Danger from the New Brahmins
By M J Akbar
Indian democracy is in danger of subversion by a self-confident,aggressive, articulate, patriotic and well-meaning force, the oligarchy of the successful. It might be a mild exaggeration to suggest that its principal characteristics are aftershave and English.
Many of them possibly disdain aftershave or perfume, and would not be crass enough to be preceded by five yards of Axe effect, to name the most advertised aftershave of the moment. But they are loyal to the English language, the proven mantra to worldly success. This new class of thirty-somethings (terribly reluctant to turn 40) is a product of consistent high growth since economic liberalization began in 1991. They bring with them a fresh mindset, a happy sense of purpose, a professional approach to governance and a welcome lack of social baggage.
So why should they be considered a potential hidden danger? Their assets dominate contemporary business, media and politics; their liabilities are buried in a general reluctance to see beyond their celebrity status. Politicians have always been celebrated, and rightly so; if you are in public life, you will be under public scrutiny. But they have not been celebrities. The difference is being squeezed by a squeal culture that is another dominant trait of a substantial and growing elite.
Danger lies in the fact that this creamy layer of 20% at the top has no interest in involving the froth of 80% in decision-making. It recognizes the problem of poverty, of course, and is even concerned enough to address it at policy level. It would much prefer an India in which beggars do not stare through the window panes of its cars; unfortunately, beggars can’t be screened out by black film for reasons to do with public security. But it treats the poor as both the cause and the consequence of poverty, and therefore unworthy of more than a token presence on the table. In a sense this is the old caste system in a modern manifestation; it is a karmic view of government, propagated by the New Brahmins, wearing a tie in front instead of a tiki at the back.
Commonwealth Delhi is their true capital, designed for their comforts and convenience. Not a single bicycle lane has been constructed in the newly reconstructed city, because it is still downmarket in Delhi (unlike London, where mayors and future Prime Ministers use it). You eliminate poverty by denying it space in your environment. If you don’t see a slum it doesn’t exist. The Commonwealth Games, which will last less than a week, are an excuse to switch spending towards an infrastructure for luxury, essential for a class that has found the wherewithal to afford luxury. One is not being a killjoy, or taking the puritan view that India should not host an international event till Ram Rajya has arrived. There will always be imperfection and inequality; but it is what you do with opportunity that determines whether the social purpose is egalitarian or elitist. Capitalist London has used the 2012 Olympics to upgrade its poorer areas. Delhi has done the opposite, improving what was already good, ignoring the squalor that floats under the thin surface of glitter.
Is Delhi the development model for the coming decade? There is a huge and growing aspirational class that supports the oligarchy of success, because it is straining at the door to be let in. This emerging constituency, perhaps a maximum of about 300 million, is keen to outsource its future to an oligarchy because it has sniffed the latter’s success. It wants membership of the oligarchy. It is strong enough to shift a general election towards one political party or the other, but it is not strong enough to sustain governance.
That leaves 800 million dependent on goodwill. Democracy is not about generosity. It is about entitlement. Democracy is not about patronage. It is about equality. Democracy is about being inclusive, not exclusive. Democracy is about an equal vote in the political boardroom, not just in the ballot box.
The slick highways dotted with malls and upwardly mobile dhabas, transporting a world beyond the reach to villages they traverse, are both a tease and a frustration. Why shouldn’t the young of rural India who cannot afford the highway toll dream of magic lights in the big city? They do not want to plod while New Brahmins travel at 100 mph. They do not want to end up as labour in a busybody small town; they want a job in the new New Delhi. The poor are not fools. They know they cannot be managers. But if the nation cannot find a profitable avenue for their skills then the social structure will be vulnerable to their anger.
If the high table cannot find a seat for them, then there are other tables, some with guns.
Appeared in Times of India - February 7, 2010