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Why this Babalog di?

How nepotism and merit feed each other

Written by Vinay Sitapati |
December 7, 2011 3:31:46 am

Why are 21st century aspirants dancing to the tunes of an older India? The tunes in question are of the Tamil-accented English,nadaswaram sounds and drumbeats of “Why this kolaveri di”,a music video that raced to 10 million online views in less than a fortnight. This is the first time south Indian popular culture has so seamlessly captured the north. And the fact that an on-the-spur video has become an Internet sensation showcases an emergent click-democracy in India.

In the YouTube video accompanying the now viral song,Tamil actor Dhanush sings in a studio,while director of the film Aishwarya,music director Anirudh Ravichander and lead actress Shruti Haasan hum and jive along. They’re young,these icons of a new India,at ease in Tamil,English and with new technology.

So far so good. But all four,they’re something else: privileged children of veteran film industry folks. Aishwarya is the daughter of Tamil superstar Rajinikanth. Dhanush is her husband and is the son and brother of well-known film directors. Shruti Haasan is the daughter of Kamal Haasan,who vies with Rajinikanth for top status in Tamil cinema. And “newcomer” Anirudh? His aunt is better known as Mrs Rajinikanth. If one were looking for a song that captures a new India leaving behind the tangled webs that tied up Old India,the sons and daughters behind “Why this kolaveri di” would be the last people to go to.

“Nonetheless,” as Galileo is said to have argued when forced to concede that the earth was the centre of universe,“it moves.” “Why this kolaveri di” is brilliant,catchy and is the anthem of millions of Indians who have never heard of the grandees who made the entry of these four into cinema possible. To put it crudely: how did those who haven’t risen by merit produce such a good song?

Part of the answer is that since Indian professions are built on family ties and occupations considered hereditary,we have never really given the unconnected the chance to sing their own song. A study found that 62 per cent of young parliamentarians in the current Lok Sabha have relatives in politics. Business is the other example. Despite two decades of liberalisation,about half of the top 50 Indian firms are family-owned. Nandan Nilekani might be the poster boy of the do-it-yourself India; his is a lonely story. Given that every avenue of Indian public life is family-based,it is inevitable that the good,the bad and the ugly — whether in business,politics or entertainment — have some family backing. Which is why even the few good songs are sung by the well-heeled.

There might well be another reason. Matt Andrews teaches classes on leadership to policymakers at Harvard. He has studied the Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) Programme instituted by post-Apartheid South Africa in which the largely white-owned private sector is encouraged to give some ownership stakes to blacks. As you can imagine,most of the young blacks that benefit from BEE have family ties to the ruling African National Congress. Jobs for the boys? “Sure,” says Andrews,“but they also tend to be bright,highly educated,and damn good at their jobs.” They may not have got their job through merit,but they are meritorious nonetheless. This puzzles Andrews. It goes against our own sense of fairness and decency: how can the connected also be deserving? And while we cannot quite explain this,he says: “There is something within elites that drives them to push their children to perform better. It’s not clear why,but I’m seeing it more often.”

This radical idea,of nepotism and merit feeding each other,is controversial and untested. It is obviously unfair. Family connections are conferred by birth; they discriminate against millions of Indians because of the accident of their own birth. Connections also tend to be bestowed upon those who are already well-off. Even without her advent in the film industry,Shruti Haasan will lead a comfortable life. But is it inefficient?

As an emerging India seeks to shake off the shackles of ties and networks that defined success in the Licence Raj,what is striking is how much of 21st century India’s companies,politics and even entertainment industries rely on connections. Yet,these connections are not necessarily bestowed on the undeserving. The team that charted “Kolaveri di” has proved themselves before the most brutal of judges — the internet click. Despite the inherited wealth of a thriving cooking oil business,Azim Premji has built a global technology company. Rahul Gandhi might well end up reforming the Congress party from within,though his elevation has little to do with merit. And the murderous rage (or “kolaveri”) of those who bemoan such self-dealing might well be calmed by the melancholic beats of the privileged sons and daughters of an older elite.

The writer is a student at Princeton University,US,express@expressindia.com

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