Is the era of the entitled Indian elite nearing an end?

Minhaz Merchant
Minhaz MerchantJan 03, 2017 | 18:29

Is the era of the entitled Indian elite nearing an end?

The first major political interview I did ended badly. AR Antulay, then chief minister of Maharashtra, became progressively more annoyed at my line of questioning.

Antulay was at the centre of a controversy in the early-1980s over "donations" made by industrialists to the Indira Gandhi Pratibha Pratishthan, a trust set up in the prime minister's name.

Arun Shourie, in lacerating prose in The Indian Express, headlined the scam on the front page, titling his series of investigative reports "Indira as Commerce".


When I pressed Antulay on his alleged role in the scam, he lost his temper.

"Out," he shouted, ending the interview 10 minutes after it started. His minders shook with fright. Antulay in high dudgeon was a sight to behold: nostrils flaring, eyes bloodshot, body tensed.

It would have been comic were it not for the chief minister's aides scampering around to escort me out of Antulay's office.

It was the age of entitlement. Chief ministers like Antulay epitomised what was wrong with India in the 1980s: elitism.

The entitled elite thought it could do and say what it wanted. The public was a distraction, taken for granted. During the first relatively sedate minutes of our interview, I reminded Antulay that the word minister was derived from Latin and meant servant.

Chief ministers like Antulay epitomised what was wrong with India in the 1980s: elitism. [Photo: PTI]

He couldn't believe his ears. "Servant? We are doing public service but do not call us servants," he said in his colourful English. As the conversation moved to corruption in the Indira Gandhi Pratibha Pratishthan, the interview ended abruptly. The entitled don't like to be called out.

Has anything changed in 35 years? Is the elite still an entitled species, taking the public for granted?


In a developing country it's inevitable that entitlement won't be easily extinguished. The old elite is a hardy animal. It guards its turf fiercely.

Entitled elites traverse sectors: politics, media, bureaucracy, business and the professions. They resent the rise of merit. They worship at the feet of dynasty.

The socialism of the Indira Gandhi years hid entitlement under a povertarian cloak. It demoted the old elite - India's 600-plus royals - by banishing privy purses and titles. But it did nothing to curtail its own entitlement.

Politicians became the new royalty. Rajiv Gandhi, though born to entitlement, tried to be different. For 12 years, from 1968 to 1980, he flew old Dakota planes to small towns for Indian Airlines, eschewing most of the trappings of elitism before two accidents of history (brother Sanjay and mother Indira's deaths) plunged him into precisely the sort of entitlement he had tried to escape.

When societies become more equal, the Gini coefficient (which measures inequality in countries based on the gap between the highest and lowest incomes) falls. That's when income disparities reduce. So does entitlement.

Sweden has among the world's lowest differentials between rich and poor. Its prime ministers often cycle to work. Elitism, as we know it, is extinct in Sweden. India has among the world's worst Gini coefficients: inequality has declined in recent years but remains high.


The most glaring example of entitlement is political dynasty. Of India's 10 largest political parties, eight are family owned where entitlement is an article of faith (Congress, Shiv Sena, Samajwadi Party, RJD, LJP, NC, PDP and NCP). This list is selective, not exhaustive.

India has a long history of bowing to self-declared nouveau elites. The country was subjugated by ragtag hordes of Mongol warriors and later Turko warlords led by the Mughal Babur who had been driven out of central Asia.

The Mughals entitled themselves at India's expense till they were replaced by British mercenaries of the East India Company. Self-declared entitlement again followed. India continued to suffer.

As Shashi Tharoor in his book, An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India, writes: "In 1930, a young American historian and philosopher, Will Durant, stepped onto the shores of India for the first time. He had embarked on a journey around the world to write what became the magnificent eleven-volume The Story of Civilization. But he was, in his own words, so 'filled with astonishment and indignation' at what he saw and read of Britain's 'conscious and deliberate bleeding of India' that he set aside his research into the past to write a passionate denunciation of this 'greatest crime in all history'. His short book, The Case of India, remains a classic, a profoundly empathetic world of compassion and outrage that tore apart the self-serving justifications of the British for their long and shameless record of rapacity in India.

"As Durant wrote: 'The British conquest of India was the invasion and destruction of a high civilisation by a trading company (the British East India Company) utterly without scruple or principle, careless of art and greedy of gain, over-running with fire and sword a country temporarily disordered and helpless, bribing and murdering, annexing and stealing, and beginning that career of illegal and 'legal' plunder which has now (1930) gone on ruthlessly for one hundred and seventy-three years.'"

And yet, the displaced Indian elite - maharajas and the landed - slipped effortlessly into subservience. At Independence, a colonial-minded Nehruvian ecosystem produced a new form of entitlement - political dynasts, Left-leaning historians and Westernised intellectuals whose lack of self-belief made them craven caricatures whom the post-imperial West mocked behind their backs.

But as India becomes a more egalitarian society, where a chaiwala can become prime minister and a petrol pump attendant the founder of India's second largest business empire, the era of entitlement will gradually pass into history.

Last updated: January 05, 2017 | 11:31
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