Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Inscrutability of Life in a Polarizing Marshland

I had just finished reading a well-researched narrative piece on Narendra Modi by Vinod K. Jose in the March 2012 issue of Caravan magazine. Sundry thoughts stirred in my head, uppermost, naturally, being demonetization. Was Ashish Nandy, the political psychologist, percipient in his 2002 assessment of Modi after meeting him in late-1980s when he wrote: “More than a decade ago, when Narendra Modi was a-nobody, a small-time RSS pracharak trying to make it as a small-time BJP functionary, I had the privilege of interviewing him. It was a long, rambling interview, but it left me in no doubt that here was a classic, clinical case of a fascist. I never use the word ‘fascist’ as a term of abuse; to me it is a diagnostic category comprising not only ideological posture but also the personality traits and motivational patterns contextualizing the ideology.
“Modi, it gives me no pleasure to tell the readers, met virtually all the criteria that psychiatrists, psycho-analysts and psychologists had set up after years of empirical work on the authoritarian personality. He had the same mix of puritanical rigidity, narrowing of emotional life, massive use of the ego defence of projection, denial and fear of his own passions combined with fantasies of violence - all set within the matrix of clear paranoid and obsessive personality traits. I still remember the cool, measured tone in which he elaborated a theory of cosmic conspiracy against India that painted every Muslim as a suspected traitor and a potential terrorist. I came out of the interview shaken that, for the first time, I had met a textbook case of a fascist and a potential killer, perhaps even a future mass murderer.”
The piece quotes a RSS leader: “Shivling mein bichhu baitha hai. Na usko haath see utaar sakte ho, na usko joota maar sakte ho.” A scorpion’s sitting on Shivling, Lord Shiva’s holy phallus. It can neither be removed by hand nor slapped with a shoe.
It didn’t feel like real, it felt surreal. Disturbed, I WhatsApped Ashish Nandy’s assessment and the “bichhu analogy” to friends. One friend asked for my take on demonetization. My answer was nuanced: India isn’t Gujarat, and it’s foolish to expect all Indians not to dissent. Fighting corruption is admirable, if it’s sincere. I support demonetization of 1000 bills, not the 500 tenders. 500 today is the 100 of 7-8 years ago. The queues refuse to die. It’ll be a year before notes demonetized are replenished per the printing SOP. Any planning post-monetization? No. Any expert advice sought? No. It’s instead been all bluster and grandstanding. But histrionics and theatrics don’t make for governance. It needs understanding and reflection on the roadmap consequent to the big step. Because, like medical science, economics (if a science) too is stochastic, not a physical science. None can predict how the future will pan out. This is where expert advice and reflection helps – to limit damage amid vicissitudes of change. See the flip-flop in policies – 100-odd times since November 8!
Yet, all that’s palpable is a fear to dissent. How much dissent is frowned upon today! Not all dissenters and contrarians are anti-national, Desh Drohis. In a democracy, dissent is the core, not the bought-out press’s spewing spiels or the abject yes-sir, three-bagful-sir applause of blind followers. Dissent is the heart of democracy. It needs encouragement even on judicial pronouncements. Recall the 1980s Spycatcher case when an English newspaper called the judges “You Old Fools”. No contempt notice was served. Cast back to 1968 when Lord Denning’s telling observations captured the spirit of those times: “Let me say… that we will never use this jurisdiction to uphold our own dignity… Nor will we use it to suppress those who speak against us. We do not fear criticism, nor do we resent it.” The manner in which Justice Markandey Katju, a former judge of the apex court was invited, then humiliated in full public glare with the security asked to escort him out of the courtroom, not only breached every strand of public decency and etiquette, it was a shocker: of judicial arrogance – the very institution the public reposes faith in drawing the lakshman rekha for executive and legislative’s impudence and overstepping their remit. “Justice is not a cloistered virtue,” Lord Atkin said, a cliché today. “It must suffer the scrutiny and outspoken comments of ordinary men”. Recall President De Gaulle’s memorable words during 1968 Paris strike when Jean Paul Sartre was arrested: “You don’t arrest Voltaire!”
No organ of governance is absolute; it’s the defining image of mature democracy – to ensure citizen’s freedom of expression is not stymied. The world’s changed, there’s ferment; technology has empowered the citizen courtesy social media. The days of hectoring are long gone. It can raise its ugly head and show up in dribs and drabs, but thankfully not for long. Democratic India must suffer criticism and open discussion, more when clamor for transparency has reached fever pitch and openness the buzzword.
