Whatever the populist rhetoric, elites have always found ways to defend their interests and shut others out, argues Amita Baviskar
“No VIP culture!” shouted a passenger as he climbed aboard the golf cart brought to transfer Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar from the arrival gate at Delhi airport. To his credit, Kumar allowed his fellow passenger to join him on the ride through the airport’s long corridors.
A recent central government order against the use of red beacons on cars carrying ministers and officials also defers to popular resentment against “VIP culture” or the priority that those in power receive in public places and arenas where everyone is supposed to be treated equally. These may be token gestures that do little to overturn the entrenched inequalities of Indian life. Yet the fact that there is an attempt to bow before the ideal of equality shows that, for those who inhabit it, their privilege is prickled with unease.
This was not always so. India was dubbed the land of Homo hierarchicus by the anthropologist Louis Dumont because inequality was deep-dyed into its cultural fabric. For centuries, Indian elites drew on self-serving mythologies about why they, and not their hapless compatriots, happened to fully deserve the wealth, power and status that they enjoyed. The caste system and its theory of karma asserted that privilege and poverty were not mere accidents of birth but divinely willed decisions to be accepted gracefully. “Follow the dharma speci ed for your caste and gender and be blessed with better in your next life”—that’s what pundits and elders advised. Religions based on the idea of equality before God, such as Buddhism, Islam and Christianity, or sects based on the notion of congregational fraternity such as the Kabirpanth or the Sikh Khalsa, explained this-worldly suffering by promising other- worldly salvation, or the comfort of believing that my “soul is as good as yours”. Equality in everyday life, right here and now, on this earth, was invisible in the Indian ethos.
European ideas of equality, struggled over and stretched by women and by non-whites so that they came to represent rights inherent in each human being, created a major challenge for Homo hierarchicus. How could caste privilege be defended when everyone was supposed to be equal, including Dalits and Adivasis, women and non-Hindus? Elite castes quickly shifted ground from stressing their spiritual merit to highlighting their secular quali cations for being on top. Nowhere was this clearer than in the 1990 protests against implementing the Mandal Commission’s recommendations about reservations for Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in higher education institutions and government jobs. Upper-caste Hindu youth, who had held the lion’s share of seats in these prized positions, asserted that quotas for under-represented castes would dilute professional standards. Unworthy, under-qualified people would get precedence over deserving, hard-working candidates who just happened to be upper caste.
Sociologist Satish Deshpande has pointed out how this narrative of “merit” disguises the unpalatable fact that upper-caste proficiency is based on upper-caste privilege. Money, connections and education enable elites to reproduce their “success” across generations and geographies. By ignoring how this accumulated cultural capital shapes our ends—who gets admission into university or secures a job—upper-caste protestors can go on insisting that quotas are unfair because they violate the principle of merit-based selection. In their view, merit naturally rises to the top in open competition, conveniently ignoring how the playing field is overwhelmingly stacked in their favour. Several studies show that lower-caste people are virtually absent from high-level jobs in government, corporate firms, the media and education. Research by Ashwini Deshpande shows that qualified lower-caste applicants are far less likely to be called for job interviews and are even less likely to be offered the job. Yet, despite evidence of a systemic bias in their favour, upper-caste people tend to see themselves as victims of discrimination, their inherent talents stifled by wrong-headed populist policies.
The myth that upper-caste privilege is earned and not inherited, and that upper- caste success is independent of its basis in an unequal society, is the founding fable of India’s business firms. Traditional business elites tend to belong to the “Forward Castes”—the Brahmin-Kshatriya-Vaishya trinity, now supplemented by what sociologist MN Srinivas described as “dominant castes” or locally numerous, land-holding elites in rural India, such as the Kamma and Reddy communities of Andhra Pradesh. Journalist Harish Damodaran calls this the “Bania-plus” social profile of Indian capital. Like the Parsis and Bohras, the Marwaris, Chettiars and other Hindu business communities draw on extensive kinship and caste-based networks of help and solidarity. Yet, the competitive edge provided by such cultural capital is played down in analyses of corporate success. Instead, the narratives celebrate individual acumen, effort and vision. Along with the erasure of its social origins, the seamier side of this accumulation is swept under the carpet, whether it is the opium-fuelled rise of our earliest business houses or the manipulation of the licence-permit raj by those who came later. Like the jati puranas, heroic narratives commissioned by upwardly mobile groups in the past to consolidate their social standing, hagiographies of individual business leaders extol only their grit and enterprise. Sociologist Jules Naudet has shown the tight interlocking of circles of wealth and nance in India, with the same people sitting on the boards of each other’s companies. This club still hasn’t admitted a single Dalit entrepreneur to its membership.
