(This story was originally published on 26 February, 2021, and is being republished in the backdrop on E Sreedharan being announced as the chief ministerial candidate by the Bharatiya Janata Party for the upcoming Kerala Assembly elections.)
The initial shock that many had felt over E Sreedharan joining the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has largely subsided. Any remaining illusion about this engineering wizard’s political wisdom has been dispelled by the glimpses they have had of his political fantasies.
The ‘Metroman’ envisages that his presence under the saffron flag would double the BJP’s vote share in Kerala – and that he should subsequently be anointed as the state’s chief minister. This would usher in investment from hitherto unknown sources, he thinks.
A bureaucrat well-known for relying on debt-funding for every mega project entrusted to him, Sreedharan had also, ironically, piled on Kerala’s ruling government for what he considers its mounting debt trap. The technocrat’s finishing flourish was to publicise his vegan preferences and aversion to meat-eaters.
Even as Kerala’s trolls feast on his words, a closer scrutiny of the political choice of this venerable octogenarian is necessary if only to make sense of the authoritarian politics sweeping the country under state patronage.
Sreedharan and a New Middle Class
Sreedharan is undoubtedly one of the most gifted technocrats in post-independence India. Meticulous planning and perfect execution are the hallmarks of his professional career. From the Konkan Railway to the Kochi Metro Rail Project, his work bears testimony to these virtues.
As Sreedharan’s project execution fame resonated well with MNCs investing in India, he was propelled to an iconic status among India’s new middle class. The completion of the first stretches of the Delhi Metro rail project resulted in Sreedharan’s work being hailed as the panacea for all kinds of infrastructure woes facing the country.
The middle class’ penchant for messianic worship, coinciding with what Jyoti Saraswati describes as the emergence of ‘Dot.Compradors’, in her book Dot.Compradors: Crisis and Corruption in the Indian Software Industry, in the IT sector, accelerated Sreedharan’s popularity. He was perceived as the man who got things done even as the rest of the country struggled to keep engineering projects afloat and time-bound.
The aspirational group of Indian society considered him among ‘people like us’ as the ‘Metroman’ status combined with his upper caste and upper-class attributes made him appealing.
Given the iconic status at the national level, displaying his halo in Kerala was effortless for Sreedharan. He was the candidate who had the best chance to be readily accepted as a BJP leader.
In fact, the Left-wing and the Congress had fought over Sreedharan even before the BJP got to him. The CPI-M had held a human chain protest against the then Congress-led state government for its reluctance to entrust the work of the Kochi Metro rail project to Sreedharan. Kerala’s Congress hastened to make amends; in addition to being handed the Kochi Metro project, Sreedharan became a member of the state planning board.
While different political actors opted to piggyback on Sreedharan’s popularity in the past, the wheel has come full circle now, with him finding his belonging under the saffron flag.
It should be, however, remembered that before Sreedharan, the aspiring middle class had supported former Chief Election Commissioner TN Seshan, former Mumbai Municipal Commissioner GR Khairnar, and scientist APJ Abdul Kalam, because they too had represented some aspects of order and efficiency in an otherwise corruption-ridden country. What made these bureaucrats different from Sreedharan was that they had kept a safe distance from tempting offers made by political leaders.
Just that Sreedharan has now done away with such niceties.
The New Middle Class, Emergency and Modi
A brief digression into history would explain why individual members, such as Sreedharan, of a generation of Indian elite politically monetise their celebrity status. The manoeuvre has its roots in the Indian version of authoritarianism.
It started with the Congress.
The Grand Old Party has its own brand of authoritarianism centred around the Nehru-Gandhi families. The Emergency that Indira Gandhi imposed in 1975 marked the zenith of the Congress’ political authoritarianism. It exposed a structural crisis facing the post-1947 Indian polity – the Nehruvian consensus had expired both politically and economically. With the imposition of the Emergency, Congress’ stake on ‘liberal, democratic, tolerant India’ diminished and a new political group – the Sangh – filled this gap.
Political Hindutva of the Sangh Parivar is known for its distinct brand of authoritarian rhetoric that combines hatred and assimilation in the same breath; the Sangh breeds hatred for a section of the society even as it tries to bring other sections under its fold.
The phenomenon that is Narendra Modi draws sustenance primarily from the doubletalk of the Sangh’s hatred and assimilation. His persona was built on the outcome of Sangh’s authoritarianism which successfully demonised the Muslim minority even as it assimilated sections of Dalits, Adivasis and OBCs under the Hindu fold.
Amid this political turmoil, the emergence of the new middle class – which is now supporting E Sreedharan – almost went unnoticed.
Post 1960s – as the Congress and the Sangh were battling for power – the avarice and venality associated with the ‘control and permit raj’ had already churned up a creamy layer. They had become wealthy and had acquired higher social status during the raj.
In the post-emergency era, this group, however, sought new avenues to flaunt its freshly minted prosperity. In the realm of economy, this aspirational, upwardly mobile group soon found its messiah in Dhirubhai Ambani, whose story of rags to riches inspired them. In politics, the idol of Modi took another three decades to gain a concrete form. ‘The Emergency as a Prehistory of the Indian Middle Class’ by Aravind Rajagopal helps one trace this process of accumulation and authoritarianism.
The new middle class, hurrying to unshackle itself from the legacy of the control and permit raj and its natural corollaries of guilt and repressed self, found the unalloyed violence exhibited by the saffron horde an exhilarating ritual and a redeeming rite of passage to its new avatar.
The slogans ‘Garv Se Kaho Hum Hindu Hai’ and ‘Jai Shri Ram’ reverberated in the streets, accompanied by copious blood and tears.
This provided the ideal backdrop for the repressed self of this group – the middle class – to finally discard its moral dilemma and conveniently shelter under the towering new patriarch Modi. Simultaneously, the middle class favoured persons like Sreedharan – an engineer who had climbed up the ranks of bureaucracy during and after the permit raj – who represented their economic aspirations.
Now, with Sreedharan joining the Hindutva fold, the aspirational middle class has found their messiah all over again – a man who speaks the vitriolic tongue of the Hindu right even as he has high social status.
(KP Sethunath is a journalist and Malayalam non-fiction writer. He is the former bureau chief of Deccan Chronicle. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)