The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Power and the dazzle of high living

A former prime minister has chosen to be magnanimous. Boys, he says, will be boys. But is that all' Boys also learn from the examples set by those whom they hold up as role models, such as their fathers and uncles. In families where politics is supposedly the sole preoccupation, an implied, parallel activity is money-making. Money is made in these families without leaving a trace of the methods by which it is made. Children watch the goings-on and take these as part of the natural order. Prominent politicians ' cutting across party lines ' and shady businessmen have a symbiotic relationship. The relationship leads to accretion of wealth in mysterious ways for political families, and wealth leads to further wealth.

A politician who, thirty or forty years ago, was a jobless, homeless vagabond, has now assets worth perhaps more than a couple of hundred crore of rupees, or even more. Outsiders have to strain to understand how miracles of this kind come about, since all the while the politician concerned had no other gainful activities; politics was his full-time occupation. Children in the family, however, know the linkages that exist and lead to the continuous, exuberant inflow of money. They quickly assimilate the learning: in the profession of their elders, the dividing line between ethical conduct and immorality ' and between respect for law and its purposive defiance ' is non-existent: anything goes as long as the jingle of money continues uninterrupted.

In such a household, whatever the pious bulletins put out for outside consumption, the enjoyment of power and the dazzle of high living are synonymous. Others may abide the question, these rich families take it for granted that they are free and life is one unending cocktail party. Elders in the household play their devious game of politicking-cum-money-spinning; children too get habituated to pastimes based exclusively on the power principle. With unlimited money at their disposal, thanks to the courtesy of their elders, they soon graduate to indulging themselves. At some point, the indulgence crosses the injunctions of the penal code. But the children, like their elders, fail to distinguish the threshold where pranks turn into crime. Even when they are able to do so, they remain confident that, just as their elder are beyond the reach of law, they too are.

An addendum is perhaps called for. It is not unusual for the elders to know of the risky adventures their children indulge in: they, however, do not wave the disciplinary wand. For one thing, the elders are otherwise occupied, they do not have that much time to spare for their children. In the manner of the former prime minister, they too take a benign view of what the children are up to. Some sort of guilt complex is also at work. The parents, given their busy schedule, cannot offer company to the children: poor kids, they have to fend for themselves. Does it matter much if in the course of their capers, once or twice they bend the law' Come on, let us take a benign view of such proceedings.

Maybe another factor is of equal relevance to explain the behavioural pattern of the nation's creamy layer. This can be best described as the great Indian hypocrisy, and has a long tradition. Hilarious stories are still occasionally recounted of how Bhulabhai J. Desai, leading Bombay barrister and Congress stalwart, had managed to smuggle Vat 69 bottles into the distinguished delegates' camp at the Indian National Congress session at Haripura in 1938.

Why single out poor rich Bhulabhai Desai though' Only Jawaharlal Nehru had the guts to say openly that he had a taste for oloroso; the overwhelming majority of the pre-independence political leadership pretended a fierce loyalty towards the Congress pledge inserted at the insistence of Mahatma Gandhi, abstinence from alcoholic drinks. This majority signed the pledge, and flouted it with cynical delight. Even in the Fifties, when adherence to the idealism of the freedom movement was altogether pass', it was a fairly common thing for a cabinet minister, impeccably clad in khadi, to dole out homilies on non-violence and prohibition in the living room of his sprawling official residence, while in another corner of the house, the minister's progeny and their cronies would have a rollicking party from which alcohol without a doubt was not excluded. And it would happen that the minister himself would saunter over to the party and be persuaded to take a drop of drink in the company of the next generation; the only cautionary ritual observed was that the minister would remove his Gandhi cap and rest it on the centre table while sipping his drink.

This two-level existence is now a part of India's elitist living. Norms are laid by the elders; children take to them, as ducks take to water. The elders have long wrestled with their conscience and arrived at an amicable ersatz understanding with it. The children are saved that bother; they, in fact, do not have to suffer from any quirk of conscience; they have not been told what conscience is and is about. What they indulge in, they indulge in with jolly spontaneity; self-questioning is a concept totally foreign to them. The heroin is readily available with the peddler at the next street corner; so why not have a go' Paper money, too, is lying around in the house in absent-minded abundance; so why not pick a five hundred rupee note, shape it into a cheroot, fill it up with heroin ' and occasionally cocaine as well ' and enjoy the delicious long drag: what is immoral or indecent about it'

Enters into this ambience the tornado of liberalization. Its incantation of 'Enrich thyself' inevitably slides into that of 'Indulge thyself'; it also endeavours to promote the non-altruism that, in advancing one's own interests, no considerations need be shown to the plight of others; the only goal worth pursuing in life is that of maximizing one's own welfare, ethical questions must not be allowed to interfere with this maximizing exercise. A corollary follows; make your pile, and there is no need to bother how you make your pile, whether by pillage or by murder. The chemistry of the great Indian hypocrisy and this philosophy of maximizing one's gains has produced a concoction that has revolutionized the nation's polity.

The polity is, in any case, the pocket borough of a number of elite families. These families exhibit a lifestyle that is emulated fast by those in the successively lower rungs. Their panache of making money out of apparently thin air is adapted by the occupants of the lower rungs as well. The social mores established by the creamy layer get duly incorporated in the cultural frame that the relatively less important constituents of the body politic develop within their own spheres.

It is little use blaming the media for their obsessive intent to obliterate the distinction between the staple diet of Page 1 and that of Page 3. Why not be honest about the fact that the Indian system in its entirety has been reduced in the course of the past few decades to the Page 3 level' A significant segment of the nation's creamy layer ' at least of its topmost stratum ' is, at the moment, a congregation of forgers and crooks who take pride in their venality. Give or take a couple of years or thereabouts, the admission of this gruesome truth will cease to hurt any of us; according to the jargon, the process is known as acclimatization.

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