Even the so-called “new middle classes” in India deny that hereditary privilege has anything to do with their success. Newly rich entrepreneurs and top managers in India’s information technology firms may not come from traditional business castes, but they are still firmly based among the Forward Castes. In fact, many are Brahmins and, as some asserted in their interviews with sociologist Carol Upadhya, believe that there is an intrinsic affinity between being Brahmin, memorising Sanskrit shlokas, mathematics and writing computer programmes. This ingenious argument not only glosses over inequality in access to education, but is doubly pernicious for it naturalises culture, extracting virtue from a vicious system of exclusion.
The most far-reaching strategy that India’s techno-managerial elites use to protect and promote their privilege is to deploy the notion of “public interest”. “As educated, enlightened citizens, we are best placed to speak for all citizens and for the greater common good”—this conceit is expressed in armchair pontification on all manner of things, as well as more problematic interventions in public life. Political scientist Yogendra Yadav has pointed out that this elite, a minuscule four per cent of the country’s population, styles itself as the “middle class”, not because of a sense of modesty, but because this label enables it to speak on behalf of a far larger group of fellow citizens. To seem to be one with the aam aadmi confers instant legitimacy. So elites can pursue projects that mainly benefit them and yet claim that these are in the larger public interest. My research on “bourgeois environmentalists” in Delhi shows how poor migrants have lost housing and jobs because elite do-gooders petitioned the courts to save the city from air and water pollution, refusing to acknowledge the inconvenient truth that most of the toxic mess was produced by their own cars and sewage. In our book Elite and Everyman, sociologist Raka Ray and I discuss the Janus-faced features of this group.
What unites cultural, nancial and professional elites is their upper-caste status. There is simply no getting away from it. Even when caste is not foregrounded in public life—and perhaps especially when it is invisible—a little probing beneath the surface reveals a staggering preponderance of Forward Castes in our power elite. But, usually, just the surnames are enough of a giveaway. In electoral politics, the dominance of upper castes has been decisively challenged—that a Dalit like Mayawati could become chief minister of India’s most populous state is the best example of this but the rise of OBC leaders like Lalu Prasad Yadav is also telling. Still, in the larger life of the country, the upper castes prevail. Caste status is so thickly coated in layers of economic and cultural justifications that it’s hard to see the injustice beneath.
This complicates the quest for justice immeasurably. Dalit activists may protest in state education institutions like the University of Hyderabad or Jawaharlal Nehru University. The Other Backward Classes may secure reservations in jobs and seats in colleges. But in the private sector, where most education and employment opportunities lie, upper-caste power and privilege remains a public secret. It’s quite clear that India’s nancial elite is the most influential entity shaping the country’s economic career, including the fortunes of its most deprived and discriminated against citizens. Yet there is little anger or anguish about how public funds, lands and other resources are handed over to corporates in sweetheart deals. The campaigns of environmental and social justice jholawalas don’t seem to resonate with the larger public. There may be a passing media circus around a particularly egregious scam, or a fleeting schadenfreude moment during demonetisation when the poor gloated about the rich getting skewered, but that’s about it. There’s little resentment or rage against the Vijay Mallyas and Subrata Roys, not even against the super-rich as a species. There is no demand for higher corporate or personal income taxes, let alone for a redistribution of wealth by re-appropriating private property. Mahatma Gandhi’s advice to Ghanshyam Das Birla and other seths to hold their wealth as a public trust was ignored during his lifetime and is now forgotten. Today, as long as big companies spend two per cent of their net profits on philanthropy, they’re done with paying their dues to society. Tellingly, though, the limit on corporate donations to political parties was lifted earlier this year.
Why don’t the privileges of great wealth attract popular ire? Is it that the super-rich are invisible, sequestered in their penthouses and farmhouses, jetting about in private planes and luxury SUVs? Is it that we only encounter them on the glamour pages of the media, in the charmed company of film stars and cricketers, seducing us with their combined charisma? Why don’t the environmental scandals of India’s largest enterprises spark off anything beyond localised, routinised outrage among the usual suspects? The systemic corruption that is our political-industrial complex strips ordinary citizens of their rights and entitlements in an everyday, ongoing mockery of justice. Why doesn’t this ignite a fire of protest in Indian public life? Why is it business as usual?
