Ashis Nandy is a sociologist with the heart of a psychoanalyst; and, the media is neither of the two. This is one of the many conclusions one can draw from the controversy surrounding his remarks on the corruption of the marginalised. In various media interviews since the controversy broke out, Nandy has further expanded his argument and, in turn, made it even more unpalatable for the upper caste middle class of India.
He has not collected any data to prove his point, for, the point is not statistical in nature. It is psycho-social in nature. The perception of corruption among the middle class is not a statistical argument. It is a bias, a bias which reacts to the upward mobility of the lower castes and classes, just as rape is a male bias directed at the free movement of women. Till a few months ago, such a class bias was at full display when the media made a Dalit, A Raja, into the chief villain in the war against corruption. The middle class seemed to agree in glee, ignoring the fact that policy making is a collective exercise and not the domain of an individual.
In popular (read middle class) imagery, many such villains have been created in the decades following the liberalisation of the Indian economy. Mayawati, Lalu Prasad Yadav, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Madhu Koda are only some such public figures. This imagery brings dual benefit. On the one hand, it absolves the upper caste politician of all the loot of public resources that has happened since then and, on the other hand, it defends the idea of capitalism as something good which is made corrupt only with the intervention of ill-meaning, lower-caste upstarts.
It’s not that charges of corruption have not been made against upper caste public figures. But, the public memory is much shorter in the cases of such misdeeds, thereby confirming the popular bias that the lower caste public figures, when given a chance, are ready to loot social resources.
Not very long ago, a Dalit Chief Justice of India had a tough time dealing with the criticism of his colleagues and a section of the media on the sources of his income. Whenever there is a discussion on corruption in judiciary, his name crops up. However, not many people recall that another judge who traced his genealogy to different gods was ready to demolish half of Delhi at the behest of builder mafia.
In the war of perception and cultural symbolism, Indian private and public institutions are hopelessly casteist in character. No wonder then that a Dalit chief minister put her government almost at stake to build some aesthetically appealing public memorials on the outskirts of the national capital. The middle class reacted to these memorials with spontaneous disgust and immediately tied it to her supposed corruption in its discursive imagery.
Nandy, unfortunately, is caught in controversy for stating this bias, giving an impression as if he endorses it. He is like Dibakar Banerjee of Oye Lucky, Lucky Oye, who made Lucky (protagonist) steal expensive clothes from a city showroom so that he could convince the bouncers of a nightclub that he could belong there. Just as the audience missed the feudal logic in the exclusivity of the nightclub, Nandy’s critics have missed grasping the feudal mindset that holds lower caste persons from claiming access to power without indulging in corrupt means.