The responses to my message, polarized, came thick and fast. One wrote in sarcastic fury: “I’m not aware of a textbook definition of the term ‘fascist’ but Ashish Nandi’s description would fit many persons, to some permanently and to a larger number during certain passing phase of their lives while driven by ideology, or goal or some purpose. Many a time we admire the quality of not yielding, not wavering, but we also consider bending to strong wind a useful attribute; it needs to be evaluated and even admired with reference to context. I personally am somewhat ambivalent on Modi, he is different and perhaps the difference will bring some good tidings but it’s just a PERHAPS. The nation had to live with a gang of suckers for long and didn’t complain, the so called intellectuals of left content with the crumbs thrown at them and making mostly politically correct noises. Things are a bit different now, a difference one couldn’t have experienced otherwise from the bandicoots of yore. Despite my cynicism I’m willing to wait and watch. I liked a joke on WhatsApp on demonetization: ‘Modi said let the nation have cashless economy... the ATMs went dry.’ Hardly a joke but it does show imperfections in planning, yet all said and done I’m willing to wait.”
Another wrote in ostensible anger: “Modi’s vision and intensity of commitment is tremendous. India perhaps requires a dictator for a brief spell, and then doused like a circuit breaker. In UPA time, the pendulum swung to one extreme. Now it will swing to the other before reaching equilibrium.  Sadly Modi isn’t an economics-appreciating politico…he’s like a bull in a China shop. His intention/goal is commendable. Whether this venture succeeds or fails, the end either way will be spectacular. The opposition is decimated; there should be some sane voice to set the trajectory at par. This’s missing with a castrated RBI.”
Yet another wrote: “Anyone who’s rational (and not a Bhakt) and thinks critically would agree. Just because someone wears a white outfit doesn’t make him blemish-free! Taking bold decisions is one thing, taking apparently illogical decision is another! This is akin to pushing people into deep water and asking them to learn swimming with a hope that only those are targeted would drown! Everyone knows and it’s no secret that corruption hasn’t vanished... it’s just become more centralized! So who’s being fooled? …I am told that this is already a Harvard case study of failed policy decisions and implementation! Policy with such large repercussions launched without any ex ante policy evaluation! No statistics by Govt on policy deliverables and how they’ve been achieved! So those who think with an open mind are bound to question the decision!”
I welcome dissent; I like my ideas critiqued on empirical facts and on cold calculus. This time around though it was different; it bristled with mounting passions: Hope versus Vitriol; Anger versus Chimera; Reasoned Analysis versus Bhakt’s Worship! How polarizing demonetization is? In each of the 3 metros (Mumbai, Bangalore, Delhi) and two provincial cities (Cuttack and Bhubaneswar) I’ve been to post-demonetization, I’ve spoken with varying people to gain insight. “We’re sunk; we’re doomed; we’re without work; we sell our farm produce at 95% discount” have been their responses. The pain-points stay – for the poor, the marginalized, the rural folks and the wretched of earth. Time lost is productivity lost for good, never to be made good. Sops as poultice won’t do. Timeline for printing notes too can’t be shrunk; if messed, it’ll lead to further delays haemorrhaging tax-payers’ money. The loss off flawed currency note printing post-demonetization is already a whopping Rs 10,000 crore! Stop-Work will reign. Surgical strike of the corrupt, over days, changed to Cashless society, then morphed to Less-cash society and now to Digital India. I know Digital India too won’t hold for long, given today’s infrastructure and literacy level; it’s a fanciful wish coined by thespians for effect and bites. My uncle, an octogenarian, a senior retired government officer tells me he has never used the ATM to withdraw money from the bank, let alone use net banking. “Can the government force me to go digital? he asked me. “I don’t use a mobile phone. My hands are not steady, my eyesight is getting weaker, my mind is often addled. Can I be forced to learn now and do as the government orders me to do at my age? And if I don’t, why should my age deprive me of digital incentives granted to others?”
The PM’s much awaited New Year eve message conveyed precious little. Some sop here, some sop there, amounting to naught. The pain stays: What’s the roadmap? When will things limp back to normality? Isn’t it, hence sardonic, as a WhatsApp message quipped, PM Modi has wished the nation a Merry Crisis and a Happy New Fear! Are we drowning? Is there light at the end-of-the-financial-year tunnel? This, the inscrutability of life as we begin 2017 Anno Domini!