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The politics of nepotism

In recent weeks, nepotism has become centre stage in mainstream public discourse. Triggered by speculations over the death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput, the debate was initially confined to the film industry. But it has since spread to other domains. What began as a hashtag about a tragic death has acquired a life of its own. How do we understand this sudden upsurge, given that nepotism is not a new phenomenon?

In India, whichever field one may consider, there is no denying the prevalence of influential families that wield nepotistic influence. But does this mean we make peace with nepotism? Certainly not. But a lot depends on how the debate is framed, and the nature of the contingent politics around the nepotism discourse.

The current debate

What is now derisively described as ‘nepotism’ is how things were traditionally done. In pre-modern societies, the realms of domesticity and work were merged, with the family playing a central role in determining an individual’s entry not only into an occupation, but also the public sphere. In insufficiently modernised societies such as India, this tendency remains strong. Second, traditional social norms still dictate that family comes first, caste/clan second, and everything else, including merit, last.

In India, where upper caste dominance across domains is well documented, nepotism extends beyond the family and operates along the axis of caste as well. Deep historical inequalities and a dwindling welfare state have made India one of the most unequal societies in the world, with the richest 1% holding more than four times the wealth of the bottom 70%. It stands to reason, therefore, that anyone concerned about nepotism would want to attack the cause of which nepotism is the symptom: the reproduction of inequality. After all, the more unequal a society, the greater the scope and incentive for nepotism. In a hypothetical society of perfect socio-economic equality, each individual’s nepotistic reserves would cancel out that of everyone else’s. So, tackling nepotism calls for political mobilisation against socio-economic inequality. The most effective means of reducing such inequality are social justice measures such as affirmative action, universal access to public health and education, and redistributive policies such as an inheritance tax.

But the theme of inequality is conspicuously absent in the nepotism discourse. Its preferred binary is not ‘privileged’ versus ‘non-privileged’ but ‘outsider’ versus ‘insider’, with all the outrage reserved for the insiders. The idea is not to call for a level playing field but to stoke the so-called outsider’s desire to displace the ‘insider’ as the new ‘insider’, without dismantling the insider-outsider structure as such.

The key to understanding the nepotism discourse lies in the parallels it shares with the Anna Hazare-led anti-corruption movement. First, beneath the hood of moral righteousness, the nepotism discourse is also powered by right-wing majoritarian elements. As was the case with the anti-corruption movement, this aspect remains understated, if not hidden, thereby enabling the discourse to get traction across the political spectrum, including from liberals.

Second, the nepotism discourse is right-wing populist in precisely the same way that the anti-corruption movement was, with both having the same objective: to consolidate the base of Hindutva politics by channelling public resentment against traditional elites. In politics, where the old elite, symbolically and literally, is the Nehru-Gandhi family and its allies, the strategy worked brilliantly – giving the illusion of authentic change while one faction of upper caste elites displaced another to become the ruling elite.

The contours of this factional war are clear in the Bollywood context. Since 2013, several notables at the periphery of the Bollywood power structure have chosen to ally with majoritarian politics. But six years down the line, their strategic alliance with the new power elite in Delhi is yet to yield a meaningful change in their status vis-à-vis their own industry’s power centres, which continue to be the same old families. As these families continue to monopolise lucrative opportunities for those disinclined to challenge their supremacy, life could get tough for anyone who has fallen out of favour.

Understandably, there is genuine cause for resentment here. Also, since many of these ambitious ‘outsiders’ to Bollywood themselves come from bubbles of privilege in terms of their class and caste origins, they are not easily silenced, unlike, say, an Adivasi or Dalit summarily displaced from her home in the rural hinterland. In a society where a feudal sense of entitlement simmers beneath a veneer of economic modernity, aspirational upper castes with bottled up resentments are legion in every domain. They represent a political resource waiting to be mobilised. The 2011 Anna Hazare movement showed how it’s done.

From the same old toolkit

Corruption did not peak in 2011, when the movement began. But a media-supported public campaign made it seem like it had, helping foment resentment against the UPA regime, which became synonymous with a venal elite that owed everything to the nepotistic influence of the Nehru-Gandhis. Corruption did not disappear after 2014. But the anti-corruption mobilisation had done its job — as a Trojan horse that enabled the forces of Hindu majoritarianism to capture power at the Centre.

The increasing sophistication of right-wing propaganda and its layered execution through social media campaigns has meant that it rarely registers early enough on liberal radars. Nepotism is the latest instrument from the right-wing populist toolkit. As an ideological weapon, it is a missile with multiple warheads. At one level, it does what populism always does: fuel rage against an elite in the name of “the people”. At another level, Hindutva forces are using it to achieve three objectives: consolidate their upper caste base by appearing to empathise with their frustrations; translate status anxieties into resentments against sections of the elite that are yet to make a break with the Nehruvian consensus and embrace Hindutva; and, finally, communicate to recalcitrant sections of the liberal-Nehruvian elite the same message that goes out to some MLAs whenever a non-BJP government needs toppling: switch sides or face the consequences.

Fomenting new social antagonisms along the axis of ‘the people’/outsider versus the elite/insider is a proven political strategy of right-wing authoritarian populists. The nepotism rhetoric is a similar operation where the resentments and frustrations of the less privileged, aspirational, upper and middle castes are sought to be weaponised against older, relatively more privileged upper caste factions, now ‘othered’ as the Nehruvian elite.

The nepotism discourse, then, is another salvo in a battle between two elites: the Nehruvian ‘ancien regime’ with its pluralistic instincts, and the brash new aspirational faction that wants its share of the spoils of power. This is a share it feels entitled to on the basis of its political commitment to Hindutva. But given the heavy competition and the small size of the pie, a great many feel deprived and resentful as they see the old liberal elites continuing in their privileged perches, as they always have. It remains to be seen whether deepening this social antagonism through polarising rhetoric offers enough fuel for a propaganda campaign capable of insulating the ruling party from the political costs of governance failures and economic headwinds.

sampath.g@thehindu.co.in


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Printable version | Dec 7, 2021 10:10:02 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/the-politics-of-nepotism/article32072772.ece

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