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Business News/ Opinion / Columns/  Why nobody finds the opulent new Parliament vulgar

The new Indian parliament is the opposite of the average member of Parliament. The new parliament is modern, luxurious and in parts even opulent. The standard Indian politician looks inexpensive and ancient. The new parliament befits lawmakers in identical black coats, the formal assembly that is common in the West, China and several Asian nations that do not rebel against the cultural triumph of the suit. Like godmen, who claim “you are me and I am you" but dress up precisely to emphasise he is not you, Indian politicians too claim to dress to represent the common man but do not look like us or the poor at all. The general sartorial objective of Indian politicians is to continue what the first generation of Indian politicians did—the fancy dress of austerity. So why is it that they are not afraid of the opulence of the new parliament?

Why are they not concerned that its grandeur may irritate the average voter? They are right in not being concerned, but what could be their logic? In a poor country where opulence has always been perceived as vulgar, why is Prime Minister Narendra Modi under no pressure to distance himself from the swankiness of the new building? In fact, during the inauguration of the parliament, he departed from the long tradition of prime ministers to pantomime submission to the president. In every way, it appeared that the new parliament building was Modi’s office and the president a special guest. Clearly, one of the most successful campaigners in free India’s history, who must know a lot about the average Indian’s psychology, thought it will not harm him at all if he fully owned the glamour of the new parliament.

Modi is not a man who takes the optics of affluence lightly. Once, during a speech, he mentioned how he had advised a group of automobile executives not to wear “suit-boot" when they went to meet farmers to negotiate the acquisition of their land. A few months after that, Modi’s own suit that had his name inscribed on it created a political storm, especially when a rumour took hold that the outfit cost a million rupees. His party made efforts to diffuse the situation, and the suit was eventually auctioned off for charity.

There is no doubt that there are spaces in India where opulence is vulgar—to the potent average Indian and not only to the conscientious beautiful people who speak on behalf of the poor. But there are spaces where opulence is not repulsive anymore; instead it represents hope. Like the new parliament. One reason for this is that the old parliament too was grand by Indian standards. All symbols of Indian democracy are housed in beautiful colonial buildings that are culturally alien to most Indians. So they are accustomed to grand buildings, which do not evoke any strong emotion unless they look Islamic or Christian.

Also, the average Indian gives a long rope to politicians. For instance, during campaigning, politicians sometimes land in helicopters in impoverished areas. For some reason, a convoy of Mercedes would repulse the voter, but not a chopper. Maybe there is a feeling that a chopper is rented while a Mercedes is owned. In any case, the voter is aware that a senior politician is a wealthy man. That even adds to his aura of his street-smartness which Indians value.

There is a more influential reason though why Modi’s full embrace of the new parliament’s grandeur was not risky. Indians have a new relationship with opulence and class, which they correctly identify as two different things. Contrary to the assumptions of India’s refined elite, the new average Indian is not repulsed by the opulence of modern buildings, like airports. Unlike the humane essay-writer, the average Indian does not whine that airports are so swanky while train stations are dilapidated. Instead, he is proud of opulent airports. Also, contrary to what the interpreters of national maladies say, the average Indian is not repulsed by billionaire homes. Maybe the poor do not differentiate between millionaire and billionaire homes, between Skodas and BMWs. There is another thing—in new India, wealth is not as vulgar as class.

There was a time when wealth and class were related; that is not the case anymore. The suave whose world is framed in English, the devotees of secular moralising religions, who have compassion for minorities, who cannot be argued against in public because they stand for all the right things, and who constantly try to reform all the boors—they represent an intellectual opulence, which is more repulsive to the average voter than any excess of wealth. Maybe the average Indian is not repulsed by wealth because people are not repulsed by what they themselves aspire. But people are repulsed by what is culturally alien and claims to be superior.

From this phenomenon emerges a modern crisis—the public resistance to “the right thing". If I may repeat an argument this column has made before—people despise intellectuals so much that when the intellectuals do make sense, people hate sense itself.

The wealthiest and the most powerful people of new India, like billionaires, politicians, film and cricket stars are usually intellectually austere people. They say simple things, they are neither creators nor fans of high art; they are easy to understand and they are culturally rooted. In that way, they connect with a majority even when their display of wealth is vulgar. Maybe the average Indian then has travelled a great distance from the era of Mahatma Gandhi who took austerity to such lengths that he dressed in a way that was an exaggeration of the common man even in his time.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, novelist, and the creator of the Netflix series, ‘Decoupled’

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Updated: 04 Jun 2023, 11:35 PM IST
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