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Wednesday, May 11, 2005

People Versus Privilegentsia: Feudal India declines as common man rises

A few days ago, when I was standing in line at an airline counter, I was rudely shoved aside by two men checking in an absentee dignitary. Not wishing to make a scene, I urged the flight attendant to intervene. Amazingly, she told them to queue up. In that simple statement, she challenged the feudal culture of privilege that has sapped this nation''s spirit for five decades.
In the event, the grandee in question sat right next to me in the aircraft. I complained to him about the run-in with his staff members. He took umbrage and curtly told me that his busy schedule necessitated that he is checked in. I was taken aback that he seemed to be justifying the discourteous behaviour of his staffers.

To my mind, the attendant at the airline counter deserved a medal for egalitarian behaviour. It reinforced my growing belief that India is finally getting rid of the privilegentsia raj.

The privilegentsia is an outgrowth of the state-centric model of governance that India pursued for most of its life as an independent country. It refers to the clutch of bureaucrats, politicians and academicians who ruled over the fate of millions of decent, hard-working people. It was a curious perversion of democracy that the people, who as voters should have held their rulers accountable, were instead held in thrall by this ruthless clique.

The privilegentsia has been part of my consciousness since I was 13. I remember going to a popular movie with a friend, only to find that the show was sold out and ticket counters closed. A tout came up to us and offered us tickets at twice the price. We looked at each other and decided on the spot to pay the scalper''s rate.

My friend''s father, a senior official in the state government, found out about it and admonished us for encouraging the black market. He was very clear: "You should have called my office and we would have phoned the manager to get you tickets. Plus you would have been given complimentary passes", he said.

Even at that tender age, I wrestled with the proposition: Free tickets through influence or scalped ones from the black market. I concluded that both options were equally dubious. Since then I began to question the system in which the choice was between influence and black money. In those days, if you had no influence or money, you had to stand in line for a Friday release with a red-haired Pathan bouncer to contend with.

Influence peddling and kickbacks were par for the course in the India of old. Either you paid extra cash or used influence. The ability to get things done without black payment was a mark of a person''s social status. Growing up in the miasma of the privilegentsia raj, I could do no more than accept it in a sullen manner. When it got too much, I took the middle-class way out: I moved to the United States, not just to enrol in a graduate programme but really to make a dignified living.

Today, things have changed dramatically. To go back to my movie example, touts have become irrelevant and so have free passes for the privilegentsia. With multiplexes springing up in every neighbourhood, no 13-year-old has to deal with the problem I faced. The explosion of choice has challenged both the black market and the privilegentsia raj. I remain convinced that the privilegentsia raj, for all its ideological posturing, is a bigger blot on public life than the black market.

Over the years, the government''s emphasis has been on poverty and, lately, on religion and caste. But the common man cuts across all considerations of class, religion and caste. He is not necessarily poor; he may be religious and caste-bound but, above all, he is a citizen seeking to lead a dignified life that the privilegentsia and its handmaiden, the black economy, have denied him all these years.

Today, it is more difficult for politicians and bureaucrats to lord it over the general population. For the last 50 years, they have managed to sell the misbegotten notion that they are taking from the rich to give to the poor. Despite all that Robin Hood posturing, governments have sucked up to the rich and hoodwinked the poor. It worked okay when there were a handful of rich people and the vast majority was poor. Today, both poor and rich are on the fringes of mainstream society. An explosive growth of the middle class has put the privilegentsia on notice.

As the UPA government celebrates its first year in office, I believe that a part of any success it hopes to achieve will be traced to people like the woman at the airline check-in counter, who showed the VIP''s flunkies their place. Her act should be honoured with a fanfare for the common man.

(An edited version of this post will appear in http://http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com, May 11, 2005.)