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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 35, August 17, 2013 - Independence Day Special

Adding up Opinion amidst Shifting Sands

Sunday 18 August 2013, by Uttam Sen

With Precedents in Mind
One operative aspect of David Thompson’s assessment of the re-drawing of Europe’s map in the 19th century was that it brought a disadvantaged ethnic group (outside Russia), namely, the Slavs, into the picture as members of new nation-states.1 They were the original tillers and owners of the land in several territories. This was the flip side of the European quest at the time, namely, of democracy as the means to nationalism.

After the peace settlement of 1815 autocracy resurfaced, for example, habeas corpus was suspended in England, and the status quo was bolstered against movements for change that included the agency of the Press, in the name of stability and order. In practice, there was a difference between means and ends, for example, democracy as the agency for nationalism and nationalism as the means to democracy, also conspicuous in Germany’s emergence as a united nation-state.

That was in addition the turning-point in which education was universalised, notably through the commune in France. The compelling feature then was education as a component of the French resolve to reinforce itself against Germany.

These developments, when not actually part of a sequence of events, have a bearing as criteria in relation to which assessments can be made. India in the 1870s was witness to famine and the build-up to an Afghan war.2 Likewise, the apparent coincidences with our present are sometimes startling. Considering that an intervention through the Press was instrumental in subsequent discourse3 on the decisive issue of land ownership and the state’s role of social engineering through it, as well as neglect and suppression of information leading to famine, the means of investigation and reform in India, warts and all, constitute an important legacy even when the elite segment bids fair to merge with dominant economic currents.4

The saving grace has to be the growing identification of the micro roles of ordinary people and the leading impulsion towards their own growth. Despite poverty, hunger and illiteracy, the uniqueness of the Indian narrative also suggests that as a collective Indians can absorb the bequest of modernity. Trickle-down or not, many Indians follow the global main-stream. Public discussion generally keeps in mind the reality of poverty and disparity within. Food and education for all had remained a pipe-dream till the nineties from when it assumed more definitive contours. European parameters were surpassed by the constitutional incorporation of universal adult suffrage which gave all and sundry the option of choosing governments and on occasions setting the collateral agenda.5 The application of that prero-gative has continued to surprise the pundits. Even qualified political emancipation without corresponding economic clout has had its fortuitous spin-offs. However, threat perceptions to the existing state of affairs could lead to a 1815 European-style backlash. Suffice it to say that path-defining human enterprise had yet again trailed that landmark.

It could be back on course for us as well because our unique selling proposition continues to be the understated public aspiration for both growth and equity. Implicit in the overall mood is the futility of linear initiatives, for example, one-dimensional investment in community, religion, or even the economy. These admittedly give immediate and tangible relief to principals and their auxiliaries but on balance exclusion of the residuum creates more problems. For the hard-boiled, it entails expenditure. But a native humaneness is implicit in the majority’s liberal disposition to the excluded, for example, negotiation rather than force in dealing with political radicalism, when seen as a fall-out of economic competition. Even more convincingly, the news that the newly-emergent economies-led global boom is slowing down into a permanent pattern rather than a cyclical bust holds out the hope of correct factoring into policy and politics6 to beat the doomsayers.

Meanwhile, electoral polemics are translating into a no-holds-barred growth-versus-equity commotion among the articulate in the public sphere, leaving the common man, as in R.K. Laxman’s timeless caricature, more bewildered than usual. Without the same clarity of thought and rhetoric, crossing the Rubicon does not come easily to him. His doubts persist because he has the memory of sporadic community- based goodness and philanthropy. Considerable sociological work has been done on the robust value-based interdependence on which traditional forms of Indian society have coalesced over time, though ignored by the logic and perception of essentially alien orientations. His misgivings can increase with the counsel that the nation and the poor are being pulled down by an undoable Socialism. When the country prospers as a whole, they seemingly thrive as well, and the goods supposedly trickle down. The other way around nothing does, particularly with immediate effect. But what of the reality of rising prices that virtually puts living beyond the pale for the moment? He does not apparently have too much leeway to protest because he and his weasel word have turned fairly dispensable.

