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Monday, November 29, 2021

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Marie Antoinette’s exhortation to hungry French peasants to “eat cake” as there was no bread is too trite to be brought up again.

Written by Seema Chishti |
September 17, 2009 4:58:27 am

Marie Antoinette’s exhortation to hungry French peasants to “eat cake” as there was no bread is too trite to be brought up again. But it is a tempting cliché,as urging people to eat cake caused the monarchical cookie to crumble and was,in part,responsible for ushering in the Revolution. The Palace of Versailles outside Paris is still a shining example of how rulers should not live. And certainly not elected ones.

It is perhaps an indicator of how far removed our leaders in India today are from the aam citizen that Austerity is threatening to become a bit of a farce. A historical recap should put the current debate in a better perspective.

Several people still wonder why a well-dressed Bar-at-Law like Mahatma Gandhi shed his western togs for a loincloth and acquired an obsession with khadi? In fact Shashi Tharoor,in his excellent book Nehru,The Invention of India,displays a very lucid understanding of the Mahatma’s magic when he writes of how,“to put his principles into practice,the Mahatma lived a simple life of near-absolute poverty in an ashram and travelled across the land in third-class railway compartments,campaigning against untouchability,poorer sanitation and child marriage… that he was an eccentric seemed beyond doubt; that he had touched a chord amongst the masses was equally apparent; that he was a potent political force,soon became clear.”

Being seen to be someone who lives by what he preached,even behind closed doors,is what established how trustworthy any leader was. Later,it became a uniform,indeed the de rigueur white kurta-pyjama grew to be a symbol of much-detested neta-dom in unsympathetic movies. As Rajmohan Gandhi also writes in his portrait of his grandfather,Gandhi’s choice of simple,self-woven khadi at a time when the ruling class was seen to be an alien elite was a master-stroke — it evoked a sense of camaraderie with poor Indians (an overwhelming majority then) and brought him closer to the image of Indian icons “like Kabir and even popular weaver-poets like Thiruvalluvar”.

Nehru too,though imbued with much more of the “sahib” image than Gandhi,was clear on the importance of symbols like Indian clothes and was conscious of avoiding too much pomp and puffery as he went about his job. Writing to his daughter Indira from London in October 1948,he speaks of the “disintegration of a great and famous nation” in the context of France when he says: “The foreigners here,including us,lived in luxury,and sumptuous food and wines were abundantly provided and wasted when vast numbers of people were in great trouble.” The sense that when “people” are seen to be in some sort of trouble,conspicuous consumption — even on the part of those who can afford it — is in poor taste,was very much an Indian idea.

Lal Bahadur Shastri,too,despite his brief tenure,made his mark when it came to potent symbols of being one with the masses: after two droughts in quick succession in the mid-sixties,his “Jai Jawan,Jai Kisan” cry,exhorting people to skip one meal once a week in solidarity with those for whom life was not so good,struck a chord.

In more recent times,Ram Manohar Lohia (though no Gandhian,but seen to be “like a common man”),JP and then George Fernandes (with his trademark un-ironed kurtas) seemed to epitomise the “common man” or “equality” principle in the way they lived (“simple” and visibly so).

Mamata Banerjee,with her hawai chappals,Lalu Prasad,and — to an extent — Mulayam Singh Yadav in his early days projected themselves as one of “us”; they had a cultivated sense of what was “common” and had a connect with their prospective vote-base . The Left,despite having been in power for more than three decades in Bengal,has made it a point to retain its party office in Alimuddin Street,where they set up first,bang in the middle of thickly-populated,bustling Calcutta. Conversely,Jayalalithaa and her companion Sasikala’s gold jewellery and the marriage of the latter’s son played a big role in creating an impression about the leadership of the AIADMK which has been difficult to shake off.

So,appearing “austere”,which at its best means someone who rejects the frills that celebrity-hood and power offer,and “one of us-ness” (standing in queues,experiencing the daily traumas of the vast majority,such as waiting and waiting some more for things to happen) have great appeal even today — especially as the distance between voters and those they elect is growing. Even in politically-aware Uttar Pradesh,the number of Black Cat commandos a neta has,decides his/her pecking order in the state’s hierarchy and is a status symbol: the only time a neta mingles or visits a bazaar,buys vegetables or books or has chaat like anyone else is when elections come calling.

The exact mix is for each member of the political class to find,an exercise in identifying with the context which elects him. There is a firm grip on the Indian imagination of the one who renounces power — a Buddha who can leave his palace in Kapilavastu and look for a higher truth. But for even those,in the next category,those in whom we repose our trust to rule us,there are high standards. Not standards that can be necessarily measured by the price of an economy ticket. The aam janata in today’s rapidly changing times would not expect leaders to wear the Gandhi topi but to behave responsibly and convey some hope that they can manage the taxpayers’ money judiciously. It is those symbols of responsibility that the discerning,silent voter looks out for,not for the right boarding passes or Khadi Bhavan labels. So politicians would do well to not insult the intelligence of the middle classes (who actually work quite hard to be able to afford an economy class ticket) and look for more meaningful symbols to reflect good sense.

When Gandhi did what he did,it was a brand new idea. We need a new khadi for 2009,if it is to not just melt into another token symbol.

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