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by H.N. Bali Bookmark and Share

The Mores of India’s Middle Class — II

Continued from “Living Just for Yourself”

Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist thinker famously said: “Driving forward is the chief characteristic of western man since the Sumerians. His dread triad of vices is property-holding, voraciousness, and lust.” What, one wonders, is the chief characteristic of the Indian middle class, and its representatives, while it readily shares with the western man his beloved triad of vices? If one attribute is to be selected, I would call it playing the role of mercenaries, and playing it impeccably for any Central Asian marauder that opted for the Khyber route to invade India either to loot and plunder or to rule over the land.

Nirad Chaudhuri in his much-debated Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, starkly brings out this fact. “The intelligentsia of my country have always had the faith… that they are indispensable as mercenaries to everybody who rules India.” In fact, they’re prepared to serve any ruler. The mercenary Indian middle class offered their services as unreservedly to the Muslim Sultans as to the Mughals and later to the British.


Mercenaries have, above all, to be practiced courtiers, which we have had aplenty in our society. And in the fabled royal durbars of Delhi, rulers came and rulers went, but the mercenaries-turned-courtiers stayed on and on. That’s because they were unfailingly nimble-footed, and knew when and how to shift their loyalty to the powers-that-be and, above all, never failed to give the advice the ruler of the day wanted to hear.

In our checkered medieval history when rulers changed fairly frequently, the art of shifting loyalty was assiduously cultivated by the courtiers. And they had a role model. His name was Amir Khusro, a past master in the art and craft of courtier-ship.

Khusro arrived in Delhi in 1260 and managed to get his first job in the court of Mamluk Sutans. Thereafter, there was no looking back. He continued as a courtier during the reigns of one Mamluk ruler after another.

In 1290, defeating the last Mamluk ruler, Jalaluddin Khilji usurped the coveted throne of Delhi. Khusro, as a clever courtier, swiftly hitched his loyalty to Khilji rulers. It goes to the credit of Khusro that amidst political somersaults he vigorously maintained his literary pursuits.

In 1295 Alauddin stabbed his uncle and declared himself as the Sultan of Delhi in 1296. Khusro accompanied Khilji in his military campaigns in 1310 as the court chronicler.

On the death of Alauddin in 1315, Khusro again switched his loyalty to the new king, Mubarak Khilji. In 1321, in the true style of Muslim rulers Mubarak Khilji too was murdered and Ghiyath al-Din Tughluq came to power. That is the time Khusro embarked on writing his Tughluqnama.

In Khusro’s Footsteps

In our day and time there has been another Khusro. His name is Manmohan Singh. He has had many an endearing attribute in common with Hazrat Amir Khusro like whom Manmohan Singh too dutifully served seven rulers before he found himself catapulted by chance to the top by a unique twist of events.

He served seven Prime Ministers to the very best of his abilities: Indira Gandhi (in both her incarnations, namely, before and after the Emergency), Morarji Desai, Choudhary Charan Singh, Rajiv Gandhi, V P Singh, Chandra Shekhar and then Narasimha Rao as Finance Minister.

Like Amir Khusro, Manmohan Singh is a great survivor of our times. In the post-Nehruvian phase of our politics, Prime Ministers have come and gone, ideological ground shifted – or at least appeared to have – but he managed to keep himself entrenched in one important position or the other as part of the governments’ core group on economic policies for good two decades. He managed – isn’t ‘maneuvered’ more appropriate? – to work with almost every Indian Prime Minister after Nehru, as part of each government’s core group on economic policies. And finally, the dimple-cheeked Dame Luck smiled on the Lame Duck. (You know whom am I referring to.)

Great Indeed!

There isn’t much doubt in my mind that the adjective great will continue to stick to Manmohan Singh’s name – great time-server or Great Favorite of Dame Luck, or Great Lame Duck or Great Fiasco. This, history will decide.

In case of Manmohan Singh, greatness was thrust upon his unwilling shoulders not in one fell go – as for example in case of Rajiv Gandhi – but in two installments: first his appointment as Finance Minister by Narasimha Rao in 1991 and then as Prime Minister in 2004 when Sonia Gandhi’s heeded her well-honed Catholic conscience and decided to hand over the reins of office to Manmohan Singh – politically, the most harmless and therefore (as Americans say) the most available candidate for the post.

