By Swapan Dasgupta
Intellectuals are easily distinguishable from ‘normal’ people on two counts: first, by their rigid certitudes, their monopoly of the truth and, second, by their susceptibility to allergies—of the aesthetic, not medical variety. "When I hear the word culture", the corpulent Nazi leader Hermann Goering is (wrongly) reported to have said, "I reach for my gun." In a similar vein, today’s intellectuals, particularly the Left-liberal variety that dominate India’s cerebral landscape, are inclined to curl their lips, raise their eyebrows and sneer at the mention of two dreaded words: middle class.
The disdain for the middle class may seem an exercise in self-flagellation. However, ever since the iconic Italian communist Antonio Gramsci conferred social autonomy on them, intellectuals have conveniently ceased to regard themselves as middle class. They may be from the class—or a community—but see themselves as being above it.
This detachment from social moorings has its advantages: it allows intellectuals to flit expediently from correctness to correctness. In the 1930s and 1940s, it was the undying faith in Uncle Jo and the ‘anti-fascist’ struggles; from the 1950s to the 1970s, it was the endorsement of, first, Jawaharlal Nehru and then Indira Gandhi’s elusive search for socialism; and after the 1990s, it was a series of leftover ‘anti’ causes that drove the social conscience of India’s intellectuals—anti-communalism, anti-fascism, anti-globalization and anti-Americanism. In his "Autobiography", Nirad Chaudhuri detected a common thread running through the changes of fashion: "The intelligentsia of my country have always had the faith… that they are indispensable as mercenaries to everybody who rules India."
Nirad Babu was always prone to over-statement but the past week has seen India’s intellectual elite taking up cudgels for a beleaguered government and a failing system. In the face of some of the most amazing assertions of people’s power throughout urban India, the intellectuals have reached for their guns screaming, ‘middle class’ and, therefore, regressive and potentially fascist. The flag-waving enthusiasm of young people and retired policewomen have been equated with World Cup boisterousness and chants of "Vande Mataram", "Bharat Mata ki Jai" and the singing of "Ram Dhun" mocked as exclusionary Hindu symbolism. The heartfelt indignation of a people angry and exasperated by the venality of national life has been painted as assaults on Parliament, the Constitution and democracy. Yesterday’s argumentative Indian, we are now told, has been transformed into demented followers of Hitler. The starry-eyed romanticism that greeted Maoist insurgents in Bastar has abruptly become poison darts directed at a largely spontaneous but non-violent upsurge.
For decades, the middle classes have been pilloried for their lack of participation in India’s civic life. Their voting record was dismal and they have been charged with being preoccupied with their own families, their jobs, their consumerist excesses, Bollywood and cricket. Their rage at an unresponsive political class, an inefficient and leaky state and thwarted aspirations have been brushed aside contemptuously because they lacked collective clout. Now, when they have come out on the streets to challenge one of the foremost impediments to India’s emergence as a global economic power, they are being charged with impetuosity and impatience.
"They have no respect for procedures," we are told by the clever upholders of a rotten status quo; and "they are engaging in blackmail", say others. Both assertions are correct. At the heart of the recklessness, however, is the government’s penchant for subterfuge and low cunning. The regime had to be coerced by the Supreme Court into acknowledging the 2G scandal. There is unending foot-dragging over the scandalous mismanagement of the Commonwealth Games. Was there any show of contrition by the duly-elected government? Did we hear one word of apology to the nation by the Prime Minister? Instead, India was told there is no "magic wand" to fight corruption. Worse, the movement was sought to be derailed by stoking largely imaginary fears among Muslims, OBCs and dalits—the old divide-and-rule formula which has paid such rich dividends.
There is one inescapable conclusion: the regime has no real interest in disturbing a cosy, self-serving arrangement. We have a right to be angry, even a right to be calculatedly reckless. And we have a duty to ignore the bad ideas of mercenary intellectuals.
Sunday Times of India, August 28, 2011