It can be borne in mind that some political parties, or even groups that maintain a system of activity from which they derive mutual benefit, do take care of the committed. Steadfast neighbourhoods can beat the price rise in essential commodities by having produce brought directly to the market and buying the needful without the middle man’s cut. There are countless other ways in which the heat is taken off. Given the alternatives, the common man, thus delivered, is ready to give full measure for a party or social group (not that they always pester him for direct involvement). Once upon a time it could have been called a movement or development in progress, particularly when the state still projected its welfarist patriarchal badge. But for obvious reasons, not necessarily the subscript, that is mostly not the case.7

Assuming the overall picture, stated objectivity or impartial political judgment on the part of the common man would be wishful thinking. But within himself he could get the picture more clearly (does it account for the large number of “undecided” voters in opinion polls?). He could influence what has to be done, without unnecessarily upsetting the applecart. Even before the stage of exercising his political choice he could convey to the down-to-earth but crafty politician his choice of a constructive scheme of things beyond the brownie points scored in public debate. He could do with affordable living, food, housing, and infrastructure, even in an ambience of capital growth.

What has not received much attention is whether the social sector can develop simultaneously. Well-documented experiences can be used as a frame of reference to assess and evaluate his situation. Yet, the stimulus for a parallel cure has been scripted in the most improbable way. A former Supreme Court Judge has spoken of subcontinental convergence, arguably a horseback opinion with possibilities, if rendered more endurable for the “other”.8

The reorganisation of Europe emancipated a particular ethnic group hobbled by man-made impediments across countries. Barring the subsequent irony of the newly-integrated terri-tories falling prey to their own foibles and standing still, their release, inter alia, marked a refulgent European boom. The illiterate were brought up to scratch.

It is an engaging coincidence that the Supreme Court has reminded us that we are mostly immigrants who have relieved traditional tillers of their land. If anything, the observation was a sobering thought even while running the risk of appropriation by agents provocateurs who could intimidate genuine landholders (of highly improbable reactive dispossession) rather than the targeted sharks. But historical consciousness has heaved others out of the morass.9

A cost-benefit analysis of a more free-wheeling sub-continental structure, or structures, would be enlightening,10 for example, in terms of the geo-political quagmire that can be resolved in the east, the natural routes of trade and commerce that can be reopened in the west (arguably replace the extra-legal substitutions devised by human ingenuity to sustain the recurring figure of the common man), and the shoring up of livelihood systems of a vast mass of people.

Harking back is in no way inevitably less remunerative. Reopening the Silk Route not only resuscitated a pristine way of life but boosted Sino-Indian trade manifold. Such recoveries, if aggregated, can leaven both morale and economics with the least invidiousness. There is of course the issue of the learned judge’s home State, the proverbial touchstone of the subcontinent’s circumstances, which could change. A legal luminary would recall more vividly than others that the “exigencies of the moment” after communal rioting had resulted in two centralised structures (with residuary powers vested in the Centre rather than the States).

The exigencies arguably continue even while participatory democracy predicates devolution of power and authority.11 The Pakistani lawyer and human rights activist, Ms Asma Jahangir, had once quipped that Indians and Pakistanis tended to veer from threats of war to professions of reunion. The caveat rings true but the common man’s stakes in survival and growth, and the state of the world around him, could lead to joint endeavour in the subcontinent (which would include Bangladesh). The Economist’s report on deceleration warns of strife if the right remedy for living with lower outcomes is not found. It demonstrates concern for the pace of ‘’reform” in India which can include the quality of life and opportunity for the greater number of people.

The weight of ancient cultures, despite their undisputed virtues, can sometimes cloak the multiplicity of roles played by individuals and even communities. Extensions of solitary identity could well be holdovers from the past, but valid to the extent that they continue to be mechanically iterated or applied to conceal vested interests. Sometimes the lag is genuinely required for ordinary mortals to catch their breath. But a plural way of life is already upon us, particularly in the urban centres with their multiple binders of social and professional commitment.

