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Sunanda K Datta-Ray: Voting your caste

Sunanda K Datta-Ray  |  New Delhi 

As Bal Thackeray once said, Indians don't just cast their vote.

As Indians prepare not to cast their vote but “vote their caste”, as Bal Thackeray once said, our sadhus and sanyasis, mahants and maulvis, pundits and preachers must be rubbing their hands in glee. For an event like a general election, with so much depending on its outcome, brings to the surface all the old fears of the supernatural that haunted primeval man so that people reach out for the comforts of superstition and ritual.

Kipling missed out priests when he wrote that neither prince nor pauper would starve so long as there is a crust to share in India. Perhaps priests — or, rather, “godmen”, that oxymoron that is India’s ultimate enrichment of the English language — were not as plentiful or prominent in those poverty-stricken times as they became in recent years of exuberance.

There’s a paradox here. Sociologists suggest that simple folk seek the supernatural in times of distress. It’s the opposite in India. The yearning for the mystic soared to new heights recently when growth had to be restrained at nine per cent because more would mean spiralling inflation. Apart from being the opiate of the people, faith is the luxurious indulgence of a recently enriched urban elite. Mutts and madrassahs may have always flourished but the ancient cult of Vastu Shastra, the Vedic design for layout planning, was suddenly reinvented to highlight a uniquely Indian fashion in consumerism.

Vastu is not unlike Chinese Singapore’s feng shui, literally “wind-water”, which utilises the laws of heaven and earth to improve life by receiving positive qi (energy). But feng shui is a private conviction that influences commercial transactions without any of the razzmatazz that accompanies vastu with seminars, exhibitions and lavish media coverage. It’s sharp business. An enterprising housewife, out to make some pin money, will write pretty Sunday articles recommending positioning a mirror in a particular corner of the hall to produce handsome, highly-qualified, millionaire NRI husbands for plain, plump daughters on the shelf. As it happens, she also runs an interior décor business that has just such a mirror going cheap.

When buying a house or renovating an office, businessmen turn to high-powered specialists riding the crest of the age of consultancy. These experts of the occult fly in, look around, switch on the invisible hot line, point to a door that needs blocking, a wall that must be pierced or a picture that should go, present a bill for a nifty lakh (apart from executive class air travel, five-star hotel and air-conditioned limousine) and depart. With Indians thriving in America, Britain and Singapore, jet set godmen in Saville Row saffron with meditation centres in California, temples in London, and ashrams in Switzerland must trot the globe while mendicant priests in dhoti, chaddar and Gandhi cap trot from shop to shop and office to office every morning, sprinkling drops of holy water from a brass lota, muttering mantras and collecting a few coins. Seeing them also bestowing their benediction on battered taxis, I wonder if they are really Brahmins or canny operators muscling into the traditional dwija, twice-born, monopoly.

The merchants of destiny are coming out of the woodwork now, as in 2002 when Hindu swamis and Muslim muftis were especially active in Gujarat. Christian clerics and Muslim savants make hay in Kerala. Even Communists, whether in West Bengal, Tripura or Kerala, look as much to pujas as to the politburo to bless them with power.

The Second Press Commission urged the media to encourage a scientific spirit by not publishing horoscopes and what-the-stars-foretell Not only is that injunction widely disregarded but even radio programmes broadcast birthday forecasts every morning. Either Indians have no time for the scientific spirit, or science and the stars happily co-exist in this Ramrajya of merry contradictions where Slumdog Millionaire capitalises on the figure of a child decked out as the young Rama.

Folk faith was common in the West too until the Age of Enlightenment and then the new economic order introduced by the Industrial Revolution led to mass education and material advance. That precursor of mental development encouraged the masses to aspire to elitist heights of thought and culture. In contrast, our elite is sinking to the level of the masses. India may lead the world in Information Technology and be able to send a man to the Moon, but the influence that the successors of Dhirendra Brahmachari and Chandra Swamy are increasingly gaining suggests that the intellectual revolution that is the essential key to modernity has passed us by.  

First Published: Sat, March 14 2009. 00:00 IST