The business of appropriate housing

The Sangh Parivar may well feel a twinge of anxiety as Amit Shah moves to a more spacious bungalow and his new garden sprawls over nearly an extra acre of fruit and flower. For to the extent that their activities are not without the law, they must see themselves as falling within the home minister’s jurisdiction. They aren’t “termites” but can easily be regarded as such by the long-suffering public.

In the ancient world of Hindu values Narendra Modi extols, Mr Shah’s exaltation might have been signified by some mark of traditional honour. A title, perhaps, like “Brahmarishi” or “Rajguru”. Or, maybe, an additional string to the sacred thread or, even, the right to wear one. Colonialism didn’t change anything. Neither did a fiercely egalitarian Constitution. Nor the trite and tiresome chatter of TV anchors trotting out superfluous superlatives about the world’s supposedly biggest democracy. 

As the US Senator Adlai Stevenson once said, India has representative government but not democracy. Birth and status matter in a society that remains profoundly hierarchical. Only the outward symbols of the pecking order have changed, as they have done often enough during the “1,200 years of ghulami” to which Mr Modi once referred.

Take, for, instance the simple matter of the size of an office and the carpet covering its floor. Older New Delhi hands recall the tale of an officer who was installed in a room that was more sumptuous than his rank warranted because nothing else was available. He wasn’t at all surprised when a servitor turned up with a large pair of scissors and snipped six inches off each of the four sides of the carpet. That reminder of his true entitlement cut the officer down to size. 

Of course, no one would dream of reducing the grounds of the bungalow Atal Bihari Vajpayee once occupied. But minds are bound to work overtime puzzling out why Mr Modi is sending Mr Shah before he reaches the top to where Vajpayee paused on the way out.

Given Hindu society’s timeless ranking, the better informed among British members of the Indian Civil Service devised the theory that Indians saw their Anglo-Saxon rulers as another layer on the existing many-tiered power structure. Right or wrong, the men who operated the British Raj made full use of these gradations with the difference between knighthoods and British orders on the one hand and “native” titles (Rai Bahadur, Khan Sahib etc) on the other replicated in the distinction between King’s and Viceroy’s Commission.

Traces of the last might still be discerned not just in the difference between President’s Commission and Non-Commissioned Officers but in the titles – subedar, havaldar, naik – still in use for the latter. It persists in the civil service in the great divide between officer and subordinate, and in the perquisites of rank in organisations like the railways. India’s army may have done away (in theory at least) with batmen and given them a grand Sanskrit-sounding professional appellation, but a railway general manager still travels (when he travels by rail instead of flying business class) in a saloon with 16 or 24 wheels against a lowly assistant officer’s four. As trains shudder over the points, people might point to a long curtained carriage and say: “There goes the burra sahib!”.

Despite its pretensions to a higher spirituality, India is probably the world’s most materialistic society. Nothing more convincingly signals to the lay public that a man is moving up the ladder of success than the car he is driven in, the house he occupies, the number of juniors at his beck and call, the crowds that throng him, and the clothes in which he is arrayed. Waistcoats being in fashion, thanks to a Prime Minister with a nice eye for colour and design, it might be worth watching Mr Shah’s sartorial evolution.

What matters more to 1.3 crore Indians is how he handles the saffron brigade, those roughs and toughs who attack churches, order ghar wapsi, mount rumbustious anti-love jihad vigilantes and see no difference between gau raksha and lynching. A home minister must maintain discipline, especially among his own followers.

There’s another angle to this business of appropriate housing. When Singapore shook off colonial rule, it discarded all colonial privileges including bungalows and flag cars. Ministers and bureaucrats were paid enough to find their own accommodation. Even the President uses The Istana, the equivalent of our Rashtrapati Bhavan, as only an office. No wonder Jagat Mehta, the former foreign secretary, rated Singapore as the only former colony that had made a success of independence. Politics there is to give to the people, not take from them.

 



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