The political analogy is admittedly one for the future but based on an approach that has to be tolerant of diversity. The notion could be absorbed and nurtured by the unlikeliest of political parties or configurations as a prescription for functionality. This versatility is already evident across political divides with advocates of equity lauding functioning business models and the grounded response of an avowedly Right-wing party-led government in providing food security.

There is considerably more than wishful thinking in the happenings below the overt public surface. The judicious presumably see the straws in the wind rather than clutch at them!

End notes and references

1. See Europe Since Napoleon, David Thompson, Penguin, 1973.

2. Interestingly, this frontier cause célèbre could have been a dud today had the bluff of a Russian design on Afghanistan been called, as William Dalrymple points out in Return of a King, The Battle For Afghanistan 1839-1842, Bloomsbury, London, 2013.

3. The reference is to James Augustus Hickey’s confrontation with the government leading to the impeachment of Sir Warren Hastings.

4. On its part, the big Press has to contend with competition and economies of scale (the advantages of increased output). Market integration in practice can be as much of a subject as the theory itself! On the plus side, the select papers preserve and often exercise capabilities of investigation and exposition of goings-on in high places that are beyond smaller voices. On the negative side, the mass of material at its disposal cannot always be objectively processed. Some might even question the priorities of news selection and coverage. But the spaces for knowledge and information and their dissemination can make up for the downside. If the 21st century has produced unprecedented proficiency in communication and distribution for business and technology, the Press and media also stand to gain. The desired mix in coverage could return with time, particularly if the humanities achieve functional equivalence with contemporary science and technology. As uncannily discernible on the ground, the asymmetry is not always caused by the deficiency of one particular side. In an indivisibly holistic process, the technique of discourse could determine the balance as it did in the European period which presents a universal point of departure even today.

5. This could happen obliquely, as a consequence of events, not unknown in history. For instance, the State of Chattisgarh, manifest on the national radar for a insurrectionary tribal movement, is notable above most others in food security presented by no-nonsense legislative fiat. Approaching elections have fast-tracked poverty alleviation schemes elsewhere, notably Madhya Pradesh. Suffrage for the poor in places in Europe had been expedited by the rulers’ anxiety to keep the intermediary classes at bay.

6. See The Economist. July 27-August 2, 2013, The great deceleration. India, along with the three other BRIC nations, namely, Brazil, Russia and China, is slowing down. India’s case may not be news here, but the subsequent projection of settling into a pattern could be.

7. Despite its drawbacks MGNREGA is proving exceptional at certain places.

8. Mr Justice M. Katju has reportedly said, among other things, that aggressive sub-nationalisms are divisive. The solution lies in subcontinental unity.

9. “Historical consciousness transcends the exclusive preoccupation with what happened in the past and has become history, and uses this knowledge as an element in shaping the thoughts and actions that will determine the future”, Theodor Schieder, influential German historian, in “The role of historical consciousness in political action”, an essay given as a lecture at a public meeting in Bonn on May 29, 1974.

10. Despite the creation of Telangana, the reorganisation of States solely on a linguistic basis, without adequate thought to administration and resources, is definitely being questioned.

11. It is hard for the “aam admi“ to follow what his Pakistani counterpart actually thinks, but the border incidents e.g. the killing of five Indian soldiers, are provocations that present arduous posers to both the Government and the Opposition. The assumption is that proactivity means aggressiveness (which can be a blind alley rather than management of an expected occurrence). As a watchdog the latter has to monitor oversight, if any. The Government’s endeavour to continue dialogue without getting unduly distracted in conveying a hard message is undramatic yet mature. At the same time, the loss of each life calls for salutation to martyrdom, compensation and future preparedness. Pakistan’s recent chequered run of being virtually sidelined by India’s comparative economic performance and then given a new lease of life in the US scheme of things owing to the scheduled withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan, where it anticipates the installation of a compatible government, could be the underlying factors behind the reassertiveness. The news could come home soon that the withdrawal of US troops augurs collective responsibility among regional stakeholders, the
visibly stable solution to a fractious polity. But there too specialists conversant with the local connotation of terms like multiethnic, fundamentalist etc. should be heard out before rushing to stereotypical conclusions.

The author is a Bengaluru-based journalist.

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