Touching the feet of elders to seek their blessings is one of the nicer traditions in Hinduism, though it is now practiced to a lesser extent by other communities too. Of course, you rarely touch the feet, it’s more the movement of bending-bowing low to show your respect. It is more prevalent in northern and central India, South Indians preferring the full-length prostration or ‘shashtanga namaskar’. Personally, I follow the foot-touching tradition with most elders, but am embarrassed and uncomfortable when youngsters attempt to touch my feet. For one, it makes me feel old and second, I know that I am ill-qualified for the honor! That said, it is practiced widely among Indians and for the most part, it is done with genuine respect.
Except in the case of politicians.
A political supporter is obliged and expected to touch the feet of his patron politician when approaching him. This gesture of respect becomes an ugly show of ‘total loyalty’ – in other words, it is a pledge of undying, unquestioning servility, flattery and sycophancy. Every politician in India is constantly surrounded by his hangers-on and supporters, and not doing what everyone else does would be to stand out like a sore thumb. And we know every politician will unhesitatingly cut off the thumb that dares to stick out. I also know every supporter would rather stab that politician in the eye, but is obliged to stoop and do what is mandated. Much as I dislike the lack of self-respect in the supporters, I just loathe that look of benign patronage and benefaction that sweeps across a politician’s face when somebody touches his feet.
But I do wonder what younger politicians feel when a supporter as old as him or even older feels obliged to touch his feet. Sachin Pilot is currently on the hot seat. Looking even younger than his 42 years, I wonder why he allows his supporters to touch his feet. We can see that happen repeatedly on TV. These young guys like Pilot and Scindia have had the benefit of good education and exposure to the west, where this kind of gesture is unthinkable and would be considered gross (the exact word used by an American friend). What stops them from telling their supporters to cease and desist from this practice? It probably gives them the feeling of power over other human beings and therefore reinforces their self-esteem. Still, I would have expected these young leaders to discontinue this shameful practice. But I forget – shame and disgrace don’t bother politicians. As long as it provides or confirms their power over the destiny of their constituency, this ‘pratha’ will continue.
I assure you that if I ever became a politician, my first order of the day will be to prohibit people from touching my feet. When I mentioned this to a friend, he laughed at me. He told me that in India, you should always demand such respect and enforce it without seeming to. If you stop people from bending to touch your feet, he said, you can be sure they will start climbing onto your head!
Of course, that day will never come for I will never become a politician – that is one more honor I am not qualified for!