Some months ago, a prominent journalist posted a photograph on Facebook of Indira Gandhi visiting a Government of India-run emporium in New York. There was no mention of the date on which the photograph was clicked but it must have been sometime in the mid-1960s when she was either a Minister in the Lal Bahadur Shastri government or had just become Prime Minister.
The photograph, retrieved from a private collection, wasn’t posted to make any larger political point. It was intended as a piece of nostalgia, at best to showcase a time when India promoted its wares by renting upmarket retail space in major cities. Remember, the large India Tea House in London’s Oxford Street functioned till the mid-1970s. What I found significant about the photograph was that the elegant Mrs Gandhi was wearing a fur coat—a symbol of considerable opulence.
Those were the days before animal rights campaigners made it completely unacceptable to flaunt real fur in public. Hence, the very refined daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru wasn’t violating any social taboo by attending a public event in a fur coat—perish the thought that it was some tacky imitation apparel. The significance was that at a time the Indian government was forever going begging bowl in hand to the US to make up for the country’s food deficit, Indira Gandhi didn’t feel any trace of embarrassment displaying her fur coat. She certainly looked good but was that show of personal riches appropriate? After all, she wasn’t a private citizen.
Such questions weren’t, so far as I am aware, asked in those days. Maybe Indians weren’t exposed to such photographs or didn’t quite realise the value of what the Indian leader was wearing. Or, maybe, insolence and undue questioning wasn’t a part of the game in those days. The flamboyant socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia was perhaps the only exception. After the elaborate funeral of Jawaharlal Nehru, he noted slyly that Nehru had left his ashes to the country and his jewels to his daughter—a comment that was then debunked as tasteless.
Perhaps there was another reason for the silence too. India’s tribe of opinion-makers were extremely large-hearted when it came to the indulgences of both Panditji and his daughter—although as a rule Indira Gandhi was far more circumspect. Neither the memoirs of retired diplomats nor the surviving files of the Ministry of External Affairs which are available for public scrutiny record, for example, Nehru’s partiality for good Burgundy wines—the exquisite Grands Echezeaux was said to be a favourite—and the extraordinary lengths which Indian Ambassadors went to make the lunches and dinners he hosted overseas a grand success.
True, all of this happened in a different age when there was insufficient scrutiny of public expenditure and no Comptroller and Auditor General reports to worry about. However, I also get a distinct feeling that the lifestyles and the personal diplomacy of the “dynasty” were governed by an extraordinary measure of entitlement. The Nehrus and Gandhi were always allowed an extra degree of latitude that was deemed unsuitable for lesser public figures.
Today, Nehru’s former official residence houses a museum and library created in his honour. Ideally, Teen Murti House—which used to be residence of the Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army till Independence—should have been the permanent residence of all serving Prime Ministers. However, after Nehru’s death in May 1964, Indira Gandhi, who held no official position then, unilaterally announced that it would become a shrine to her late father.
It is said that she couldn’t countenance the idea of anyone else, and certainly not Shastri, living in a house that was a fitting successor to Allahabad’s grand Anand Bhavan. What is particularly interesting is that no one of any consequence protested against this imperious takeover of a building. Indeed, as long as Congress governments were at the helm in Delhi, the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library came to be seen as part of a family fiefdom.
The history of dynastic entitlement comes to mind in the context of a contrived controversy last Sunday that fell flat within a few hours. During the course of the European leg of his foreign visit, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was photographed draped in a brown check shawl while alighting from the aircraft. As every item of clothing Modi wears is now the subject of microscopic scrutiny since his personalised pinstripes were captured by the cameras on Republic Day, this shawl too was duly scrutinised—and not only by the purveyors of fashion.
Without waiting for any verification, a relentless Modi baiter proclaimed that the shawl was a Louis Vuitton product using its trademark “Damier Ebene canvas pattern.” Within minutes, Twitter handles were full of snide comments of Modi’s latest fashion statement. The Modi baiters went to town questioning the Prime Minister’s wisdom in not showcasing Indian handloom until the French company clarified that it didn’t make shawls.
No doubt Modi’s shawl bore an uncanny resemblance to the colour pattern on Louis Vuitton bags and to that extent this could well have been an honest misrepresentation. After all, not too many people may be aware that some shawl makers in Kashmir are also in the business of borrowing designs. However, to my mind the mistake wasn’t entirely innocent. Underpinning the snide comments was a question: how dare this Johnny-come-lately flaunt a designer label that is beyond the reach of most people? Another section that gratuitously advised Modi to be partial to Indian handloom, was making an aesthetic judgment. To them, the Prime Minister was a parvenu, a social upstart who was guided by brand names and the price tag. For both sections, Modi is an interloper who has usurped a role that belongs to those who are entitled to drink decent Burgundy and even show off a fur coat.
The belief in entitlements and class-based condescension define an outlook and a particular brand of political ‘modernity’. Modi assaults both.
Asian Age, April 17, 2015