The perils of netagiri

A close friend of mine was, once upon a time, political adviser to former prime minister VP Singh. I met him first in the 1980s and had always seen him in the staple of netagiri – khadi kurtas and Aligarhi pyjamas.

So one day, long after Singh had ceased to be PM and my friend had returned to concentrate on his business interests, I was startled to see him smartly turned out in jeans and shirt.

“What goes?” I asked him, pleasantly surprised. “You look so much better in these clothes.”

“Don’t laugh” he said. “But I have junked all my khadi. I will never wear Aligarhis and kurtas in public again.”

Turned out that, on a weekend visit to his cottage by the beach, he had come across a set of people in a very noisy quarrel – a car had brushed a motorcycle rider and the latter wanted compensation. The car owner thought that was ridiculous considering it was the biker’s fault that he had swerved suddenly and, moreover, he was hardly hurt at all.

But when my friend, in his spirit of social work, stepped in to solve the problem, both turned upon him. One look at his clothes and they prepared to beat him up. “Maro! Maro!,” they all yelled. “Saala, netagiri karne aya hai. Garibon ka khoon choosta hai (Beat him up! He is a blood sucker)!”

My horrified friend ran for cover. “I made it to my car just in the nick of time and my driver accelerated before they could hit me. I know there will come a time when politicians will be lynched by the fed-up masses. So I decided to get out of those clothes. I am now aam janata, full and square.”

It has been some years but the shoe throwing incidents of the past couple of years, and the slapping of Sharad Pawar on Thursday by an unknown Indian brought that incident back to my mind.

There is absolutely no justification for Harvinder Singh’s attack on Pawar, though. My own personal take on that is that the man was – no, not demented, but – in search of his three minutes of fame. He attempted the same thing with former telecom minister Sukh Ram the previous week but the cameras were turned away at the time and he got only a passing mention in the media.

On Thursday, the cameras picked up the entire act and he could also hold an impromptu press conference — and so he grandly succeeded in becoming famous. But Harvinder Singh was wrong in blaming Pawar alone for the price rise in the country.

Of course, there is inflation and food prices are particularly at their highest at the moment. But I remember Prime Minister Manmohan Singh saying only a short while ago – when people complained of rising prices of eggs and chicken – that these were tertiary food products and we must first look at the staples and bring those prices down.

However, Pawar has had a different take on the issue: I am no economist so I cannot say if he is right or wrong. But the Union agriculture minister insists the rising prices of staples and vegetables et al are actually benefiting the farmers and that this is a crib only with the middle classes.

I know instinctively that he cannot be wholly right but it is also true that the government has been doing its best to cut out middlemen at the marketing federations and most farmers are now able to sell their produce directly to the wholesale markets. Thus, they are getting returns better than ever before. So if inflation is hurting the middle class consumers, it is not as though the agents alone are reaping good harvests. The people who make it possible for us to eat are the ones who are taking home some better earnings. So, perhaps, we must temper our protests with a little bit of concern for the farmers, too. These farmers are clearly at the bottom of the food chain and have no means to fall back on (like asking for a pay hike or an increased dearness allowance when prices go up) except to commit suicide as thousands of them have been now doing for years.

But having said that, I must say I was appalled by Anna Hazare’s first (and instinctive) reaction to the slapping of Sharad Pawar. I was always taught as a child that the things you laugh at are a measure of your character and your first unguarded reaction is always the truest one.

Thus, I learnt to school my expressions in preparation for unpleasant surprises in various situations but I also learnt that if someone fell off a stair or even farted, you didn’t laugh and you didn’t even hold your nose. You bore up with the unpleasant smell for the few seconds in case of the latter and you picked the unfortunate person up and asked if he or she were hurt after the fall, in case of the former – for it could always happen to you another day.

Ever since Anna Hazare broke into the national mainstream, I have written on his shortcomings consistently – he is no Gandhian, just a tin-pot dictator. How many people know that he did not allow people in his village to even watch television, until TV began to make him big in April, this year? You can now see many dish antennae going up in Ralegan-Siddhi which were not there last November or even in March this year but now that Anna figures frequently on the TV channels, they are free to watch how big he has grown.

On second thoughts, he might as well have stuck to his original diktat — for it is that very television which caught him unawares and exposed the man for what he really is: ignorant and unrefined, besides. There are people even in our villages who would have instinctively sympathised with Pawar or anyone else who might have been beaten up without wanting him to be socked one more.

Team Anna, of course, tried to clean up his act but they were fighting a losing battle, I could see – for there can be simply no justification for Anna’s kind of reaction.

I completely agreed with Pawar when he reacted to Anna’s comment: this is a new definition of `Gandhivaad’ and this is a new kind of Gandhian that we are getting to see in Anna’s persona. For, as I wrote in my column `anandan ON WEDNESDAY’ this week, he also needlessly beats up boys who might have a drink or two rather than go the democratic way to get them off alcohol. And other dictatorial things, besides.

As for Harivnder Singh, all I have to say is: he should have picked on someone his own size. By which I mean he has only been targeting old men whose reflexes are now poor. Neither could Sukh Ram have overpowered him and even if Pawar was not looking away at the time of the attack, he could not have wrestled the young man down. In addition, Pawar has a cancer of the jaw which keeps him in constant pain — which is why he, perhaps, had the stupefied expression on his face when that side of his visage received the blow.

But true to Pawar’s character, he bounced back in double quick time and refused to blame any political party for the attack. I am also relieved that his NCP workers, who can be worse goons than Shiv Sainiks, did not target Sikhs in Bombay (though it was a sad reflection on our society that leaders of the community had to quickly call a press conference and distance themselves from Pawar’s attacker to safeguard their lives and property before the situation got out of hand).

And while all my sympathies are with Pawar today, I hope the incident will have a salutary effect on our politicians as the near-attack on him was to my businessman friend. He had the option to get out of his politicians’ clothes and return to his business pursuits. But even our jeans-clad politicians today are marked for life.

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