Take, first, his appointment as Finance Minister in 1991, when Narasimha Rao took over the reins after Rajiv’s murder, the country had a bankrupt treasury and faced an unprecedented balance of payment crisis. That this desperate situation was the result of half a century’s socialist economic policies and Rajiv Gandhi’s own reckless imports to catapult India into the 21st century some two decades ahead of the calendar. (We as a nation have a knack of either lagging far behind time or forging far too ahead.) We had to mortgage 67 tons of gold to the International Monetary Fund as part of a bailout deal, and acquiesce into the economic restructuring dictated to us.

A desperate Prime Minister turned to a seasoned economist – a veteran of fourteen budgets and a reputed administrator – I G Patel, to join him as Finance Minister to bail the country out. Patel, who had just retired as Director, London School of Economics, declined Rao’s offer. It was a rare gesture on part of a civil servant whose community itches to serve the country till their last breath so that the funeral too is on the State. Pressed by Rao to suggest someone else, Patel recommended Manmohan Singh.

“But he is a dyed-in-the-wool Nehruvian Socialist,” Rao must have asked. Patel must have assured him that the real economists are amenable to any political orientation: just give them a brief and they know how to build the case. Recovering from a bypass heart surgery, Manmohan Singh plumbed for the job when the Rao offer arrived.

Again, in 2004, Sonia Gandhi having staked her claim for Prime Ministership realized instinctively that there was very deep and wide-spread popular resistance to her being accepted as head of Government. Her darling son – the apple of her eyes, as the phrase has it – was too inexperienced to be thrown in the pit. Her search for someone to hold the fort and step aside when commanded to do so, finally zeroed on Manmohan Singh who, besides being a real political light weight had built a reputation of absolute reliability. So on May 22, 2004 Manmohan Singh was sworn in as the thirteenth Prime Minister of the Republic. Indeed, a unique case of Dame Luck choosing a most unexpected dark horse.

Khusro, as you’ve seen, served seven kings but couldn’t ever dream of ascending the throne. Manmohan Singh did. A rare feat indeed!

I sincerely hope when Manmohan Singh sits down to write his memoirs he will give some meaningful tips for the future time servers how to survive the vicissitudes of times.

Pity indeed that despite his considerable literary talent which was backed by priceless experience, Khusro didn’t write a Nuskha-e-Darbardari i,e., a manual of courtier-ship for the benefit of latter day darbardars like Mani Shankar Aiyer, Abhishek Singhvi, and Digvijaya Singh.

Do you think I’m being facetious? Far from it. There’s always a need for guidelines for new apprentices in the art and craft of courtier-ship. For instance such a need during the Renaissance period in the fifteenth and the sixteenth century Italian city states was fulfilled by Baldassare Castiglione. He was an Italian courtier, diplomat, soldier and a prominent Renaissance man of letters. He authored The Book of the Courtier. Supposedly, it was a courtesy book, dealing with questions of the etiquette and morality of the courtier, and was really influential in 16th century European court circles.

Have you heard of the word Sprezzatura? It was coined by Castiglione in The Book of the Courtier, where it is defined as “a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it”. It is the ability of the courtier to display “an easy facility in accomplishing difficult actions which hides the conscious effort that went into them”.

Castiglione wrote The Book of the Courtier as a portrayal of an idealized courtier – one who could successfully keep the support of his ruler. The ideal courtier was supposed to be skilled in arms and in athletic events but be equally skilled in music and dancing. However, the courtier who had sprezzatura managed to make these difficult tasks look easy - and, more to the point, not appear calculating, a not-to-be-discounted asset in a milieu commonly informed by ambition, intrigue, etc. Concerning sprezzatura, Castiglione said:

I have found quite a universal rule which in this matter seems to me valid above all other, and in all human affairs whether in word or deed: and that is to avoid affectation in every way possible as though it were some rough and dangerous reef; and (to pronounce a new word perhaps) to practice in all things a certain sprezzatura [nonchalance], so as to conceal all art and make whatever is done or said appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it.

