A power list of Indians that maps the rise and fall of ideas and discourses
The Indian Express’ list of powerful Indians does capture the deeper shift in the way politics is performed and perceived in India.
The Indian Express’ list of the 100 most powerful Indians released on Monday – coming as it does at a time when we are witness to a change in the way politics is performed and perceived – is a useful indicator of the profound shifts in Indian politics after 2014, and particularly after May 2019.
One can quarrel with the list on one rank here and another rank there, but it maps the fast-moving politics of India rather well. Look at the list and you see a picture of the immense political change that took place on the ground since 2014, even if most realised the magnitude of that change only in 2019.
It isn’t about differentially ranked individuals, but about the present standing of the politics these individuals were seen as representing.
Awards are often more about power than “objective” worth, something that is too subjective and intangible to be measured.
Be they award ceremonies in films, journalism, or in the world of academia, these professed estimations or measures of worth display the power of those who are thus feted.
Indeed, the Nobel Peace Prize for former US president Barack Obama – an award Mahatma Gandhi did not get – for no obvious reason was a surprise to those who believe that awards assess worth. For those who see them as a sign of power relations, they are most useful as a reaffirmation of which way the wind is blowing.
In this sense, a list of powerful people is often a direct acceptance of power relations. Unlike other awards, which couch power relations as “worth” or “merit”.
The Express list – which is predictably headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah – has no political leader outside the BJP in the first 10 positions. If Modi, Shah, Rajnath Singh, Nirmala Sitharaman, Nitin Gadkari and JP Nadda occupy six among the top 10 positions, the other four ranks display an interesting pattern. The representatives here represent the Indian state, big capital, and the RSS.
Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi is at the third spot, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat stands fourth, industrialist Mukesh Ambani is fifth, and National Security Adviser Ajit Doval stands seventh.
Ambani here represents big capital, Doval the hard state, and Bhagwat the most influential social organisation in the country, which is also the ideological fountainhead of the BJP. Perhaps the Reliance Industries CMD should have been ranked higher, but that is a minor point.
The top positions capture a clear shift: the political voice of the BJP and RSS and the free play of the state’s hard power are at the core of India’s changing political landscape. None can now mistake the Indian state to be a soft state, as was said by hard-line critics some years back. And while liberal opinion may not like the shift, the Express list clearly indicates that it is this establishment that is winning the battle for hegemony in India hands on at the moment.
Ranks 11 to 14 are the second-generation BJP bigwigs: Yogi Adityanath, Devendra Fadnavis – who may well steer the BJP to another victory in Maharashtra soon – Piyush Goyal, and Dharmendra Pradhan.
A much-diminished Congress opens its account at rank 15, with Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh occupying this position. There are a few takeaways here regarding what the prominent English daily feels about changing power equations in 2019.
The Congress is, as we know, in free-fall after its second consecutive drubbing, unable to resolve the leadership question and witnessing an exodus from its ranks. Yet, perhaps for the first time in decades, a state Chief Minister from the Congress is ranked ahead of members of the Nehru-Gandhi family. Singh, who was ranked 31 last year, has climbed to rank 15. Sonia Gandhi, who was ranked five last year, has fallen to rank 17, despite being the acting president of the Congress. Ranked 11 last year, Rahul Gandhi has fallen to rank 25.
This highlights the perception that the regional leadership of the Congress – it is in power in a few states – is considered politically more potent than the national leadership, which has lost its hold over the party and the people. And this is strange, as the party had for decades been known for the “high command” culture. The perception of weakness at the top in a family-centred party does not augur well for its future.
It is also instructive that Amarinder Singh has taken more strident positions on the issue of nationalism and identitarian issues than many other Congress leaders, despite his rejection of the abrogation of Article 370. He recently spoke out strongly against the “forced conversion” of a Sikh girl in Pakistan and the country’s decision to levy a 20-dollars service fee on each pilgrim using the Kartarpur corridor to visit Gurudwara Darbar Sahib in Pakistan. He likened the fee to the medieval Jaziya, which was imposed on non-Muslims.
Singh, who has served in the Indian army, had in May 2019, criticised Navjot Singh Sidhu for hugging the Pakistan army chief in Pakistan.
Dalit, OBC politics declines
The power list captures another trend well: the decline of Dalit, OBC and left politics amid an unprecedented surge of the BJP.
BSP chief Mayawati is down to rank 73 – from rank 14 in 2018 – Akhilesh Yadav is down from rank 15 to 74 and Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan is down from rank 42 to 75.
The OBC-Dalit combine of Yadav and Mayawati could not halt the BJP in UP in the Lok Sabha polls, with significant sections of OBCs and Dalits choosing to see themselves as Hindus – or supporters of a strident nationalist pitch – rather than voting on caste lines. This made Muslim votes virtually irrelevant.
Within the world of identity politics in India, Hindutva is at present well ahead of a caste-centric discourse of political mobilisation woven around social justice, something that a close look at the power list also reveals.
The world of cinema
The power list also captures the shift towards hard nationalism, perhaps with a cultural tilt, with reference to the ranking of film stars.
Over the last two decades, the Hindi film industry was synonymous with the three Khans – Shah Rukh, Aamir and Salman. Their films still don’t do badly.
Yet, there is a shift in the thematic choices of Hindi films and also advertisements. Many movies with hard nationalism as the theme – or movies praising government policies – have been made in the past five years. Advertisements featuring soldiers have also been on the increase, even if the product has nothing to do with the army or war. It is an extension of the belief that the nation is ready for a militarised nationalism, which art should represent.
Akshay Kumar has in many ways symbolised this shift in the film world. He has starred in movies like Mission Mangal, Toilet-Ek Prem Katha and also a Kajaria tiles ad where he is dressed as an army officer.
Kumar, who trailed the Khans throughout his career – perhaps apart from a brief phase of Khiladi hits where he came close to them – has now metamorphosed into the thematic star of a changing India, much like Amitabh Bachchan was the angry young man in times of Indira Gandhi’s left shift and the JP movement. That Bachchan was a better actor is another story.
The Express list includes Kumar as a new entry, at rank 93, and puts him ahead of all three Khans, whose ranks have fallen compared to 2018.
The list – with some flaws – does capture a deep shift in the political language of Indian democracy. It isn’t just about individuals. It is about ideas and discourses.