The act of prioritising birth over worth and family connections over merit has wiped out several talented individuals, thriving empires, civilisations, dynasties and nations off the face of the Earth
Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s alleged suicide has once again sparked off a countrywide debate on nepotism, favouritism and dynasticism. Since time immemorial, nepotism and its offshoot, political dynasticism, have posed grave threats to the rise of an egalitarian society. The act of prioritising birth over worth and family connections over merit has wiped out several talented individuals, thriving empires, civilisations, dynasties and nations off the face of the Earth. In the second century AD, the Roman emperor and stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius, committed the aforementioned mistake, which gradually brought the mighty Roman Empire to its knees. Blinded by paternal love, he went against the tradition of appointing a capable and efficient man as his successor and chose instead his incompetent son Commodus as the next emperor. Prior to this, no Roman emperor had chosen his son as the heir. The rest, as they say is history and ironically Rome itself became history.
Unfortunately, the story of our civilisation is no different. Everyone is familiar with the epic tale of the moral blindness of King Dhritarashtra that caused the great Mahabharata. In The Great Indian Novel (1989), which is an allegorical retelling of Vyas’ epic, Shashi Tharoor satirises India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru as the Dhritarashtra of modern India. His daughter and late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, on the other hand, is recast as Priya Duryodhani, a fictional representation of the eldest son of King Dhritarashtra, the antagonist Duryodhana. While writing this magnificent political satire, Shashi Tharoor would never have thought in his wildest dreams that one day he would join the Congress Party. But then, writers do enjoy poetic licence. The heart of the matter, nevertheless, is that the names of Dhritarashtra, Aurelius and Nehru will continue to be taken in the same breath.
In fact, one of Nehru’s Ministers seems to have quipped that the late Prime Minister was like a banyan tree in whose shade nothing else could grow. However, it is well-known that another banyan tree can grow and thrive under an older banyan tree. Disenchanted with the nepotism and dynasticism of the Gandhi family, the celebrated socialist poet Nagarjun had foregrounded this decadent aspect of post-Independent India. The Hindi poet exploded in rage against Indira and wrote: “Induji, Induji, kya hua aapko? Bete ko taar diya, bor diya baap ko”, which can be roughly translated as “Indu, what happened to you? You gave your sons, name and fame and brought a bad name to your father.”
If the father-daughter duo were accused of promoting their scions at the expense of others, in the post-Nehruvian era, the situation exacerbated at the level of regional politics as well. Many of Ram Manohar Lohia’s acolytes in States such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh started a rat race to send family members to the Parliament and State assemblies, often at the expense of capable party workers. “Service to the family is service to the nation,” became their motto. Therefore, while accusing Bollywood of nepotism, it becomes imperative to ask: Is there any sector which is or has ever remained untouched by it? Its all-pervasive influence can be felt in the field of arts, industry and business, the judiciary, religious circles, education, writing, film, politics and numerous other areas.
It would be apt here to adduce one instance of favouritism in the field of higher education from colonial times. Unlikely as it might sound, acclaimed authors such as Munshi Premchand and Iqbal, too, became its victims. In 1918, Premchand and Iqbal applied for lecturership at the newly-established Osmania University in Hyderabad. Iqbal had just returned with a degree from Cambridge University and was a man to be reckoned with, while Premchand had become quite famous as a short story writer. But they had no godfather. So, despite their best efforts, neither Premchand was appointed as a lecturer of Urdu nor did Iqbal manage to become a philosophy teacher. The job was eventually given to one Akbar Haidari, who was close to British officials.
Unfortunately, the situation either remained the same or aggravated further after India acquired Independence. Several stalwarts would have similar stories to share, for in academics and elsewhere, too, favouritism continued to be practised unabated.
The Hindi satirist Harishankar Parsai has put it succinctly in one of his satires entitled Rani Naagfani ki Kahani (Story of Queen Naagfani) in which the narrator quips that what matters most in an interview is the column — “Kiska aadmi (whose man are you?)” While Parsai had excoriated the ways in which interviews were being conducted by some State Service Commissions, such malpractices are still extensively practised in the appointments of faculty members and administrators across universities and colleges in the country. In recent times, several scrupulous stakeholders have highlighted the need to abolish interviews in such appointments and conduct an all-India level examination to depoliticise the nation’s higher education system and cure it of the plague of nepotism. This could be a watershed moment in our education sector but to persuade the high and mighty to accept such changes could be as difficult as cajoling a cat to give up a bowl of cream.
The battle against favouritism, nepotism and dynasticism, which are the residues of pre-modern societies, has to be fought at several fronts. But where does one start? A natural choice would be to look up to the temple of Indian democracy — our Parliament. But what a great disillusionment awaits us there. As per a survey conducted by historian and political commentator Patrick French, two-thirds of the MPs in the last Lok Sabha had a close relative in politics. Standard accounts suggest there are very few parliamentarians who have not inherited politics as a vocation and enjoyed ancestral privileges in politics. The words of the ancient Roman satirist Juvenal — “Who will guard the guards?” — seem to be quite appropriate here. Who will legislate against the legislators? Any expectation of a law against this malady, then, will turn out to be a wild goose chase.
However, the absence of a legal provision against nepotism in public life should not be so disappointing after all, for two main reasons. One, despite its prevalence in all walks of life, there are numerous individuals, who have a rags-to-riches story to share and who made it big on account of perseverance, dedication and integrity.
We may find such scintillating tales of success not only all around us but also in our epic, the Mahabharata. In the great Indian epic, characters such as Sanjaya, Ekalavya and Karna transcended their origins and went down as heroes after bravely facing the hardships of a steep hierarchical society. And two, the biggest paradox of the human mind is that human conscience cannot be governed by law. But there are moments in history when one’s conscience is definitely shaken and social awareness is created against certain iniquities.
Sushant Singh Rajput’s death is one such turning point, which must trigger a movement against favouritism, not only in Bollywood but also in all spheres of our public life. In a modern, democratic nation, one’s identity should not be determined by one’s birth, family connections, social and community ties but by actions and virtues. In pre-modern and to some extent in early modern societies across the world, such practices were quite common before the emergence of democracy and the rise of the middle class. Those who belonged to a non-aristocratic class had few avenues to achieve socially-upward mobility and were always in the pursuit of a patron or a godfather. Intellectuals and sensitive souls felt decentred and disoriented in this world order. Alexander Pope, the eminent 18 century British poet, had summed it up in a humorous and satirical couplet: “I am his highness’s dog at Kew. Pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you?” Although Pope had written this for the prince’s pug, the aphorism, “Whose dog are you?” was often earnestly used to denounce the system of patronage. There is an uncanny resemblance between Harishankar Parsai’s aforementioned observation — “Whose Man are you” and Pope’s biting statement. But what is fateful and worrisome is that even in the post-enlightenment world, this system has persisted.
The continuation of the culture of patronage in contemporary times poses a serious threat to our claims of being called civilised and enlightened. If we don’t protest against this rampant nepotism, which violates the constitutional principle of equality of opportunity, our society may end up producing malcontents and we may lose many more precocious talent like Sushant Singh Rajput. We all know that it will be detrimental to the rise of a new India in the post-COVID world, threatened by the expansionist policies of a hostile China.
(Writer: Lalit Kumar; Courtesy: The Pioneer)