This thing called power

Mirror to reality
Last Updated 12 November 2011, 19:31 IST

What is this thing called power that holds everybody in thrall? I don’t think there is anybody in the world who does not have visions of enjoying power, but probably there is a difference in the way that power is exercised in other parts of the world, as compared to India. Surely, there is no other country that obsesses over power like this one and this piece will try to look at the means people use to express their superiority over lesser mortals.

One thing that definitely comes to mind is the use of the red beacon light that politicians and bureaucrats use on the roof of their cars. Riding in such vehicles is a declaration that the occupants have reached the highest echelons of power. Every now and then, one reads in the newspapers about the scramble for these red lights, with even politicians and bureaucrats who are not entitled to it trying to wangle the same for their vehicles — not difficult in a country like ours, where one just needs to be resourceful about jugaad or the ability to manage and obtain things! The other way that politicians use to reveal their sense of power is by requesting for a special category of security, regardless of it being an entitlement. How flattering to the ego to have heads turn when your car zooms by with a red beacon light on top or you alight from a car with a string of security guards hovering around you. Even those who are not entitled to certain categories of security, after their loss of power, will think of ways and means to retain the same, under pretexts that their lives are still under threat.

But if one is under the impression that it is only the bureaucrats and politicians who love this feeling of exclusivity, think again. A brush with the corporate sector has also revealed that this area of industry only pays lip service to a flat structure of management. Democratic intent is showcased in small things like referring to each other by first names, but there it ends, at least in the Indian context. It is such a funny sight to see the CEO of a company come up in the lift leading to the corporate floor in sole splendour. Within minutes, the lift goes down and comes up again, this time with the CEO’s chauffeur bringing in his briefcase and lunch box. Neither of the items is weighty by any stretch of  imagination, but the CEO is so weighed down by grandiose notions of power that this additional burden is just too much to carry.

During my travels out of this country, I do not have a single recollection of traffic being held up because a dignitary is to traverse on a certain road. S/he rides by along with common people, perhaps with pilot, decoy and security vehicles, preceding or following, with very little indication that an important person is part of the convoy. Not so in India. Numerous are the times that one has been forced to fume in traffic as a politician and his followers get right of way. Recently, I was witness to a traffic policeman impatiently waving along a bunch of cars.

I could not understand his sense of urgency, until I noticed the traffic from all sides being blocked, as the all-important “servant” of the people who voted him to power made his way to attend to “God’s work” (the reference, of course, is to what is prominently displayed in front of the Vidhana Soudha, “Government’s work is God’s work”).

In 2006, a Bar Council Resolution decreed that there was no reason for judges to be referred to as “My Lord” or “Your Lordship” since they were archaic terms handed down by the colonial
dispensation. I wondered whether Hindi film-makers would throw up their hands in horror and say, “Ab kya hoga, Milord?!” Dialogue writers, used to relying on these terms in courtroom scenes, would be hard-pressed to find suitable replacements that could convey the high-drama in such sequences. But I need not have worried. Those practising at all levels in courts say that the terms are still in use, with no judge insisting on their removal. It is not as if the advocates practising in these courts showed any eagerness in dispensing with these terms either. Why would they risk jeopardising the decisions on their cases for something as simple as the use of an honorific?  

Neighbours’ envy...

Another instance that comes to mind is in the way invitations are printed in India. Innumerable are the instances when one has received wedding or even obituary cards which could read as mini-CVs of the people concerned. Somebody once told me that Indians are intrinsically curious and would immediately like to know whether the neighbour/friend or relative’s son or daughter has made a better catch than their own offspring. Therefore, a wedding card could read like this:

Sri V Somanna (retired IFS) and Smt Dr Leelavathi (MBBS, FICS, FRCS, retired RMO, Tata Main Hospital) Cordially invite you to the wedding of their son, Chi Abhijit(BE, IIT, Kanpur; MBA, Harvard) with Sou Ambika(BCom, St Xaviers, Mumbai; MCom, Ferguson’s, Pune; MBA, XLRI, Jamshedpur; at present pursuing a PhD in Bangalore) Daughter of Air Commodore Brij
Mohan (AFMC, Pune, attended Officers’ Training Programme at Leeds, UK) and Smt Manjulika (BA Hons, Calcutta University, MA, Oxford, retired professor, Bethune College, Kolkata).

One would imagine that going through all these details would be exhausting for the invitees, but it is very unlikely that any of them who land up for the celebrations would have done so without poring through these facts. In case there are some odd busy ones who have missed out, there will be enough people present at the wedding venue to fill in the ignorant ones on the credentials of the bridal couple and their ancestors. Sometimes, the names of the deceased grandparents are also thrown in for good measure in case they have been in positions of power.

Obituary notices in newspapers are often power statements. Very often one finds oneself looking at the photograph of a deceased person and garnering so much of information about the person and her descendants, just by the way the obituary is worded. Undoubtedly, it is difficult to run away from a power statement in India, even by the dead!  
But why speak of the practitioners of power alone? There is a whole section of the populace that is no less culpable in the practice of this mai-baap culture. From the weighty garlands to the Mysore petas to the genuflections at the feet of power, Indians do not lag behind in innovative means to express their undying devotion to those who are in positions that count.

