THE cognoscenti who keep a sharp lookout on national events must have noticed with suppressed smiles the BJP’s deliberate effort at establishing poverty as the chief element in the bio-data of its aspirants for high office. When we analyse the qualities of head and heart possessed by the two gentlemen who have won the race to Rashtrapati Bhavan and the Vice President’s office, we are impressed by the preponderant emphasis on infantile poverty. As in everything else, the world seems to have begun with Narendra Modi.
Would it make an iota of difference if we cite a quotation from The Bible where, among other qualities, the Beatitudes talk with considerable emphasis on the virtue of poverty? “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven………,” says a guy called Jesus Christ more than 2000 years ago.
India itself has had an indigenous tradition that extols poverty. In ancient India, the sanyasi was admired as the highest kind of human being, for he had renounced all kinds of material possessions. The Buddha, while upsetting the ritualism of the Vedas, also described the Bikshu as the ideal kind of renunciate.
Narendra Modi discovered the power of poverty when he started on his campaign trail for the Lok Sabha poll in 2014. In meeting after meeting, he referred to his humble origin as the son of a tea vendor and extolled the Indian system of democracy which could catapult a poor man’s son to the Chief Minister’s chair.
After numerous helpings of this kind of high talk, a sensitive soul like Mani Shankar Aiyar could take it no longer and made his famous diatribe about “that chaiwala’s son”. Modi pounced on the seeming insult heaped on the noble chaiwala and lashed out at Aiyar, all guns blazing. He said that he was not ashamed of having been born in a poor household and he was proud of being a chaiwala’s son. He announced that his party would open thousands of chai ki chaupals, in every nook and corner of the country, and invited his 125 crore countrymen to come to these chaupals and communicate with him and one another.
MODI was elected the Prime Minister and he lost no opportunity in telling his audiences that he had himself served tea at railway stations and was proud of having been elected the Prime Minister. Soon he got an opportunity of internationalising the chaiwala, when he invited Barak Obama to the Republic Day Celebrations. During the customary State luncheon hosted by the Prime Minister at Hyderabad House, he took out fifteen minutes and retired with Obama to a special tented enclosure ostensibly to have a one-to-one chat with the US president, which he called Chai pe charcha. He also made it a point to personally serve him tea. So the chaiwala became an instrument of diplomacy as well.
It came as no surprise when he introduced Ram Nath Kobind and Venkaiah Naidu more in terms of their origins as children of common peasant households than for their educational or entrepreneurial, electoral or management skills.
At last, the hyperbole got so extreme and nauseating that the opposition was forced to hit back. Ghulam Nabi Azad defended Motilal Nehru for his many qualities of head and heart. He pointed out that Motilal had made great sacrifices in the freedom struggle. He had given up his lucrative legal practice, donated the palatial Anand Bhawan and involved his entire family in the struggle, suffering the atrocities of the police and serving jail terms.
It might suit the electoral strategy of Modi and Amit Shah to pretend that the Congress leaders were all drawn from patrician backgrounds. But the facts speak for themselves. Lal Bahadur Shastri was so poor that he could not pay the passage ticket to the boatman. He strapped his satchel to his back and swam across the mighty Ganges which separated his residence from his school. Manmohan Singh once revealed that he had to study his books by the light provided by municipal lamps, as there was no electricity in his home.
And leaders like Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi doffed the aristocratic regalia as a high class lawyer who had acquired a bar-at-law at his father’s expense and donned his plebeian dhoti, which looked so much a symbol of poverty that Winston Churchill was forced to refer to him as that “half-naked Fakir”.
What price poverty, Mr Narendra Modi!