Updated: May 12, 2015 8:27:10 pm
Some reactions to Salman Khan’s conviction have elements of a Marie Antoinette moment for India’s ruling classes.
When confronted with the fact that the poor were rioting because they had no bread, Marie Antoinette is alleged to have said, “Why can’t they eat cake?” Strictly speaking, this attribution is incorrect. In his Confessions, Rousseau attributes this howler to another princess. But when discontent rises, as it did during the French Revolution, the distinction of generations matters less than the follies of class.
Faced with the reality that someone was mauled to death while sleeping on the footpath, reactions from some stars have the same quality: the outrage is not over the drunk driving, the sympathy is not for the victims, the concern is not for the rule of law. Rather, what emerges is the stunning “why were they sleeping on the footpath?” The poor are to be held responsible for their own lack of options. They are a nuisance, standing in the way of drunk drivers in fancy cars who think footpaths are racing tracks. It would be easy to write this off as the reaction of a deluded few.
But it is hard to shake off the feeling that this moral obtuseness and lack of social imagination is now so much second nature to India’s ruling classes that there is no longer any shame even in espousing it.
The evidence for this is Bollywood itself. Bollywood’s great success, when it was a genuine national institution, and not a cultural manifestation of the secessionist tendencies of India’s privileged, was this. It sublimated all eros into refined poetry. But it also sublimated the desire for justice into a popular art form. Bollywood provided an escape.
But it was not escapist. The Bollywood of the early Raj Kapoor, of Sahir Ludhianvi and Shailendra, of the Progressive Writers’ Movement, Guru Dutt and Bimal Roy, the angry young Amitabh Bachchan or even Prakash Mehra and Manmohan Desai drew its resonance from a popular desire for justice, the hope that in movies, if not in real life, the underdog and the marginalised will get some redemption. Or even if they were not redeemed, their presence pricked the conscience of the privileged.
Can you imagine contemporary Bollywood performing such a role? Bollywood was always a fantasy, but it had a chaotic grasp on the truth: on the fragility of life chances, on the fact that it is social luck, not entitlement, that distinguishes the rich from the poor. It was always privileged, but it still had space for art as a form of social empathy. It got India. Now it has been reduced to a fantasy of secession: India is inconvenient.
Bollywood may be progressive on some identity issues. But now it erases the reality of India, literally and visually. No wonder it is a dying art form with a bleak future in India’s cultural imagination.
But this attitude is part of a larger disconnect. There are always elites. There is always inequality. There is always deep moral callousness. You do not have to be a Marxist to acknowledge that ruling classes often consolidate their hold on power by disguising these realities, obscuring them in a cloud of internalised ideology. But two things are necessary to the success of that operation. First is the importance of form. The rule of law, its deep structures, helps the privileged. But it is important to their success that they do not appear to do so in daily operations. The second is taming the irrationalities of the social world, by at least keeping the fantasy of a norm alive. We may not alter social structures to accommodate the equality we espouse. But the only arguments we use are arguments from regrettable necessity. It is necessary and a matter of some regret that the world should be structured such that some have more than others.
This somehow brings some gains: perhaps even the least well off are better off. These arguments can also be a form of mystification. But you know an elite is morally obtuse when it has no capacity for regret, and a sense of entitlement that goes beyond regrettable necessity. It literally wants to bulldoze everything in its path.
This sensibility is manifest in so many of the debates of our time. There are technical arguments to be made over land pooling, slum redevelopment and land acquisition. But one of the reasons these have got intractable is that the underlying sensibilities move much beyond regrettable necessities. The slogan “slum-free India” would be credible if it were motivated by a genuine empathy for and desire to improve the lot of slum dwellers. But it is not hard to detect in that slogan the undertone: “can’t we get rid of these people?”
Similarly, so much of the schizophrenia over land acquisition stems not from obtuseness over the possible long-term benefits that might necessitate short-term pain. It stems from the raw suspicion that this is not really for the benefit of farmers. There is no surrounding culture of identification or empathy, nothing in elite sensibilities or behaviour that could credibly convince anyone that this progress is really about the future of farmers.
There might be objective reasons why giving up land might be a good idea. But those making the case are doing so with such a sense of entitlement to poor people’s property that you wonder. If you want the sociological equivalent to Bollywood’s obtuseness over Salman Khan’s case, just watch the Twitter handles of so many captains of industry, including in leading sectors like pharma: the open contempt for poor farmers will become apparent. Indian capital’s moral obtuseness makes it its own worst enemy.
We often decry politicians for bending over backwards to appear to be pro-poor. They may be hypocrites. They may use pro-poor arguments to underwrite bad policies. But at least they somewhere have to acknowledge a complex reality. If you thought Lutyen’s Delhi was out of touch, just wait till you see Dalal Street and Bollywood. Even more Marie Antionettesque.
The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines
- The Indian Express website has been rated GREEN for its credibility and trustworthiness by Newsguard, a global service that rates news sources for their journalistic standards.