In a clip that went viral, Sen, in her best wide-eyed diva mode, professed ignorance. “They gave me my bed-tea very late so I woke up very late. What can I say? I really don’t know."
While the internet exploded in righteous indignation about elitism, entitlement and arrogance, I have to admit I chuckled. There’s just something about Moon Moon Sen. I have a sneaking admiration for her, and it has nothing to do with the fact that she danced to Mera Naam Chin Chin Choo at my book event at the very venerable Oxford book store in Kolkata years ago even though she didn’t know me from Adam. I just love the fact that at a time when wit has been replaced by sneering below-the-belt jibes, she remains a politician who, when asked what she thought of her opponent, replied with a pout, “I don’t." Amidst the rancid stench of a toxic election campaign filled with khaki underwear, Bhrashtachari No.1s and Sadhvis with death curses, she’s like a waft of fresh Chanel No 5. Elitist? Sure. But how oddly refreshing to see that she takes no pains to hide it as she sashays off-script with élan, leaving her handlers floundering in her chiffon wake.
She is just Moon Moon Sen—take her or leave her.
Thanks to her, in an election cycle obsessed with polarization, Pakistan and patriotism, we get to dissect elitism and entitlement. And before we pick on her elitism, let’s not forget that most of us live in glass houses in this regard. In every election, including this one, our elitism and entitlement are always on naked display. Sen might have become Exhibit A du jour but she’s hardly alone in her ivory boudoir. There’s Hema Malini doing photo-ops in the fields of Mathura, driving a tractor with specially installed mist generators and remaining airily fuzzy about what exactly she has done for her constituency in the last five years. Details are so proletarian! And Abhishek Banerjee, Trinamool MP from Diamond Harbour, sent his garlanded namaste-ing statue to campaign in the gruelling heat. Perhaps he was too busy or it was too hot or he was just multitasking. The party workers accompanying the statue and raising slogans were real enough, heat or no heat.
Kolkata’s Tollywood actor Mimi Chakraborty, now a novice Trinamool candidate from Jadavpur, was trolled roundly recently for wearing gloves while shaking hands with fans and supporters. She retorted that the handshake was not part of the campaign anyway. She was returning home in her own car and the gloves were to protect her scratched sunburned hands. She rushed to tout her small-town Jalpaiguri roots but that picture of her beige-gloved hands reverberated far beyond her constituency.
A young man at a Narendra Modi rally in Asansol, some 200-plus kilometres from Kolkata, said if he really had to select the most deserving candidate in his constituency, it would not be either of the celebrities—Moon Moon Sen or Babul Supriyo. “I would choose the CPM’s Gouranga Chatterjee," he said. “A local man, humble and genuine. At least he does not wear gloves while shaking hands with ordinary people."
While it’s easy to pick on Sen for her head-in-the-clouds sense of entitlement, our electoral campaigns are rife with far more toxic examples of put-downs, snipes and jabs that reek of elitism at its most vicious. Sen just wanted bed-tea. She was not scoffing, like Mani Shankar Aiyar in 2014, at the audacity of a chaiwala daring to dream of becoming prime minister. Aiyar invited Modi to sell tea at Congress meetings instead. A spokesperson for a party led by a fourth-generation dynast should have been a little more mindful about falling into the elitism and entitlement trap. Modi turned Aiyar’s jibe on its head and bludgeoned the Congress with it. He’s still gleefully playing the humble chaiwala taking on the entitled elitist princeling.
The nastiness of oblivious entitlement was starkly apparent recently when Bengal’s CPM leader Surjya Kanta Mishra decided to ask for votes by mocking Mamata Banerjee’s pronunciation skills on Twitter. “Gobment, poblem, theat, poposal, popaganda, poperly, pocuring, pocess, popety, pice, kalpits, potection, pesident, poject…and the list goes on!!! If you want the ‘R’ back…vote judiciously…. Hold high the Redflag to get the R back. #Vote4Left." Apart from the grotesque irony of a party that booted English education at the primary level in Bengal now sneering at the aam aadmi’s unsophisticated English pronunciation, it was yet more proof of how the Bengali bhadralok, raised as the rightful heirs to Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray, blithely use their own starchy sense of entitlement to put down the less fortunate, the ones that didn’t get to the right schools.
Sen can be accused of using entitlement as an excuse but others wield entitlement like a weapon. Varun Gandhi told voters that there was no reason to fear any Monu or Tonu in Sultanpur, where his mother’s opponent, the Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party candidate Chandra Bhadra Singh, is popularly known as Sonu Singh. “You don’t need to fear anyone except God. No one can do anything to you. I am standing here. I am the son of Sanjay Gandhi and I get my shoelaces untied by such people."
Some people get their shoelaces untied by others. Some have bed-tea made by others. Some mock the way “r"s are dropped by others. Let’s face it. In a hierarchical society like ours, we are all elitist, we are all entitled, and we are all blind to it. It’s just a matter of degree.
We may not all want our bed-tea on the dot at 7 but we have all seen the well-dressed lady who thinks a queue is for plebeians, not her, or the fat cat businessman who thinks tax laws are for the little people, or the politician who uses an Indian Administrative Service officer as her shoeshine boy or beats up a hapless tollbooth worker for daring to ask for the toll fee. At a rally of women marching for change in Kolkata, a housemaid said she was participating because in many homes where women like her worked, they were not allowed to use the washroom or get a drink of water. When I asked her if it had been easy to get leave to take part in the march, she smiled and said: “Some households told me, what’s the point of marching? The big fish will always swallow the little fish. Nothing will change." It was also not lost on her that some of the well-heeled society ladies marching in front of her for democracy, diversity and the right to beefsteak would probably not have answered too differently from those women she worked for.
Writer and publisher Urvashi Butalia once wrote that while there were plenty of books about the poor in India (for the poor don’t have the power to refuse to be the subjects of research), there are few studies about the rich and the “ferocious sense of entitlement that the rich carry with them at all times" that has “helped to legitimize so many inequalities in India". Something about the hurly-burly of elections brings that inherent sense of entitlement bubbling to the fore. Perhaps it’s the shock of the realization that in an election booth a VIP industrialist and a Dalit cattle-skinner are briefly rendered equal. Whatever it is, elections seem to serve as a wake-up call for our entitlement.
It’s easy for us to forget about our own entitlement and elitism and roll our eyes at Sen’s posh convent-accented faux pas. But she just wanted some bed-tea on time. Some in these troubling times feel entitled to things far more lethal—a lynch mob, for example.
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues that we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.