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Home > 2021 > On Sycophancy, the Indian Variety | Arup Maharatna

Mainstream, VOL LIX No 23, New Delhi, May 22, 2021

On Sycophancy, the Indian Variety | Arup Maharatna

Saturday 22 May 2021


by Arup Maharatna*

There are unending debates tinged with thick haziness as to what are the core common pan-Indian traits which could epitomise the so-called unity or the essence of this vast land of glaring diversities and heterogeneities in its geography, society, culture, religious practices, and history. What ultimately unites such intrinsically diverse and divisive India is one key question that reportedly drove Mahatma Gandhi, just before the launch of his countrywide mass mobilisation movement, to undertake a travel across much of the Indian subcontinent. No matter what is found by Gandhi and others to be the defining traits within Indian panorama, I would presently posit that a remarkable homogeneity is discernible in the intensity and forms in which sycophancy is practiced across the entire country. Sycophancy generally connotes an animated behaviour of showing-off explicit respect, flattery, deference, or servility particularly towards those who are powerful and influential. This is, of course, not something which is relevant and practiced in India alone; it is almost universal all over the world albeit with enormous variation in its forms and intensity. However, the pan-Indian intensity and forms of sycophancy have a good deal of uniqueness/uniformity on several counts. Let us dwell on this point a little longer.

One can scarcely dispute that in Indian politics it is extremely common of a minister or a political leader getting garlanded by her fellow followers with a huge – sometimes of 6 to 8 feet-long radius - flower-made rings at the inauguration of a political rally or party meeting across nearly all parties, regions, and locations. Indeed, the size and thickness of these flower-made rings vary seemingly in accordance with the stature/status of the leader concerned. The ring would not be as much big for a district-level president or secretary as it would be for her nation-level counterpart. Ascribed stature is thus represented by the cruder largeness rather than finer sharpness and elegance. Also, an iconic shawl would invariably be wrapped up over the shoulders of the VIP as a formal token of regards/respects, which are in a large part a sheer form of sycophancy either in disguise or even overtly. Almost same principle seems applicable in non-political spheres too. Think of a typical Indian conference/seminar/workshop to be organized by some professional association or an institution – either academic or administrative or political. The very first thing to be done is the preparation of a brochure or leaflet, which would give a brief background to the core themes, motifs, and agendas of the event as well as detailed information on the composition and delineation of various committees/sub-committees to be responsible for looking after respective aspects/departments such as beverages/food, pandals, programmes, and sometimes cultural interludes and so on. But what must inevitably and prominently appear on the top of various committees is a set of names who are labelled as ‘patrons’ to be followed by names of office-bearers of organising committee. Happening to be a patron is a sheer ornamental gesture in the entire event, and the motif behind including such persons in the first place originates in the basic psyche of abiding sycophancy. This has close resemblance with people’s perennial wish for a cherished downpour of gods’ bountiful blessings which have so often played crucial catalyst roles in the Indian mythologies. All this, understandably, does not conform to hardcore democratic principles and ideals. However, interestingly, the patrons hardly ever refuse to be included in the brochure as merely adorning names, only reassuring that the very cultural soil of the land is quite congenial for a flourishing practice of sycophancy, while it had waned in the west along with the evolving or thickening of democratic spirits and related ethos. Democracy has been officially implanted at the time of India’s independence too, but the entire country clings to the practice of overt sycophancy as a noble act of respecting and upholding epic traditions of the land, a catch-all term variously used to refer to the widely perceived glory of the ‘past’.

A full-fledged inaugural session is invariably arranged chiefly as an obvious occasion for overflowing sycophancy: bringing as many heavyweights from around the corridors of power and influence as possible, of course, within the budget constraints; begging each of them first for lighting up a spiritually-loaded lamp seemingly in the form of a revered gesture of praying for god’s contentment and blessing; then listening one by one to their rhetorically-charged patronising speeches delivered in accordance with one’s voice and oratory skills; and thereby spending and winding up the session full of showy, unessential and ritualistic stuff (if judged in the light of the original purpose) founded squarely on the idea of sycophancy. An apparent substantive emptiness (in relation to the prime goals of the entire event) of this inaugural session is partially compensated for and at once exposed by the fact that it attracts the largest crowd of which attrition thereafter goes on progressively over the following main sessions. It does not take much ingenuity to realize that the thickness of crowd at this session varies positively with the popularity and power of the concerned VIPS.

