CITY CITY BANG BANG
What our anger has to say about us
Looking back on the whole array of reactions to the horrific events in Mumbai, there is one particular statement that stands out. Not because it was silly and offensive, which it undeniably was, but because it was, well so peculiar and as it turns out, twistedly perceptive. I am referring to Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi’s crack about women wearing lipstick and powder, who abuse politicians and the democratic process. What was strange about Naqvi’s statement was that it made gratuitously, in response to an unrelated question, apart from which it went on to defend the presence of Ram Gopal Varma as part of Vilasrao Deshmukh’s entourage, dismissing it as a trivial incident. Now, why would a senior BJP leader feel the need to lash out at protesters instead of the government and, in fact, end up defending a rival politician?
Naqvi’s reaction reveals an underlying faultline that runs through the terrorism narrative, one that separates the enabled India from the rest of the country. The politicians live in both worlds and in stressful times such as these give away their real feelings about the world of lipstick and powder. It underscores that while we focus on the contempt the educated class has for the politician, the reverse is equally true. In the eyes of a politician like Naqvi, the elite are nothing but a pampered, self-indulgent lot of disconnected people, cozying up to politicians in times of need and cursing them otherwise.
And while one can find many reasons to disagree with Naqvi and his ilk, going by last fortnight’s performance, perhaps there is something legitimate about his contempt. The anger we saw on the streets and which news channels were quick to glorify, reeked for the most part, of a petulant sense of entitlement. Fear made us speak our minds and reveal how little we carry there. For instance, a lot of people warmed to the idea that we should stop paying our taxes till something is done and that Mumbai’s taxes should be used for Mumbai. The notion that taxes are a form of entitlement which allow higher privileges for those who pay more reveals the underlying mental model at work here. The rich pay more, and like it happens in the market, should therefore get more. Now that we pay more taxes, let us flash our platinum cards and have the valet park our cars.
The endless articles that spoke of the Taj as an icon of Mumbai, which apparently dandled the authors on its demure knees while tenderly feeding them pate de foie gras do so without a trace of self-consciousness. For anyone to believe
that Mumbai can be encapsulated by a five-star hotel, no matter how old and how gracious, can only be a staggering act of self-deception. Just as to believe that Mumbai is represented by Shobhaa De, Alyque Padamsee, Prahalad Kakkar and sundry filmstars.
And yet, who can argue that if there was a reason to get angry, it was now. In the eyes of the street-hardened politician, the protests may seem effete, with their ‘Yes We Can’ evocations, references to 9/11 and their candlelight vigils, not to mention the banners with smart lines and carefully chosen fonts. For a class that is unused to the language of protest, imitation was the easiest way out. In a media-driven world, every cause can in the end start resembling an advertising campaign. We are seeing this literally, celebrities jumping in, and publications using the anger of the citizens as a promotional plank.
The dilemma of the elite is that for the first time it is really afraid and angry and for the first time there is very little it can do about it. For the truth is that so far, while politicians wielded power, the Taj-is-my-second-home class could always have its way. A well-chosen favour here, a discreet word dropped in the right ear there and the wheels would turn, however squeakily. This is one time, however, when there are no short cuts. We can rail at the politicians, and we can rave and rant and scream incoherent prescriptions on television shows, we can fantasize about carpet bombing a nuclear-enabled Pakistan, but we know that there are no final answers available to terrorism, or for that matter to politicians.
In a larger sense, the helplessness felt by the affluent, educated class comes from the knowledge that none of its concerns really matter. If there was any doubt about that, the recent Assembly election results establish that Electorate India doesn’t share Market India’s concerns about terrorism. Or for that matter, about any of the things that people on talk shows seem to endlessly talk about.
Market India cannot win this war. The political system is stacked against it. Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi knows this and thus he gloats. Democracy is a way of addressing the largest concerns of the largest number of people. If Market India wants its concerns addressed it must align with the rest of India. Only if it is electorally integrated with the mainland, will its concerns have any value. Otherwise it can keep fantasising about Ratan Tata running the country one day and keep dreaming up new slogans. And worry about using the right font.
TOI, Mumbai, 15.12.08