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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 33

In the Wake of the Storm

Saturday 2 August 2008, by Uttam Sen


The passage of the nuclear deal exposed some of our shortcomings in negotiating a mega event, arguably with transnational ramifications. It also demonstrated the transparency of a process of which little was left unseen or unsaid. The image- intensifier of the electronic medium may have even played the role of a catalyst for high-pitched performances before the camera. The “high bourgeois” press travelled a considerable distance towards meeting the definition. The term was coined by the communications theorist, Denis McQuail, to describe the critical agency of the press in the mid-nineteenth century as an expression of mercantile wealth. The target was professional and objective news gathering and publication so that the reader, even if mostly from the emergent dominant class, knew what was abroad, rather than suffer the uninformed delusions of the preceding feudal order.

We often take justifiable pride in the unique precedent set by independent India in acquiring universal adult suffrage when the vast majority was uneducated and mired in poverty. But in a reversal of the normative benchmarks of progress in which people and their institutions accomplish higher qualitative standards over time we have been stretched to maintain appearances and have failed quite miserably. Members of the landed gentry, very often barristers and men of learning, have made way for representatives from the agricultural classes, trade and small town communicators, whose world-views are dominated in time and space by the immediate and their own physical neighbourhood. Yet the visionaries who had put them there had led the battle against social and political conservation (to legislate for adult suffrage) with hopes for the distant future in which India’s achievements could serve as examples for the developing world. India’s democratic Constitution based on universal adult suffrage was promulgated on November 26, 1949, less than two months after the formation of the People’s Republic of China on October 1.

A grim reality stared us in the face through most of the debate on the no-trust motion. The sequel to universal adult franchise should have been the entitlement of people who had been only partially empowered by the right to vote. They needed to be fed, clothed and educated. They should have acquired the voice to articulate their many aspirations, and come closer to security in the comprehensive sense. Most people continue to lead lives too precariously close to the edge to be conditioned for selfless public service by the time they arrive. One needs a sense of social confidence and psychological and physical security to translate a value-system into duty and commitment. Even when that happens, in today’s world we live under the shadow of another phenomenon. It would take some appreciation of the discourse that is taking place at home and abroad to come to grips with the greatest capital movement in history that is now on, greater than the one in the mid-nineteenth century that was also the hey-day of colonialism in India. The sense of people’s insecurity is heightened both by an obvious human (at times uninformed) aspiration to partake of the cornucopia at large and the fear of being ignored.

The kind of money that was flaunted in the crisis surrounding the no-trust motion left the common man intimidated and numb, confirming his worst suspicions. Enlightened opinion will have to address this area more effectively than it has in the past to rally round public faith.

Knowledge and communication can make the circumstances add up for the average person. Responsible governance can facilitate the choices on his behalf. For example, the work of a former World Bank President, Joseph Stiglitz (namely, Globalisation and its Discontents), alerts the reader to the perils of privatisation as they occurred in Russia, where mafias were stripping state enterprises of assets for pure private gain with the patronage of a mindless political leadership. There was no profit to go around at all. The common man was left in the lurch. This did not mean that Stiglitz opposed the principle of privatisation under all circumstances, even when the situation warranted it (more efficient management, greater productivity etc.). The lessons for India were unmistakable and instructive. We need knowledgeable and selective decisions before opening up. The media has been through enormous analysis and debate on this particular theme.

In keeping with the trend, Rahul Gandhi created a flutter with his thoughts on the nuclear deal and allied subjects on the electronic media on July 17 that rang through most of the English-language print medium the following day. The response then was perhaps quantitatively bigger than that two days later when he tagged his reflections to energy security. Rahul Gandhi had indulgently reminisced on his father’s fondness for the computer. He had quoted Bill Gates on once having said that he did not envisage more than 500 computers in operation at any given time. Computers were now everywhere. Likewise, doubts on the potential of nuclear energy for everyday use did not dishearten him. What was the harm in anticipating the day a scientist made a breakthrough, and presumably reached nuclear energy to every doorstep? He went on to recall that telecom and IT had changed the face of the country (and that the nuclear deal could do the same). He claimed an overarching accord among the country’s youth on the deal’s beneficial possibilities. He was prepared to see the Congress sacrifice office to carry such a worthy project to its logical conclusion.

Leftists would have been clear in their minds that Rahul Gandhi and they were focusing on incongruent constituencies even if both were part of the same ruling coalition. Their aversion to the handling of policies that had created uneven growth was well-known. Rahul Gandhi’s publicly-pronounced faith in them appeared to tell only a part of the narrative. By July 20, a section of the Times of India’s edition (The Sunday Mumbai Mirror) had carried a story on Rahul Gandhi touring some of the distress spots of Vidarbha the next day (Friday, July 18).

