People beyond our borders must be roaring with laughter. We have become, it seems, a nation of chowkidars.
Imagine, reader, your going to another country, even in the backyard of what used to be called the continent of darkness. You meet with the immigration officials. They introduce themselves to you as ‘chowkidars’. You come out an engage a taxi. The driver says, “I am not a driver, but a chowkidar.” What will you do? Will you board his taxi or look for another one? You somehow reach your hotel. The man at the counter says, “I am a chowkidar.” “What about the rest of the people at this counter?” you ask. Prompt comes the reply, “They are all chowkidars.” You somehow sort yourself out, check into a room, rest overnight and go, say, to the Minister, External Affairs. What greets you is the name plate, “Chowkidar Mombosibasa.”
Everyone is proud and eager to be a chowkidar. And you are deemed weird, if you are not one yourself.
Honouring everyone with the ‘chowkidar’ title is, however, not the only way of solving our booming unemployment problem. You can achieve a similar effect by making everyone ‘Prime Minister.” That should sound a lot better.
Why this has been foisted on the national scene cannot be without a good reason. That reason is embedded in human nature. We are keen to let others share our humiliation and indignity, but very protective of the pockets of our distinctions and achievements. That is the way we treat even God. If we succeed, we take all the credit for it. If we fail, it is because God let us down. If everybody is a Prime Minister, there is no fun in being a Prime Minister. The glory of being a Prime Minister -as the title implies- is that there is none like you.
The idea of creating a nation of chowkidars arose, as everyone knows, in the wake of a discovery that Rahul Gandhi made, “Chowkidar chor hai”. The sentinel has proved himself a thief! There are two options open to you at this stage. Either challenge the allegation on merits, disprove the infamy, turn the tables against your detractors and emerge ennobled in name and fame. The other is to destroy the meaning of the word ‘chowkidar’ and make it denote anything but disrepute. So, you mount a nation-wide assault on the word. You destroy its meaning. Today nobody knows what the word ‘chowkidar’ should mean.
The issue pertains to the correspondence between fact and fiction, appearance and reality. If those who boast of their chowkidar status are indeed treated as chowkidars are, they will bring the heavens down in protest. Not convinced? Well, try this. Write a letter to Arun Jaitley saying, “Sir, I need a chowkidar. I am willing to engage you on a reasonable pay and favourable conditions of work. Please report for duty by the first of next month.” Watch the tamasha then. The fictitious glee in flaunting the chowkidar status derives from the factual assurance that they are anything but chowkidars.
What this should alert every Indian to is the power of words and strategies to overpower realities.
By spreading the chowkidar identity to millions of people, and incorporating them into the matrix of embarrassment, Modi and Shah succeeded in spreading the virus of resentment nationwide. What was meant by Rahul as a label of infamy to Modi was converted into a continent of shared pride! That’s the power of strategy; something that Rahul did not factor into his reckoning.
But this brutal divorce between title and function is a sinister thing. Chowkidar can become a title of distinction only when it is totally divorced from the duties it entails. The same goes with the claim that Modi is the cleanest man in India. As a rule, we must be on our guards about anyone who goes about drum-rolling his virtues. Whether I am clean or not is for others to judge. I may be impervious to the stink of my sweat, but my next door neighbour and his neighbour will know it. They are the ones to tell me if I stink of not. But that is not the way in Modiland. You and I will be told what we should smell and how we should smell it. If we are told that the flower we smell is a geranium and not a rose, that has to be so.
So, there is a serious issue here. We shall overlook it at our peril. The issue of freedom. The choice to be a chowkidar can be, by no stretch of imagination, a free exercise of one’s will. It is an obligation. Who you are -whether a chowkidar or a cook or a janitor- will be decided from time to time by someone else. You must, like a chameleon, change your colours and fall in line.
Human freedom works at three levels. First, the physical and external zone of freedom, usually denoted as freedom of action. This freedom needs to be tempered with responsible restraint and reasonable restriction imposed by the agencies of the state. Second, freedom of thought and expression in the public domain. This must be more under responsible self-restraint and less under state control; though when thought becomes action it moves into the first category. Third, freedom of thought in the private domain, which should not be under state control or dictated by external agencies at all. A person’s identity -whether he is a chowkidar or a havildar- should be matter of his personal choice with which no other person has any business to interfere. Being labelled arbitrarily this or that by some source of coercive authority at a distance is a serious violation of one’s integrity of being. It is an act of violence, even if it appears to be embraced voluntarily. There is no logic by which, say, a cabinet minister would voluntarily be identified as a chowkidar in a state of uncoerced choice. The worst form of slavery is one in which one has to pretend to be happy to do what, under normal circumstances, one would have protested against vehemently.
This sort of arbitrary regimentation, the subjugation of individual integrity to party needs and electoral exigencies, is truly sinister if it gets legitimized as an admissible norm in the public domain. It degrades a nation into an aggregation of non-entities who, like a quantity of clay, can be shaped this way and that as per distant centres of whims and fancies. It is an insult, no matter how privileged it is made to seem to be.