Column | The Indian super family

It doesn’t matter if brothers feud over business empires as long as the family sings and dandiyas together

March 14, 2024 02:23 pm | Updated 02:23 pm IST

The Ambanis at a family gathering.

The Ambanis at a family gathering. | Photo Credit: PTI

In the United States it’s hard to run for high political office without a photogenic family in tow. The only unmarried American president ever was James Buchanan (1857-1861).

In India it’s never really been an issue. Congress party president Rahul Gandhi is unmarried. Former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee was a bachelor with an unusual living arrangement involving a longtime partner and her family. It didn’t faze the electorate. Current Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power touting his lack of immediate family as an electoral asset. It was a guarantee, he said, that he would never go down the dynastic route and favour his children.

Now that political rival Lalu Prasad Yadav has made a jibe about Modi’s lack of family, the Prime Minister has cleverly turned it on its head just as he had once done with the “chaiwala” sneer. His supporters are rallying around him putting up signs calling themselves “Modi ka parivar”. “140 crore people in the country are my family,” said the Prime Minister.

At one time, I thought that Americans were obsessed about their presidential families because their own families were falling apart around them. Fewer people were getting married, divorce rates were climbing, and conservatives were complaining that the only people who seemed to really want to get married were same-sex couples. Saving the family had become a political preoccupation.

America might have a first family but India firmly believes in family first.

Simply rich values

The great Ambani pre-wedding bash was as much about glitzy excess as it was about projecting a wholesome Indian family for the world at large. It doesn’t matter if brothers feud over business empires as long as the family sings and dandiyas together while celebrity stars play second fiddle. They were the extras in this grand family affair. And family values look better when wrapped in Tarun Tahiliani.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, we have a very different super wealthy family. Narayana Murthy and Sudha Murty have much to be proud of, including her recent nomination to the Rajya Sabha, but lately people seem to worship them as the living murtis of the simple family. Every other day, I get a gushing WhatsApp forward showing the Murthys doing simple aam aadmi family things together. People rhapsodise about them going to the market or getting an ice cream as if they are witnessing minor miracles. Simply rich is one thing, but so rich and yet so simple is quite another.

As onlookers with our noses pressed to the glass, we are really drawing the same lesson from both these spectacles. We are reassured that the great Indian family is alive and well even though we know, in the real world, husbands are beating wives, sons are throwing fathers out of their homes, and siblings are at daggers drawn. But on Instagram Reels, their pre-wedding dance steps are coordinated. They work 70 hours a week and recount charming ‘jab we met’ stories. They are always perfectly turned out unlike my family in its nighties and sweatpants. If the big fat Indian wedding wasn’t a headache enough, now we have the ‘Indian super family’ as our aspirational nightmare.

Eye on the polls

To be honest, I like reading about families like the ones in Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals — dysfunctional, squabbling but still loving. Later, I discovered even Durrell took great literary licence but it still felt real as opposed to the Reels out of Jamnagar. It’s not about the Murthys or the Ambanis or any other family. It’s just that family values seem to have become more about the market value of a family.

Now that value can be measured in terms of electoral gold.

After Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in 1991, Congress coined the electoral slogan ‘Maa bete ka balidaan, yaad karega Hindustan (India will always remember the sacrifices of mother and son)’. But that was also reminding the electorate that this was a very special family, one that ordinary Indians were allowed to revere but never hope to match up to. Instead, they could show their respect, one vote at a time.

That exclusivity yielded rich dividends for the Congress for years. Now Modi has cleverly invited every Indian to become part of his friends and family programme and feel like they belong to something special. The best thing about this plan is that it’s electorally a win-win proposition. Hum do, hamare do vote basically.

Now that takes family planning to a whole new level.

The writer is the author of Don’t Let Him Know, and likes to let everyone know about his opinions whether asked or not.

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