What we have become as a country and where we are heading was evident on the last day of the last year, when most of the leading newspapers thought it fit to make the news of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s mother’s funeral the lead story. Many newspapers even made it a banner headline.
In demonstrable contrast to the Gandhis, Modi has consciously crafted a political persona for himself in which the family was never assigned any role. The decision to keep family life out of his political journey has won him admirers. The quiet assertion, “I do not have a family,” carries with it a promise of selflessness and is a key part of his political messaging: ‘I am a leader of integrity, dedicated not to my family but my country’.
It is, therefore, inconceivable that the Prime Minister’s Office or the BJP’s famed “cells” would have issued any advisory or direction – as often happens – to newspapers or TV channels on how to treat Heeraben’s last journey. As a grieving son, the prime minister would have most certainly valued the privacy of the moment and have expected everyone else to respect the solemnity of the occasion. Yet, the television camera intruded and the newspapers converted – unilaterally and unasked – Heeraben’s funeral into an event of national significance.
The only recent parallel we have is the 1980 death of Sanjay Gandhi in a plane crash. Not only had a sitting prime minister lost a son, but the death was also a most politically consequential mishap: it led to the induction and rise of Rajiv Gandhi, the emergence of the Rajiv coterie (the Arun Nehru crowd) and its shenanigans (which wreaked havoc in Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir), and all other resulting aberrations which persist till this day.
Undoubtedly for the prime minister, it is a personal loss, but Heeraben’s death can by no stretch of the imagination be seen as having any political repercussions. That newsrooms across the country – with a few honourable exceptions – failed to summon the requisite detachment and distance in their display of a mother’s death speaks loudly of the power of unspoken suggestion. Timidity, submission, conformity or just that classic Indian weakness – playing it safe – overwhelmed the judgment and common sense of most editors. It seems everyone is willing to conspire to feed the prime minister’s already bloated personality cult. We were made spectators of the sorry spectacle of a profession melting down.
The last week of the last year also saw the engagement ceremony of Mukesh Ambani’s son, Anant, at the famous Shrinathji Temple in Rajasthan. Predictably, the occasion was a grand and glittering affair, befitting the status of the richest family in the land. No doubt the Ambanis could have chosen and afforded any other destination or locale for the occasion; but, in the end, they opted for a temple, perhaps because the family has been a major donor.
A temple has an aura and an appeal and sanctity of its own, and it was not out of place that the young couple sought the blessings of Lord Shrinathji for their new journey.
Yet, many devotees of this ancient temple felt that somehow the maryada of the temple has been defiled because a rich man has been given the run of the place, at the expense of other pilgrims. The king and the pauper, Krishna and Sudama, get blessed equally in a place of worship. An anguished devotee wondered if our great temples are going to be converted into venues for “Big Fat Ostentatious Indian Weddings.”
That there are enough court scribes to serenade the Shrinath temple affair as a new normal tells us quite a bit about our depleting moral certitudes. As a society, we are embracing unredeemable spiritual poverty and are willing to abandon long-held notions of piety, custom and ritual at the whims of the powerful. Perhaps the only solace is that most ordinary Hindus are still not mesmerised by the riches of a billionaire; it is only the cultural and social elites that believe a ‘New India’ can be built on the shabby slogans and antediluvian shibboleths that come so glibly to the demagogues.
Again, the last week of the last year produced another slap in our collective face: Chanda Kochhar, former managing director of ICICI Bank Ltd, the second largest private bank in India, made a journey to jail in Mumbai. It was not long ago that she was being regularly feted and celebrated as an iconic professional, who had not broken through the glass ceiling but embodied the promise of New India.
Yet her closet apparently turned out to be full of dark deeds. Was it a personal failing, a professional lapse, the inevitable aberration of an inherently cooked-up banking sector or a predictable eruption of modern-day crony capitalism? Is she the only rotten fish in the pond? Whichever way you slice it, it is difficult not to see a moral meltdown – not just of an individual but of the ‘New India’, in which a new, crooked nexus of patronage and power is magically producing vikas and personal fortunes of astronomical proportions for a few.
All this adds up to a polity’s fitful journey to a workable order, which may or may not always be morally palatable; that, historically, is par for the course. Our trouble is that with peremptory moral superiority, the ruling clique insists on making claims to have restored the ethical and moral quotient to our public life. We are told repeatedly that Ayodhya and Varanasi have rejuvenated us spiritually as a nation.
Yet, the last week of the last year made it clear that our new ruling elites are quite content to live with spiritual deprivation and ethical degradation as the new normal. Our current rulers cannot practice a politics of muscle power and deep pockets yet demand that others walk the straight, righteous path. With their penchant for duplicity, our cultural, business, social and professional elites have winked at the ruling political crowd’s new standards of double-speak – and their institutionalisation of moral anarchy.
Harish Khare is a former editor-in-chief of The Tribune.