The Telegraph newspaper on Saturday organised a debate on the motion "Intolerance is the new tolerance". Anupam Kher spoke ‒ and the speech, now being transmitted on social media timelines, is drawing wah-wahs. So I listened. You can, too. Here it is.
In sum, Kher’s thesis seems to be this: A chaiwallah became prime minister of this country; the liberals and the scions of privilege are unable to stomach this; corruption has ended; therefore a manufactured intolerance is being used to damn that poor chaiwallah.
Firstly, to say that a chaiwallah became prime minister is as simplistic as to say that a drug addict and college dropout (which I was) became a journalist (which I am). It skips several important steps. The chaiwallah became a mediocre student and gifted orator and stage actor. He then became a wanderer across the country, soaking in experiences (the lost years, of which nothing much is known).
The wanderer then became an Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh worker, who became a regional organiser and was put in charge of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad. The ABVP activist became an anti-Emergency activist. The activist became organising secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Party's Gujarat unit. The party official became the organising force behind LK Advani’s rath yatra. The organiser became national secretary of the BJP. The national political leader was installed as chief minister of Gujarat (because of the many allegations against incumbent Keshubhai Patel). And then, he became prime minister.
That is to say, the chief minister of Gujarat became the prime minister of India ‒ the climax of a prolonged career in politics. To keep harping on "chaiwallah became prime minister" is insulting to those who hold down menial jobs all their lives with no hope in hell of any form of advancement.
Further, it is as silly as to say that an ice-cream seller (Barack Obama, Baskin Robbins) and a man who flipped hamburgers in a local restaurant (Gerald Ford) became presidents of the United States; that a busboy at a Howard Johnson’s restaurant became president of France (Jacques Chirac); that a hotel maid became a Senator (Pat Spearman, Nevada) and that a one-time babysitter became in turn First Lady of the United States, then Secretary of State and now the Democratic front-runner for president of the US (Hillary Rodham Clinton). Or, for that matter, that an au pair became president of an national party in India ‒ which statement is a refrain of the Right wing.
It was a fairly ordinary line to pull during the election campaign, Mr Kher, but excusable because election rhetoric is so much smoke and mirrors (“jumlas” is, I believe, the term in vogue) anyway. But now that the chaiwallah of distant ‒ very distant ‒ memory is actually the prime minister, that trope has passed its use-by date. The political opposition may be so inept that they allow this nonsense to go unchallenged but, please ‒ the public has a brain.
That brings me to Kher’s Corollary — intolerance is being raised because there is no corruption. “Have you heard anyone talking about corruption these days?”, the speaker challenges, with all the histrionic flair of the high-quality actor he certainly is.
Consider these news reports.
#1. "The Supreme Court on Thursday [January 2014] set aside a 40 acre land allotment in Kutch district permitted by the Modi government to Alumina Refinery Limited for a sum of Rs 1.20 crore in violation of statutory norms.
The top court also had harsh words for Modi’s Revenue Minister Anandi Ben Patel who cleared the sale from an earlier company which was allotted the plot, bypassing objections from top bureaucrats." [January 2014]
#2. "Rajasthan Housing Board property illegally assigned to BJP legislator Suryakanta Vyas." [May 2014]
#3. "Rs 2,000 crore graft charge against Madhya Pradesh Minister for farmers welfare and agriculture development minister Gaurishankar Bisen." [June 2014] (As I write this, Modi is addressing a farmer’s gathering and telling them how they are braver than the jawans ‒ who, we were told in the recent past, are braver than the students….)
#4. Vyapam. The scam so big, it dwarfs anything that has gone before. (Oh, but that was before Modi became prime minister? Oh yes, and Modi is now prime minsiter, and his hand-picked consigliere Amit Shah is head of the party, and the scam-tainted continue to rule the state…)
#5. The joint plunder of the Aravallis by Haryana and Rajasthan in defiance of the Supreme Court. [July 2014]
#6. Pankaja Munde who managed to find a way to scam peanut brittle meant for children
#7. The Rs 1,000 crore rice export scam involving Punjab, Haryana and Gujarat. [February 2016]
I could go on (Remember Lalitgate?). But what’s the point?
A deaf ear
Kher asks, have you heard anyone speak of scams lately? Likely he hasn’t ‒ but not because there aren’t any, merely because he doesn’t seem to move in the sort of circles where such things will be mentioned.
Is it any wonder then that the government is dragging its feet on the “bring back black money” meme that Modi hammered away at during the election cycle?
And please don’t bring up the dozens of scams by the Congress. It is not my argument that the previous government was not corrupt. It is precisely that corruption that this government promised to end. So how’s the “…na khaane doonga” bit working out?
PS: Ooops. A friend writes in to say that the “chai wallah” meme was actually quite clever during the election cycle. It touched the aspirational chord of the average Indian, my friend writes.
Maybe, but it could have been questioned even then. How do you say “chaiwallah” and “experienced administrator and inventor of the Gujarat model” in the same breath?