Total Pageviews

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Politics and political afflictions

A former Chief Election Commissioner observed sometime back that “politicians are the cancer of society”. It is indeed possible to build further on politics as a metaphor for the disease - a familiar literary device from Homer’s Iliad to Camus’La Peste –that is responsible for the many of the dysfunctions of our society.

Politics owes its current morbidity to the original sin of cohabitation with crime in order to gratify its desire for electoral success and subsequent generations have acquired this illicit lust, which is both indiscriminate and indiscreet. The criminal element in politics has metastasized over the years and has now become firmly implanted in the bone marrow of politics. Cancer evokes a feeling of helplessness, of resignation and an existentialist terror in those who are condemned to watch it take its toll of their loved ones. Despite our ritual expression of horror, people accused of murder, rape etc are being courted by all the political parties for the forthcoming parliamentary elections. The civil society finds itself less and less able to count on its antibodies – the institutions, whether formal or informal- because the sentinels themselves have deserted or stand compromised.

On the eve of elections to the various legislative bodies the political arena almost presents the scene of an asylum for victims of senile dementia. Old friends pass each other by as strangers, while implacably hostile enemies hug each other; promises of eternal friendships sours in three days flat, and alliances are made and unmade several times during the course of one electoral season. The consequences of this promiscuity could be perceived as comical were it not for the fact that it concerns such a vital aspect of our lives. In the manner of seasonal transfer of players of the professional soccer league, newly inducted political players are inaugurated on the prime time. In its naiveté or diabolic crookedness –politics believes that the itinerant travelers of the whole political landscape – many of them have traveled from extreme right to leftist extremism and vice versa -are like so much malleable putty, capable of being moulded into any shape, or so many tabula rasa on which you could inscribe any ideology. Like so many robots they are programmable for any performance. The baptismal waters of their new faith debugs them instantly and their memory is erased for being formatted anew.

When confronted with basic issues politics tends to look side ways in an uncomprehending manner or ramble in an incoherent muddled sort of way. How does politics justify the expenditure of such astronomical sums of money on these gladiatorial contests called elections, seasonally and sometimes unseasonably as well, while 300 million of our people live below poverty line? Where do the funds come from? The financial status and criminal antecedents of the contestants, the performance report in respect of earlier promises are issues that are recognized but evaded with cunning and disingenuousness that sometimes characterizes the patients of schizophrenia. Or it resorts to some singularly idiotic arguments. Charged with financial misconduct or corrupt practice its stock response is that worse immorality has been seen. Popular verdict is accorded a sacerdotal value and electoral success is touted as exoneration from guilt as well as investiture with civic virtues.

Political discourse, consequently has itself acquired a hothouse atmosphere. Critical debate has given way to bellicose gestures. Incantatory formula does regular duty for a detailed and rational exposition. Insinuations, innuendoes and invectives are the weapons freely used to occupy the moral high ground. Each one of them has a “secret plan” which the other is somehow aware of - whether to destabilize the government, fracture the unity of the country, or subvert the cause of social justice; (Foreign hand is a flavour that is out of favour this season! ). It is impossible to list out all the insecurities of a paranoid mind. Unsure about the most vital points of their self-definition they define themselves in terms of opposition to the other. So a secular alliance is the one, which does not have anti-secular elements in it. Some other alliance may declare itself to be the sole custodian of both ideology and memory precluding the possibility of any debate. Very often no party is in a position to frame clear issues of public policy, which can be debated without reference to the a priori culpabilities of the Other, or categories of exclusion. It is much easier to catch people’s attention by appealing to their prejudices ignorance or insecurity rather than their reason. So these weaknesses are not only pandered to but also systemically inculcated in its particular constituency. The illusory, irrational quality of political debate becomes deathly real only when elected representatives sometimes get physical in the august precinct of the house.

Myopia again is the easiest affliction to manage. One can get a suitable pair of glasses. But the debilitated contemporary politics, finds itself unable to walk to the nearest optician. Instead it chooses to reduce the world to its myopia. The perspective on future is condensed to the next election and on many an issue of grave importance, its thinking shows the same tawdry, Lilliputian character. No wonder that politics fails to read the writing on the wall, clear to even someone with a vision of 6/60, that prohibition against cohabitation with crime is no longer a moral injunction but a medical necessity.

