Sneaking penchant for titles

Our Constitution abolished titles hoping to make British-created handles disappear and to start an egalitarian age, but our leaders came up with Bharat Ratnas, Padma Bhushans et al

Sneaking penchant for titles

Everyone, including some who normally vote for the Congress or BJP, will wish the Aam Aadmi Party success in the cleansing mission it has undertaken. A new broom sweeps clean, they say. But it does Arvind Kejriwal credit that he feels “very scared” about public expectations. Even he may not understand the magnitude of the task, however, if supporters really do expect Delhi’s new chief minister to go beyond his 18-point charter and bridge the gulf between ‘aam aadmi’ and ‘amir aadmi.’
Traditionally, socialism was supposed to level everyone down to a uniform common denominator. In practice, it meant everyone clambering to reach the lofty heights of the ruling classes. A Soviet-era joke exposed the paradox. Leonid Brezhnev, general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party and his country’s absolute ruler from 1964 until his death in 1982, was supposed to have taken his old mother round to admire his achievements. He showed her his palatial office and grand apartments in the Kremlin, his beautifully-appointed dacha on the Black Sea and his various luxurious hunting lodges dotted about the country, travelling everywhere in the comfort of his private jets, steam launches and fleets of limousines. “You’ve done very well, my son,” croaked the dazzled old woman at last, “but what if the Communists come back?”
What is called here the “brahmanisation” of the Scheduled Castes amounts to the same transformation that George Orwell depicted in Animal Farm, where the pigs who overthrew human tyranny and were hailed as saviours by other animals began to ape human ways, even to walking on two legs. I have often wondered if Orwell imbibed the idea of man’s essential inequality from his time in the Indian Police under his real name, Eric Blair. For whatever philosophers say and politicians pretend, man is not a democratic creature. Our Constitution abolished titles in the belief that the disappearance of British-created handles would start an egalitarian age. But since the leaders of the republic felt achievement had to be rewarded, Bharat Ratnas, Padma Bhushans, Padma Shris and other awards were bestowed on the worthy.
But since Indians yearn for titles, these awards of merit also became handles. The Andhra Pradesh High Court recently ordered two film personalities, Mohan Babu and Brahmanandam, to return their Padma Shris because they used them as a prefix to their names in the credits of the film, Denikaina Ready. We cannot do without titles. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi is Mahatma. Jawaharlal Nehru became Pandit. Vallabhbhai Patel was Sardar. We have Deshabandhu Chittaranjan Das, Deshapriya J M Sengupta and Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak. Not only was the martyred Bhagat Singh Shahid Bhagat Singh, but his mother was honoured as Shahid Mata. Three brave non-royal women — Rashmoni in Kolkata, Nagaland’s Gaindilu and Lakshmi in the Nicobar Islands — basked in the status of Rani. Rabindranath Tagore’s grandfather, Dwarkanath, a rich and successful merchant, is called Prince. His son, the poet’s father, Debendranath, is referred to as Maharshi.
This abundance of titles indicates more than just a sneaking weakness for hierarchy. It also conceals a selfish motive. If we are generous with titles for others, we ourselves cannot be denied. Margaret Thatcher reportedly persuaded Harold Macmillan to accept an earldom because she wanted a title for herself when her prime ministership ended. The practice of ennobling ex-prime ministers had fallen into disuse and she needed a precedent before reviving it for herself.
Although Kejriwal lost no time in turning on the tap, the most easily fulfilled of his 18 points is probably building 200,000 public toilets. But even a seemingly innocent and desirable reform, like ensuring that no court case can be adjourned if the Delhi government is a litigant, would at once involve problems with the bureaucracy and judiciary. The promise to set up 3,000 “mohalla sabhas”, where people would decide what they want — parks, street lights, dispensaries and so on – recalls West Bengal’s Left Front assuming office in 1977. Jyoti Basu had been saying until then that the civil service was a colonial conduit and the ruling party would communicate directly with the people. But he was thoroughly disapproving when told that Sirimavo Bandaranaike had appointed a political agent representing her Sri Lanka Freedom Party in each district. It was through PAs and not district officers (civil servants) that the government operated. “That will lead to duplication and confusion!” exclaimed Basu, the London-trained barrister.
Many of the AAP’s other points are similarly contentious, though for different reasons. Governance has a cost. It’s fine to audit electricity distribution by private companies and check inflated bills, but can the Delhi administration afford to cut the electricity tariff by half? Similarly, while cancelling inflated water bills is commendable, the plan for free water will involve technical innovations and constant human supervision with the margin for human error and manipulation that such complex arrangements entail. It is right that any public official found guilty of corruption should be sacked and jailed, but the further vow to confiscate his or her property can lead to human rights violations and endless litigation, providing even greater incentive for benami holdings.
It remains to be seen whether it is within the chief minister’s judicial and administrative competence to bring the Delhi police, the Delhi Development Authority and the municipal corporations of Delhi under the union territory government’s control. I am not certain either whether a citizens’ security force would provide security or a danger to the public.
All the same, there is much that Kejriwal can do. Even the example of a spontaneous movement with relatively modest funding and that, too, from the hitherto apolitical urban middle class, adds a welcome new dimension to Indian politics. The AAP is a party without an ideology in the conventional sense, but with a strong commitment to good governance, which is another innovation. It holds the promise of getting away from rhetoric to discuss the brass tacks issues that have so far been neglected. If morning shows the day, this is the right beginning. But it will all depend on the leadership’s willingness and ability to avoid being corrupted by malign influences. One can be certain that Kejriwal himself will not follow the examples set by Brezhnev or Napoleon, or Orwell’s pig. But would the others be as strong-minded?
The rushed passage of the Lokpal Bill is a tribute to the serious challenge the AAP presents. Not minorities alone, but all vulnerable people need protection from ‘fake encounters.’ If young Muslims are especially victims of ‘false cases’, that abuse must also end. Fearlessly honest officials, who provoke important dignitaries, must be protected from reprisal. But the central promise to eradicate corruption recalls Kautilya’s saying about the man with sugar on his tongue not being able to resist tasting the sweetness. The only antidote to human frailty is a strong corrective system that is no respecter of persons. One would like to hope that Delhi, under the AAP, will show the way to the rest of the country in this respect.

SUNANDA K. DATTA-RAY

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