One regularly hears of the feting of politicians adorning the corridors of power. These  have poems and paeans written in their praise, when reaching a landmark birthday, like 50, 60 or even 80. When Tamilnadu Chief Minister Jayalalitha came to power in an earlier avatar, some of her ministers regularly fell at her feet whilst others had her name tattooed on their arms. 

One can only wonder if it is our colonial baggage that makes us such suckers for power. Or, is it just that Indians are shrewd calculators? If kowtowing worked during the British days, why will it not work in independent India? So, one wonders who has the last laugh — the politician, the bureaucrat or the corporate honcho who needs to build a White House in the sky to make a statement, or the ordinary citizen, who will willingly prostrate to the rich and the powerful to achieve his objective? Tomorrow, a new party may come to power or a new management might take over. Then the equations will change and the new arrivals will become the recipients of the adulation as the old fall by the wayside.

Our entertainment industry, especially our Hindi films, have become box-office hits, even whilst they perpetrated power structures. Some dialogues like a powerful man addressing a menial, “Jaante ho ki tum kisse baat kar rahe ho” (meaning, “Do you know who you are speaking to?”) have spilled into real life with people using these dialogues to score points with others. Even today, Amitabh Bachchan is asked to repeat the dialogue, “Rishte mein toh hum tumhare baap lagte hain, naam hain Shahenshah,” in Kaun Banega Crorepati, as the audience claps and cheers loudly. What is celebrated by the audience is not just the Big B’s dialogue delivery, but also a reaffirmation of the notion of power.

It will not be possible to consider the dimensions of power without casting an eye closer home, at the Fourth Estate. In the era of 24/7 news channels, the power that the media wields is extensive and can perhaps compare with the top rungs of the other three Estates.

Not very long ago, the involvement of senior journalists in the Niira Radia tapes revealed the dangers of close proximity with the other power centres. Hermann and Chomsky in their book, Manufacturing Consent, have written clearly about how the media can contribute to preserving the status quo of power, rather than questioning the ills that befall society.

In a consumer society, one’s personal possessions are clearly another instance of exercising power. Sadly, we have now perhaps entered an era when a car that a man drives has more value than him who sits at the wheel. Some of the advertisements also pander to man’s notions of competitiveness as the old television ad that said, “Neighbour’s envy, owner’s pride”. The implication here is that the enjoyment of one’s latest acquisition doubles when one’s neighbour does not own it. When people speak of someone, there is a reference to his dodda mane (huge house), which straight away puts him in a certain slot.

A feature on the subject cannot be written without mentioning the enormous power commanded by men of religion in India. Whatever their affiliation, quite a few of them seem to enjoy the confidence of the most powerful people and even have their ears for the most important political decisions, which often involve the fate of the state or country. Religious leaders are revered by powerless, ordinary people too, who need to feel a connection with the divine. Religion can help to iron out the insecurity of both the one who has everything (there is a fear that the good times may run out) and the one who doesn’t. Who can resist the seduction of words that hold out the promise of better times, especially for those who are down and out? Also, there is a sense of comfort in finding an intercessor who can ensure that your trespasses will be pardoned and guide you towards absolution. Even more so when this person is perceived to be better informed than you, on matters both temporal and spiritual.

Language of power

Unfortunately, in today’s India, power has become a means to flout or break rules without being held culpable. But there was a time when people in powerful positions respected the laws of the state and those who worked towards implementing them. In his blog, Churumuri, T S Satyan tells the story of his friend, C W Kuttappa, a legendary police officer of the erstwhile state of Mysore in the 1940’s. Anybody who broke traffic rules in Mysore was sure to be fined by Kuttappa.

Once, the fearless policeman stopped the car of Maharaja Jayachamarajendra Wodeyar because his driver had not switched on the headlights even after darkness had set in. When the King curiously peeped out of the window to take a look at the policeman, Kuttappa snapped to attention, saluted and said, “Excuse me, Mahaswami. It’s already getting dark and your driver has not switched on the lights. As a humble servant of your government, I am only following the traffic rules.” The Maharaja then expressed regret, chided his driver and applauded Kuttappa for his sense of duty. What a contrast from today’s traffic offenders who will first try to find out which important connection to use to wriggle out of the situation.

The most tragic thing about power is its frailties and frivolities. Yet, when it comes to enjoying power, where is the realisation that it cannot last forever? Ronald Reagan, the US president who exacerbated the Cold War, brought in Star Wars and became famous for the arrogant, “Read my Lips”, died a helpless man, in a state of dependency, laid low by Alzheimer’s. As the famous lines from Star Wars says, “With great power comes great responsibility”, but how many truly practise this responsibility, as their unjust wielding of power ruins the lives of people, countries and communities. In recent times, we have the example of George Bush Junior exercising his power unjustly and destroying the lives of a whole country of dignified people whose only fault was that they lived in a country rich in oilfields.

But the realisation that power is but temporary and that privilege, too often, is at the expense of others, often comes too late. As James Shirley says in his poem, Death, the Leveller:

Sceptre and Crown
Must tumble down,
And in the dust be equal made
With the poor crooked scythe and spade.

(Published 12 November 2011, 16:30 IST)

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