The Age of Reason recognized the relation between social environment and physical well being which revolutionized our thinking on hygiene and cleanliness in our personal lives as well as our physical environment. It is to be hoped that the widespread disaffection with criminal politics will be similarly translated into some activism in the realm of moral and intellectual hygiene in the public sphere. The hundreds of millions of the voters of the country could certainly impose an effective quarantine against crime, fumigate the contaminated public spaces and start all over again. The new millennium justifies this millinery hope.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Bihar – the siege within

Migrants from Bihar have been served urgent notices from time to time, in many states of their own country, to pack up and go home. After Assam, Maharashtra, Punjab, Delhi, Goa and Tripura which other state is going to discover that it is these Bihari migrants who carry the bacillus of dirt, filth, disease and crime and infect the host state and hence it is not safe to have them with in their borders?

The Biharis are subject to persecution which is both random and routine because the mere label of Bihari seems to have become a necessary and sufficient cause. Snide remarks if they are lucky, and savagery if they run out of luck, are constantly at their heels. They are the Jews without the redeeming and comforting assurance that they are God’s chosen people. George Steiner once said, “When he is pelted in Argentina or mocked in Kiev, the Jewish child knows that there is a corner of the earth where he is the master, the gun is his. ”

But Biharis know that they have severed their umbilical chords with their homes. They must rough it out and resist the strong emotional tug, especially in times of crisis, to go back home. Because for many of them their home is only a country of the mind, without the wherewithal to sustain all its inhabitants.

Migrants in search of livelihood or better opportunities are often viewed with suspicion, because they do not fit the cognitive, linguistic or the cultural map of the world they migrate to. They also compete for jobs, sometimes drive down wages and hence arouse hostilities of the local people. But in our times, the politically produced xenophobia by parties like the MNS is the most common threat. Mumbai has seen sporadic campaign against outsiders and currently the north Indians are at the receiving end. One does not know how real is the threat of cultural inundation but in view of the recent delimitation of parliamentary constituencies the concentration of migrants in urban areas does raise anxieties of the political kind. Levi Strauss who has spent a lifetime studying the strategies of various groups in coping with the threat by groups designated as the ‘other’ or ‘stranger’ suggests that alternative but complementary strategies of assimilation, exclusion or extermination have been resorted to in order to tackle the problem of aliens, and strangers. The Biharis have seen a mixture of all the three strategies resorted to against them.

In the cosmopolitan Mumbai, it is being decreed that the bhaiyas must now adapt themselves to the local ways, learn the local language, and adopt local customs. The topical bone of contention is the festival of chath, which is celebrated with great devotion and fervour by many Biharis. In short amnesty would come their way only on condition that they cultivate voluntary amnesia; abdicate their right to be themselves, slough off their Bihari identity and grow a new skin. So when a couple of hundreds of them are harassed, or dozens of their taxis are burnt, even a few of them are killed to feed the media beast, the mobs goaded by the upwardly mobile politician are only advancing the cause of cultural assimilation. If the bhaiyas do not deliberately court amnesia of the mental kind, the amnesia of the physical kind can be induced by obliterating and consigning to the memory hole the means of their meager sustenance, be it their taxi, their thela or small shop.

Those who are spearheading the campaign know it only too well that it is these migrants, who live cheek by jowl in the congested areas, who are so undemanding and are largely cut off from municipal services, keep the city going by their taxis, thelas, khatals, and dhobi ghats. But the political mind is also aware that the mob impulse of hatred is the surest glue to keep their flock together, as also the easiest method to enlist many more to their fold. So long has it occupied itself with the mathematics of fracturing society into viable total of fractions that the political mind has become obsolete and incapable of devising capacious and inclusive policies. On occasions like this a call to solidarity against the common enemy helps displace the awareness from intractable problems. The misfortune of the migrant Biharis serves to keep the political pot boiling for their reluctant hosts, as well as well as their champions back home. Ideally such occasions should compel deep and honest introspection in Bihar, and reinforce the determination to pull Bihar by the bootstraps. But all that it does is to unleash jingoism of the worst kind and we tend to overlook the fact that the poor cannot afford to have too much pride. The fragile political consensus witnessed in the aftermath of Rahul’s killing was but transient and spent itself in a mindless agitational violence. In the end all that it achieved was the destruction and vandalisation of its own meager resources instead of some constructive activism.