Brokerage Collectors

Another way to look at the mercenaries of our society is to go back to read once again that classic submission of Gandhi to the trial judge of what has appropriately been called the Great Ahmedabad Trial of March 1922. A frail figure in loincloth was being tried for sedition. He submitted:

Little do town dwellers how the semi-starved masses of India are slowly sinking to lifelessness. Little do they know that their miserable comfort represents the brokerage they get for their work they do for the foreign exploiter, that the profits and the brokerage are sucked from the masses. Little do realize that the Government established by law in British India is carried on for this exploitation of the masses. No sophistry, no jugglery in figures, can explain away the evidence that the skeletons in many villages present to the naked eye. I have no doubt whatsoever that both England and the town dweller of India will have to answer, if there is a God above, for this crime against humanity, which is perhaps unequalled in history.

Warning his countrymen about the role played by mercenaries in our history Ambedkar warned his countrymen on November 25, 1949 in his historic address to the last session of the Constituent Assembly which bequeathed us our constitution.

“What perturbs me greatly is the fact that not only India has once before lost her independence, but she lost it by the infidelity and treachery of some of her own people.”

Ambedkar continued:

In the invasion of Sindh by Mahommed-Bin-Kasim, the military commanders of King Dahar accepted bribes from the agents of Mahommed-Bin-Kasim and refused to fight on the side of their King. It was Jaichand who invited Mahommed Gohri to invade India and fight against Prithvi Raj and promised him the help of himself and the Solanki Kings. When Shivaji was fighting for the liberation of Hindus, the other Maratha noblemen and the Rajput Kings were fighting the battle on the side of Moghul Emperors. When the British were trying to destroy the Sikh Rulers, Gulab Singh, their principal commander sat silent and did not help to save the Sikh Kingdom. In 1857, when a large part of India had declared a war of independence against the British, the Sikhs stood and watched the event as silent spectators.

Dr Ambedkar didn’t mention the all-too-well-known story of what happened in the Battle of Plassey which marked a decisive victory of the British East India Company over the Nawab of Bengal and his French allies on 23 June 1757.

The belligerents were Nawab Siraj-ud-daulah, the last independent Nawab of Bengal, and the British East India Company. He ordered the English to stop the extension of their fortification. Robert Clive bribed Mir Jafar, the commander in chief of the Nawab’s army, and also promised him to make him Nawab of Bengal and attacked Calcutta. He defeated the Nawab at Plassey in 1757 and captured Calcutta.

The rest (as they say) is history.

May I sum up the inglorious role of the brokerage collectors of our history by an apocryphal story I heard from someone who knew about the who’s is who and what’s what of our independence struggle? He said Nehru once asked the first chief of Intelligence – still an Englishman – about those who were the informants against Indian freedom fighters.

“Don’t embarrass me, Prime Minister. If I were to name our sources half of your Cabinet would be in political wilderness,” he reposed.

Continued to “Strangers in their Own Home”

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Comments on this Article

Comment With regard to the comment that the British exploited the Indians, there is a half-truth here that is a disguised lie. The poor got a far worse deal from Mogul rulers and their mercenary middle-men; the British, for example, made an inventory of all farms and a percentage of yield was allotted to the farmers, all ownership disputes being settled in rural courts.

It is a fact that the truth perceived in any given situation is of an affective nature, varying with the affected parties, so that the occasion of dispute is a clash of appetitive affections, in which the sides participating genuinely feel (experience in appetitive affection) that they hold the truth. Even demonstrable truth will be overridden by the compulsive nature of appetitive based truth, or the latter will remove all traces of opposition to making it seem the truth. Only that truth is universally accepted as objective that is appetitively neutral, so to speak, that does not involve appetitive affection in a specific area of life - such are the truths of science, but not the truths of religion or nation..

02/11/2016 07:43 AM

Comment A pleasure to read your writings. So informative and scholarly

Ravinder Malhotra
02/09/2016 16:45 PM

Comment Mr. Bali It is always a pleasure to read your scholarly write ups.

02/08/2016 13:26 PM

Comment A scholarly and bitter appraisal.

02/07/2016 09:34 AM

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