Three reasons. One, the close ties between corporate firms and mainstream political parties. Even the Communist Party of India (Marxist), avowedly the party of workers and peasants, cracked down on people ghting the takeover of their land for private enterprise in Singur and Nandigram in West Bengal. And the Aam Aadmi Party campaigned with anti-corporate rhetoric but quickly hit the mute button when it came to power. Two, the equally close ties between business and the media. Newspapers and television channels are owned by business firms and depend on them for advertisement revenues. Apart from a few online news portals that are independent—all English-language, alas— the media quietly censor themselves when it comes to criticising corporates. Three, people who join the dots between politics and economics and spearhead protest, social activists like Medha Patkar, have to swim against the strongest current of all: the power of the establishment to normalise inequality. When even imagining a more just world is hard, striving for it is harder still.
In sharp contrast to the financial elite, whose immense power and privilege attracts little scrutiny and less resentment, there is the so-called intellectual elite. Or rather, one tiny fraction of it that might be described as the left-liberal intelligentsia. They have a moderate presence in the media, education and development sectors and modest influence in public life, yet they are the focus of major indignation and ridicule. Why is this? In particular, why does the ruling political party, and its cultural commandos, take the trouble to sneer and jeer at this elite fragment? Who are they and why do they matter?
The left-liberal intelligentsia is also an upper-caste elite and equally endowed with inherited privilege. Its lineage lies in Nehru’s ideals of enlightened governance, a paternalistic commitment to building a secular, vaguely socialist, nation where the poor and deprived would ultimately prosper under the benign rule of their high-minded guardians. Privately educated in English and Westernised in their habits and tastes, this intelligentsia could be found in the senior civil services, English language press and the better universities. Like all elites, there was a clubbiness to its culture. Everyone knew everyone else and the gates were shut to those who didn’t belong. The subtle ways of sniffing out imposters are exemplified in Anuja Chauhan’s novel Those Pricey Thakur Girls where the heroine rejects a marriage proposal from a “perfectly nice, healthy, decently earning” man because “He said ‘intrusting’ instead of interesting”. The right accent and correct pronunciation are markers of what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called “distinction”, the carefully calibrated practices by which an elite sets itself off from other social groups. This intelligentsia’s privilege was not based on great wealth, even though its members were usually comfortably off, but on its command over the cultural practices of an English-speaking world and its well-knit social connections.
Since the 1990s, as the Hindutva project has unfolded with greater vigour, the left-liberal elites have seen the certainties of their world crumble. Their confident assumption that they best represented what political scientist Sunil Khilnani has called “the idea of India” has been shaken by those who attack them as brown sahibs whose colonised minds don’t understand or respect the authentic culture of desh. Their belief in gender equality is decried as unleashing immorality. Their defence of religious equality is called “pseudo-secular”. Their criticism of unbridled crony capitalism or of abuses by state armed forces is called “anti-national”. And, universities and NGOs, the remaining two bastions of the Left-liberal intelligentsia, have had to fend off greater state control. To the limited extent that this intellectual elite has helped make a case for greater social and economic equality—though many of its members have happily cosied up to governments that made the right noises but did little—it has helped to undo privilege, though not particularly successfully.
Like all Indian political formations, the Sangh Parivar is quite happy to encourage elites that support it. Through strategic alliances, it has ensured that a formerly critical English-language media is much closer to its agenda. And a large section of the English- speaking techno-managerial elite—corporate managers, engineers, bankers—identifies with the vision of India as a global superpower, economic dynamo and regional strongman. Narendra Modi is their ideal: incorruptible, his self-presentation that of the all-powerful leader who will guide India to greatness.
But how does one explain the willingness of this class to overlook issues that seem to go against the grain of their culture—the moral policing, cow deification and celebration of ancient India as the inventor of aircraft and plastic surgery? Surely these are patent absurdities? Many English-speaking members of this class deal with these uncomfortable issues by dismissing them as the work of the lunatic fringe that attaches itself to every good cause. More worrying, though, are those who willingly suspend disbelief by compartmentalising their consciousness in a manner reminiscent of what political scientist Partha Chatterjee described as a hallmark of the nationalist bhadralok in colonial Bengal: in the public sphere, they embrace the “modernity” of science and democracy and, in the private sphere, they uphold the “tradition” of the god-fearing patriarchal family. However, by now, the compartments have leaked into each other. And it’s a fantastic khichdi of ancient glory and future world dominance that fuels the dreams of this elite. In this mix, however, these same elites will continue to exercise their privilege. And Dalits and Adivasis, Muslims, women and queers will rarely be VIPs.
This essay was published in the Jul-Sep ’17 issue of The Indian Quarterly.