The civil society in Bihar appears to have abdicated all responsibility towards it self by delegating power in the hands of politicians. The more there is a perceived need for concerted action in the realm of civil society, the more socially disengaged we seem to become. To take just one issue which has become a trite and timeworn cliché –the creation of a Bihari identity- would indicate our commitment to our state. It has been in wide currency for quite some time now and yet how many strides have we taken towards extinguishing all other loyalities to forge this identity?
The Bihari fleeing from his persecutors is reduced to his casteist identity no sooner than he enters his own home state. It seems that the landscape of Bihar itself, the cultural environment educes a different but deeply internalized sense of identity and belonging. It is the caste, which is the whetstone upon which he sharpens his sense of himself. Neither distance, nor cultural separation could obliterate it. Even in distant lands and foreign countries the Biharis are reported to have separate caste associations. For in the view of a large part of Bihari society, the existential question is defined solely and squarely in casteist terms: who are you and what is your justification for being? To answer this question means that you recognize not only your privileges and obligations, entitlements and opportunities but also position yourself in, however subtle a manner, on the chessboard of caste alignments. There are no exemptions from this fate, whether you are a career politician, academician, doctor, or a civil servant. It must be reiterated that in Bihar the ‘political” necessarily means a no holds barred competitive casteist struggle. In its wake it has brought the political way of doing every thing. So it is no surprise that universities and colleges turn out to be casteist outposts and the struggle to wrest them out of the control of rival groups witnesses the whole hearted involvement of every appurtenance of the polity. (The author had an occasion to investigate, under the orders of the Patna High Court the award of a fraudulent and bogus degree to the wife of a senior IPS officer. His report running in more than 70 pages, which deals with the rot in universities, is available in the Patna High court library. Brief references can be had in the following

http://www. indiatoday. com/itoday/20010806/education. shtml
http://www. liberalsindia. com/freedomfirst/ff457-03. html

Recruitments to public services often carry vague insinuations of casteist preferences. If the various reports that appear, from time to time, in the local news papers were to be believed, the caste composition of officers is also delicately factored into their transfers and postings and requirements of professionalism sometimes take a back seat to maintaining the caste balance. There is a popular perception that the administration in Bihar during particular regimes has been characterized by a colossal waste, because in these dispensation there are always some elements who have to be suffered but kept out of action. A deliberate retrenchment of the available human resources is by now an accepted method of personnel management. So at any given time there is a significant body of public servants, - sulking, alienated and withdrawn- because they think they do not belong to the winning combination, therefore, are either indifferent to the prospects of project Bihar, or are secretly longing for its failure. When the administration becomes so polarized, public policy problems get bogged down in a mental swamp, and a severe governance deficit is the inevitable outcome. The traditional merit based methods of governance faced with a problem like this, finds itself stumped, because these have not been dealt with in the standard literature on public administration. To break this impasse a new public sphere needs to be created where non-partisan, apolitical body of people could engage in critical debate, build mutual trust and a sense of commonality to counter this pre modern mindset. The point needs considerable elaboration and shall be taken up some time later.

But should these proposals appear to be too optimistic or too impractical to carry out, it would be well worth referring to the original provocation to the MNS- the celebration of Chath by the Biharis in Mumbai. Those who have observed the Chath celebrations in Bihar would agree that it appears as if human nature had changed on those three days. The mutual good will, fellow feeling, spirit of volunteerism and the culture of compliance shown by the people, transports Bihar into idylls of an existence where police, municipal services, and even the government seem to have become dispensable. Only if the Biharis could learn the formula for this magical transformation, and make these three days last three months or even thirty days! They would then have people queuing up to come to Bihar and not otherwise