A similarly meticulous attention is paid to the holding of a ceremonious valedictory session at the end with a plentiful scope (sometimes covert) for sycophancy: inviting a new a set of powerful/influential persons virtually as ornaments, not as resources, and endowing each of them with ample opportunities for what frequently turn to be self-styled, high-sounding, and utterly patronising orations often having little relevance to the central theme/purpose of the conference or workshop. Predictably, because of the tremendous individual incentives for exercising sycophancy, the gathering in this fag-end session thickens once again with a heightened latitude for sycophancy. All this together go to shape almost an inverse relationship between the degree to which the event’s real/proclaimed purpose is addressed in a session and the size of crowd/gathering in that session. Indeed, these features constitute a pattern of which homogeneity or uniformity across the Indian polity is nearly impeccable. This is, of course, not to deny its stellar exceptions in some specific instances and circumstances. Even at the more micro-level doctoral students are often found doing several household errands of their respective supervisors on a regular basis both before and after the official working hours.

What seems to have become worrying enough now is not the persistence of a pretty feudal practice of sycophancy as such but emerging indications of its rise in intensity and spread over the recent past. I do vividly remember my own student days when the person who introduced an invited speaker in a seminar/conference used to say, especially in cases of renowned persons, that she was well-known enough to justify the winding up of the introducing speech in a couple of minutes, so that longer time could be devoted to the main talk and discussions. In fact, the larger the name and fame of the invited speaker, the shorter used to be the talk introducing her before the audience. Nowadays I frequently come across seminars where about 10-15 minutes is spent on each speaker’s introduction by someone of the organisers, while almost ‘military rules’ are let loose in allocating time to each speaker’s lecture and in ruthlessly curtailing even a potentially fruitful deliberation if the discussion exceeds by a couple of minutes, if not seconds. That an increasing celebration of pomp, posture, positions, pretensions, power, and popularity – all being indisputable ingredients of sycophancy – together with commensurate neglect towards innate talent, degree of societal commitment, and perseverance is becoming global is no less worrying of late. When the ‘Enlightenment’ over a long modern period led us globally to dispense with pre-modern ornamental prefixes and suffixes like ‘ji’ or ‘honourable’ or ‘respected’ or ‘sir’ while mentioning someone’s name, this old-fashioned feudal practice is strikingly being resurrected nowadays. This could easily make one sceptical as to whether the ongoing, blind, thoughtless negation or reversal of the historical ‘Enlightenment’ process is being sold now as a supra-modern (post-modern or ‘fake’?) product or ideas or cultures! Who is ultimately manufacturing a fake product or idea or gesture like this in the present humanity with a roaring success is, of course, a profoundly fundamental question to which all well-meaning thinkers are invited to address.

Indeed the pan-Indian (common) trait of rampant sycophancy seems to be currently getting added sustenance from the ongoing process of cultural globalisation. The reason is rather simple. India has an enormous absolute size of well-to-do and ever prospering middle-class population who generate lucrative prospects of growing consumer demand in international market and is, therefore, increasingly reckoned with globally. This mounting interaction and economic importance of India at international plane makes possible – through sundry mechanisms – a fairly rapid spread of the ‘infection’ of sycophancy of Indian variety. Unlike earlier practices/norms perfected over a century, major parts of the western world are now evincing key signs/symptoms of the Indian style of sycophancy, and some have begun offering typically superfluous and lavish or royal treatment to VIPS of various statures in motley events – political or non-political - in their own countries, possibly partly in consonance with flourishing educational courses/consultancy in so-called ‘event-management’ across the world. If India is, thus, experiencing an elevation of its cultural status/influence globally, this seems to be largely through a spread of its own typical cultural infections and deformities, but hardly via updating itself culturally and ideationally to the enlightened age-old global standards. Whatever is the judgement that should emerge from the foregoing discussion, it seems safe, albeit not necessarily wise, to withhold it under currently prevailing volatility of geo-political climate with a growing global tendency towards authoritarianism often in the guise of so-called popularity and its concomitant self-defeating large-scale unfreedom.

(Author: Arup Maharatna, Rajiv Gandhi Chair Professor, Central University of Allahabad)

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