seen as incapable, unsophisticated and ignorant, a village bumpkin. None of the same charges have been made at Sonia. On the contrary, she is seen as sophisticated, urbane, and while the middle-class may chaff at her alien origins, they don't doubt her ability as they did Rabri Devi's!

Strangely, both lack any real political experience, and are thus in the same boat. If anything, at least Rabri Devi has her roots in the heart of India, in its deprived villages; her lack of education reflects the fact that the majority (52%) of Indians are illiterate. It is a sad case of class differentiation, of an urban-rural divide, of a middle-class--poor divide, of two-facedness and outright hypocrisy.

If anything, the presence of Sonia in Indian politics should work as a catalyst in helping the middle-class define its attitude towards their own brethren and fellow Indians, regardless of their background. If they can't stomach a foreigner, then they must come to terms with the new leaders who are most likely to rule India in the next century. It is time that along with corruption, economic growth, and other issues facing India, we demand institutions so that the next successor in any line is not someone who is his father's son or her husband's wife.

Amberish K Diwanji

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