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Saturday, December 04, 2021

No more Burra Sahibs

Last week when the Prime Minister deigned to meet those five editors,it stimulated in me a small epiphany.

Written by Tavleen Singh |
July 3, 2011 12:59:40 am

Last week when the Prime Minister deigned to meet those five editors,it stimulated in me a small epiphany. The meeting was organised to silence critics who have charged the government with being leaderless and the Prime Minister of being weak and invisible. But,when I saw the excitement this meeting generated across the country in the media it made me realise that the political uprising we have witnessed in recent months could signify a deeper more fundamental discontent.

What Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev have tapped into is widespread public rage against a system of governance that remains basically colonial. They may call it corruption and they may call it black money but what ordinary Indians have been trying to say for a long time now is that they are sick to death of a small group of individuals having a more exalted status than elected officials should have in a democracy.

What has happened in India is that ‘the people’ have changed and governance has not. India remains governed as it was during colonial times when the white man was the revered ‘Burra Sahib’ and we the people were lowly ‘natives’. The British devised for themselves a very efficient system of colonial governance that enabled a handful of white men to tightly control a sub-continent of unruly natives. It was a system that served the interests of the ‘rulers’ and not ‘the people’. So the first thing we should have done after we became an independent,democratic country should have been to decolonise governance. This did not happen. All that happened is that a handful of natives took the jobs vacated by the British and continued to behave like rulers instead of the ‘servants of the people’ they claimed they were. This ruler-like behaviour has become uglier since the proliferation of dynastic democracy.

Anna Hazare’s political ideology is contained in a statement that he makes everywhere he goes: in a democracy the people are the ‘malik’ and the rulers their ‘sevak’. He is right. But,on account of our Burra Sahib approach to governance,this is not how it works. The lowliest officials in India behave like rulers no sooner do they get a government job. High officials and ministers,with their sirens and red lights,behave like insufferable Burra Sahibs. And,ordinary Indians are not prepared to put up with this any more.

Public anger,at the moment,is directed against the Prime Minister and Sonia Gandhi but the truth is that senior leaders behave no differently in other political parties. As someone whose job it is to extract information from politicians and high officials,may I say that I need to make hundreds of telephone calls before I get to speak to the Burra Sahib. And,the only ones I do manage to talk to eventually are those I know personally. So I understand how angry it makes the average Indian when he tries to contact an official,for something important,and finds it impossible to get past his peon. I know powerful businessmen who are forced even today to go to ministers on bended knees despite liberalisation. This does not happen in mature democracies.

In London and in Washington,high officials usually pay for their own accommodation and the job of MPs is to make themselves available to their constituents whenever they need their help. This is not true in India. Here taxpayers pay for even ordinary MPs to live in colonial luxury in fine bungalows that even billionaires could not afford to rent or buy. We pay for their security,their huge staff,subsidise their transport,their telephones and electricity. And,their summer holidays abroad. Is it any wonder that they behave like our colonial masters did in the heyday of the Raj?

Colonial governance is so ingrained in our system that we continue to operate a secret caste system in our police and administrative services. Only the high born become officers while those of lower birth work long hours for a pittance and if they die,their bodies are transported in garbage trucks as we saw last week. It has always been this way because we did not decolonise governance. It is not a recent phenomenon. What has changed are the people. They are no longer prepared to treat their elected representatives or high officials as ‘rulers’.

If our political leaders do not wake up to the reality that they are in public life because they have a duty to the public,it is only a matter of time before the public square fills up with people like Baba Ramdev and Anna Hazare. They may not be well educated,they may not understand the fine points of governance and the nuances of political strategy. But,they have no Burra Sahib pretensions and people like this about them.

Follow Tavleen Singh on Twitter@tavleen_singh

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