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Why BJP Is More Guilty Than Sam Pitroda

May 15, 2024 16:59 IST
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If Pitroda's blunder cost him his office, what should the BJP's unrepentant attitude cost it? asks Shyam G Menon.

IMAGE: Senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader Narendra Modi holds a roadshow for the Lok Sabha elections in Patna, May 12, 2024. Photograph: ANI Photo

Early May 2024, the full weight of consequences visited Sam Pitroda.

Twice in the news in the weeks preceding his resignation from heading the Congress's overseas unit, the first occasion was when the 82-year-old technocrat spoke of wealth redistribution and mentioned in that context, the prevalence of a hefty inheritance tax in the US.

The second occasion was, when in a conversation with a newspaper, he portrayed India's diversity and inclusiveness in a questionable fashion.

Pitroda should have been careful, speaking on subjects that aren't exactly his area of expertise.

Successful people with swollen fortunes may have genuine worries about inheritance tax.

In the deeply polarised economic context of India, wealth redistribution is a touchy subject; one that is so not for its underlying appropriateness but for the fact that the one per cent credited with a lion's share of the country's wealth wields disproportionate influence in policy making.

The last one decade of rule by the Bharatiya Janata Party has served as poster boy for this one per cent and predictably enough, the cash-rich BJP, reputed for its proximity to big business, milked Pitroda's gaffe for political mileage.

A scrutiny of Pitroda's comments on wealth redistribution as originally reported would show that he merely cited the US inheritance tax as an example of wealth redistribution; nowhere was it reported that he said the same was intended for India by the Congress.

But Narendra Modi, during his election campaigns, was quick to highlight the tax as a Congress plan. Better still, a Congress conspiracy.

Days later, mainstream media was publishing interviews with scholars and influential types about the negative impact inheritance tax could have on India's wealthy and thereby its industry.

Questions were being raised -- what if Ambani, Adani, Tata and Mahindra left the country?

Only those who watched things more closely noticed the falsehood (the original sin of citing a conspiracy where there was none) and further, picked out the irony in the falsehood.

The very same wealthy from India look to America's capitalism as the dominant road map for India.

But on America's inheritance tax, they hit a road block. Isn't that an irony?

Politics -- especially politics spawned in an election year -- has no appetite for scrutiny.

It runs with what gains traction and so, as regards Pitroda's reference to an inheritance tax, it was Modi's demagoguery versus the Congress manifesto.

As if that first taste of misinterpretation wasn't enough, Pitroda continued his misadventures.

Apparently illustrating India's diversity, the technocrat spoke of the people of North India looking like whites, those of the East resembling the Chinese, the West looking like Arabs and people from the South looking like Africans.

In principle, I fail to see how Pitroda is guilty of a greater crime than say Americans talking of Irish Americans, Italian Americans, African Americans or Indian Americans in the US.

Besides, he wouldn't be the first to leverage appearance for an over-simplified and distinctly shallow take on India's diversity.

For years, the Hindi film industry unapologetically painted South Indians in stereotyped shades.

Similarly, people from the North East have often complained of being called Chinese in other parts of India, particularly North India.

Sitting in Kerala (let me restrict these specific observations of mine, to the state I was born in) where there has been a mixing of people from various parts of India, Asia and the Indian Ocean rim countries, one disagrees with Pitroda to the same degree one disagrees with Bollywood.

IMAGE: Sam Pitroda, second from right, with Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and others at an event organised by the Indian Overseas Congress in New York, June 5, 2023. Photograph: ANI Photo

Whether we like it or not, people's faces and their general appearance and behavior make a first impression.

To remember however, is that an individual is much, much more than his /her face or appearance.

A great example for this is to ask oneself how many of the one per cent owning a giant share of India's wealth, come across as genuinely interesting when they talk.

We all know -- money isn't a measure of everything. Often, money is unidimensional, boring.

Pitroda's biggest blunder was in choosing words rooted in appearance when we live in times of the individual. An ever more complex individual.

More importantly, hearing such casual choice of words from a person educated and experienced enough to be a leading technocrat was utterly disappointing.

Finally, his timing was pathetic; this is an election year in India. Not to mention -- gone are the days when a perch in the US promised insulation from backlash.

To his credit, unlike in Bollywood or the continuing industry of cultural and geographical ignorance/insensitivity in India, Pitroda resigned from his position as chief of the Congress's overseas unit.

Unfortunately, such nuances don't count.

What matters is that we pick up on this sudden display of 'racism' by a Congress technocrat and run with it to get votes in 2024, ignoring totally the many earlier incidents still begging apology or at the very least, correction.

Senior politicians who stayed silent when caste-based injustices were perpetrated and women were treated unjustly (remember the case of women wrestlers?), woke up to the 'racism' in Pitroda's comment.

They were correct to do so but evidently, they were not being equitable in response.

Is it alright to be angry at Pitroda's 'racist' remarks and be blind to caste and gender insensitivity back home?

Perhaps it is -= who cares for equity when there are votes at stake?

For the BJP, Pitroda's gaffes was manna from heaven. Modi and his cohorts jumped on it to capitalise.

Which is why, for a sane mind, Pitroda's gaffes and its fallout are more about the poverty of imagination within the BJP than cracks in the Congress.

The best indication of it has been the steadily lowering palatability of comments from the BJP's lead campaigner, Narendra Modi.

From the boast of securing 400 plus seats in the ongoing polls, the narrative slid to communalism and polarisation using religion.

Now, there is the pouncing on Pitroda's abjectly poor choice of words and spinning it into a controversy.

IMAGE: Gathering at a Modi election meeting in Hooghly, May 12, 2024. Photograph: ANI Photo

Introspection is always a distant second once the title of Vishwaguru is embraced.

Much the same way a finger pointed at someone overlooks three fingers pointed back at oneself, the allegations of racism levelled against Pitroda by the BJP, conveniently forget how India's richest and biggest party grew by exploiting stereotyped, over-simplified profiling of people within this country.

The othering of Muslims and heaping all faults in this country at their doorstep, owes a lot to the BJP's weakness for distortion and over-simplified labelling.

And unlike Pitroda's case, wherein over-simplification was adjunct to illustrate the country's unity in diversity, the BJP and its over-simplification have blamed others/minorities for political mileage.

From such repeated othering to its willingness to shape Pitroda's comments into vote-yielding spins, the BJP is, in the Indian context, more guilty than Pitroda.

If Pitroda's blunder cost him his office, what should the BJP's unrepentant attitude cost it?

Not just that, in the Pitroda affair, the BJP has actually shot itself in the foot.

As a close friend asked me: "If a simple mention of white, Chinese, Arab and African are automatically construed by the BJP as racist, what does it speak of the BJP's own idea of racism?

"For example, if you equate the word African with racism, it betrays an innate dislike for whatever is contained in that reference -- doesn't it?

"What does all this speak of the party's depth of understanding of the subject?"

Shyam G Menon is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/

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