In the Indian context the pre-trust motion alignments were inevitable till one outgrew the need for the other. But what if it came too soon or at the wrong time for the people they represented and governed (read inflation and rising prices)? One can imagine the ordinary person’s dilemma. Not that he would give it too much time or thought. He would slip into a convenient comfort zone (that the parties of the people would do the needful for him) and get busy adjusting to the terms on which he would fend for himself. The government would gradually have to cut down on “non-productive expenditure”, various subsidies would be pruned and his cost of living would go up both in direct and indirect ways. But he could be spared for wondering why people so skilled in the cut and thrust of competitive politics did not close ranks and turn their energies on providing cover for him by negotiating their plans in such a way that he did not have to pay the price for them. Hopefully, such conditions can still be created.

Is the Common Man being reduced to a Cartoon?

THE bottom line is the space available for security and growth. On the face of things, we appear to be in retreat. An articulate television anchorperson had rhetorically inquired of her interlocutors in a studio discussion during the coverage of the nuclear deal whether the common man was being reduced to a cartoon. The metaphor seemed unkind (most probably unintended) to the popular print caricature who had regaled the reader for decades with his plight in similar circumstances. Nevertheless, it was a highly appropriate response to the subconscious marginalisation of a traditionally central figure, the person at the middle class level and below. Those above set the agenda as players in government, business and allied professions, sharing public space through their occupations and socio-economic networks.

The stereotypical common man does not have much margin for clear and explicit enterprise. Strictly speaking, he has never been a mover and a shaker. But he has been the democratic hedge against instability, the political insurance for maintaining the legitimacy of the legal structure. Extreme global trouble-spots from Afghanistan to Africa are hard put today to revive the class to which he belongs, to indemnify their volatility. In India he can choose his political representatives, but if taken together with the vast majority of the still unlettered, he does not quite measure up to the part of influencing necessary reform. He has to remain a mute spectator to post-election processes (of governance, business and so forth) where entrenched privileges can shut the door on him and exercise control through supeior management of people and resources. Their domination can extend beyond national frontiers in a “globalised” environment and they can become unassailable, more importantly unaccountable to him even when his own fate is being decided. A matching illustration of such a scenario could be found in the case of the Indian farmer if his labours are eventually superseded by the lifting of domestic tariffs that bring in imports to displace his produce from his own market. The higher inputs for production created by diversification of agriculture abroad is being added to his burden, as is the espousal of capital-intensive techniques of production that could eventually throw him out of business altogether. This cycle has already caused devastation in Africa and other parts of the world, notably Bangladesh.

Political parties that adopt his cause will predictably get his support. His localised interests will also be reflected in the schema of such parties. Attrition between the different tiers of governance, namely, the local, state and national levels, will give each layer its own particular flavour. The global sphere will also intermittently impinge on his consciousness through events precipitated by “arrangements” like the nuclear deal. But as the speaker adjudged the best in the televised debate on the nuclear deal among CNN-IBN viewers suggested, items on the ordinary person’s security agenda, namely, food, employment, education, shelter and “voice”, were his primary concerns. They will continue to creep into the public discourse. The degree to which our processes of governance recognise and help provide them will also determine how far we can go in the quest of attaining capabilities that are dependent on these provisions. For all the inhibitions we have in acknowledging the role of the media, it has collectively addressed the aforesaid ideas fairly creditably. It was left to Mehbooba Mufti Mohammad Syed to confess that she was one among the majority of parliamentarians who did not follow the nuclear deal. What the debate and the political crisis around it reflected was the state of the nation and the many contestations within it. There are correctives for aberrations and the soundness of governance in future will depend on how effectively justice is delivered. Public opinion in the US played a hand in guiding the stipulations of debate in the presidential elections towards human security and public welfare. They were brought home to us by the media. If there were peace after the storm, the luxury of chewing over it would have made a difference.

The debate on the nuclear deal was an eye-opener. The media made both vision and comprehension easier. Otherwise depressing scenes were an outgrowth of the unfinished project of human security. The global dimension has made its impact, though it has been doing so through modern history. Discretion and selectivity have to inform the Indian comeback. Voices from Parliament partially mirrored those priorities, though they were essentially moulded by thoughts of their constituencies. Despite a certain marginalisation of the common man, who was never a power factor, he remains in the picture as a stabiliser. The debate and the events surrounding it also acted as safety-valves for the system.

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