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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 23, New Delhi, May 23, 2020

Beyond show and symbolism: why the real must prevail over superficial?

Saturday 23 May 2020


by Dr Garima Mani Tripathi

Have we ever bothered why many state actions are coloured with symbolic and superficial activities? Why politics of symbolism actually arouse sentiments without substantive actions? Perhaps no, since such superficial things often masquerade as ‘real’ and we identify with them without even probing the substance. In one such case, the armed forces recently organised a series of nationwide activities on May 3 to showcase their support for doctors, para medics and police personnel by organising fly-pasts, aerial flower shows, military band performance and lighting of warships. However, the teleology behind such symbolic gesture is unconvincing and unjustifiable.

While the armed forces have been assisting the civilian side in shipping back people to India from nearby foreign destinations, helping in quarantine expansion and operational preparedness for a larger role in the pandemic, a comprehensive engagement is yet to emerge. Even otherwise, the May 3 symbolism has come at an inopportune time when the focus should have been on pandemic related issues only. Therefore, the ritualistic symbolism can have multiple interpretations. First, they supplement the legitimisation mechanism of state actions, visible through state-sponsored symbolic events such as lightening of candles, beating of thalis and drums, siren hooting etc. However, such gestures may look good when there is motivation crisis for state actions and agencies resort to rationalisation process to pump up motivations. These gestures should be in form of small narratives; should not come at a grand level; and should not be at the cost of core functions. In the instant case, the armed forces converted the ritualistic symbolism into a grand narrative without even pondering over its potential impact!

Second, it could also mean a diversionary tactics to shift the focus from mobilisation of resources against Corona pandemic to an artificially designed appreciation culture. This consisted of pre-facto media briefing, high decibel marketing and precise execution through meticulously structured strategies! However, did these activities promote in any way the progression towards actualisation of the universal good? Perhaps no! The armed forces could have, instead, used the opportunity to provide full fledged support to civilian agencies. Critical theorists like J G Ballard (Millennium People, 2003) have come down heavily on such show of superficiality by comparing them ‘as events without significance, Sun without shadows, and above all, the surface without depth’. At best, such things create false consciousness about certain persuasive rhetorics that do no benefit to the society.

Third, the symbolic gestures also mean a huge revenue expenditure since the show was on a pan-India basis. At a time when the GDP growth rate is likely to dip below two percent, revenue generation taking a nosedive, and teeming millions literally starving in big and small cities, this is indeed a clear wastage of taxpayer’s money. The armed forces are themselves likely to suffer a budgetary cut of forty percent in current year’s defence budget. Clearly, the false narrative was avoidable and only shows how the armed forces often get de-linked and insensitive about social issues in the country and fail to feel the plight of people.

Fourth, from an ethical and philosophical perspective, the righteousness of such actions are questionable since there was no consideration for larger good. It had no space for clean intentions, clean actions and, above all, no considerations for consequential calculus. Therefore, there was no means-end coherence! Does it, then, ameliorate the plight of Corona warriors or help them out in any way? Did the armed forces distinguish between the dichotomy of ’ís’ and óught’ in prioritising their intents through symbolism? Did they factor in the well-being of people at large? Definitely not since public policy actions, whether emanating from civil or military side must have moral considerations and sound-rational economic arguments. This one, though, failed the test!

All organisations have, in true philosophical sense, some ’assigned’ duties. Professionalism lies in performing them in the best possible manner. Additionally, some organisations appropriate ’acquired’ duties from time to time. Combat preparedness under all circumstances is the assigned duty of the armed forces. They are quite good at it. Aid to civil agencies during disaster times is the acquired function of the armed forces; a fact well established since, in past, they have done a yeoman’s job in many a disaster relief operations. The armed forces have large pool of dedicated doctors and nursing staff apart from logistics that could have been (and can be) shared for reducing the civilian burden and containment of the pandemic. They could have also trained the civilian staff and provide large scale testing facilities on a war footing by pooling in money, machinery and manpower.

Many Service veterans might support the May 3 symbolic gesture. Symbolism works and is often tolerated ’within’ the armed forces since there is a lot of emphasis on pomp, show and display in the military culture and they are governed by distinct norms and identities. This is ubiquitous global military culture and India is no exception! However, migration of military culture to civil side without suitable modifications is fraught with risks and possibility of rejections. The pandemic crisis has led to a massive economic slowdown where every penny counts. If the armed forces aimed at showcasing a good will for the Corona warriors and engender public goodwill in return, the lukewarm public response should encourage them to do some soul-searching.

Show and symbolism have only ephemeral value since they are superficial in content. They do not create or perpetuate real good will. Public policy actions must be sensitive to such vulgar and wasteful display of money. Only such actions should be promoted and sponsored that would contribute to society in substantive manner, optimise value for public money, and above all, pass the litmus test of ‘morality’ in public policy actions. Perhaps, therein lies true philosophical worth of state actions.

Note: The author teaches Philosophy in Mata Sundri College for Women, University of Delhi. 

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