AS THE ELECTORAL dénouement of 2024 nears, India’s entitled elite has regrouped. Corroded it might be. Corrupt it is. But even after nine years out of power, it retains its swagger.
There is, however, an existential worry. Another five years out of power could prove politically fatal. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s stock has risen but he still trails Prime Minister Narendra Modi by a 4:1 margin in opinion polls.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and Telangana
Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao both harbour ambitions beyond their calling. Congress knows a two-front split opposition in 2024 would hand Modi a third successive term.
Help comes from unexpected sources. The BBC documentary, titled India: The Modi Question, couldn’t have been better timed. In the works for two years by an outsourced director, Sadhana Subramaniam, the BBC’s brand name gave it a fading patina of credibility.
The documentary largely ignored the 2012 Supreme Court verdict clearing Modi of complicity in the Gujarat riots. It also ignored the burning alive of 59 Ram Sevaks returning from Ayodhya. They were locked in their compartments while a mob of Ghanchi Muslims set the train on fire, killing all 59 pilgrims. The communal riots that followed killed 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus.
None of this, including the lack of editorial balance in the BBC documentary, mattered to the gnarled, entitled Indian elite. Out of power for nearly a decade, it saw the documentary a shoehorn to work its way back to privilege and pelf.
More help came its way with the Hindenburg assault on the Adani group. Adani has long been seen as close to the Modi government. Hindenburg’s reputation as an avaricious short-seller didn’t worry the opposition. Its 106-page report was a sniper bullet aimed at the heart of the billionaire who, the opposition believes, bankrolls the Modi government.
For the opposition, this served as a good beginning to the election season that starts with three state Assembly elections in the Northeast in February, moves to Karnataka in May and closes the year with Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Telangana.
The BBC documentary on Modi and the assault on Adani may not have damaged the government as much as was hoped. But future attacks from helpful sources are not ruled out. The entitled elite is out of power but it continues to control the public discourse. The Modi government’s inarticulate representatives flail away to little effect
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By then, the opposition hopes, BJP will have been sufficiently wounded to be vulnerable in the April- May 2024 Lok Sabha election. If BJP meanwhile loses its southern beachhead in Karnataka, the opposition believes it will be game-on. The BBC documentary on Modi and the assault on Adani may not have damaged the government as much as was hoped. But future attacks from helpful sources are not ruled out.
The entitled elite is out of power but it continues to control the public discourse. The Modi government’s inarticulate representatives flail away to little effect. BJP reacts in two ways: one, with a sense of self-pitying grievance; two, with misdirected rage. Neither is the right approach to counter the entitled elite which of course is, really, neither entitled nor elitist. But it camouflages both with a shrewdness born of experience.
The Modi government’s stormtroopers fall easily into the trap. When actor Shah Rukh Khan’s film Pathaan was about to be released, they announced a boycott. That backfired as it was always likely to. A mediocre film was elevated to the status of a global blockbuster.
Pathaan became a proxy for secularism. Bollywood is known as an extremely Muslim-friendly industry. Its top male (but not female) stars are Muslim. Less known is that many low-paid spot boys are also Muslim.
Disempowered for decades by political parties that pay lip service to secularism, Muslims have few white-collar job opportunities. Bollywood is a safe haven—from a Shah Rukh Khan to a spot boy.
The gnarled, entitled elite comprises politicians, historians, academics, lawyers and journalists. They form a closed, incestuous circle. To belong, you have to be socially upper middle-class, speak nice English and talk knowledgeably about food and wine. That is why Rahul Gandhi is more comfortable having the well-spoken Jairam Ramesh as his Man Friday than the discarded Hindi-first Randeep Surjewala.
Winston Churchill, speaking at the Royal Albert Hall in 1931, said witheringly of India’s two principal religious groups: “While the Hindu elaborates his argument, the Muslim sharpens his sword.” Despite that put-down, the entitled elite, mostly Hindu, suffers from a craven combination of Anglophilia and Hinduphobia.
It is the latter that runs like an undercurrent through three disparate events, tying the threads together in a Gordian knot: the BBC documentary, Hindenburg and Pathaan.