Friday, January 23, 2015

The need for an opposition in a democracy

In this splendid talk, the sociologist Prof. André Béteille says that encouragement of dissent and opposition is the essential distinguishing feature of a democracy.  Dissent  and opposition are part of any society but in a democracy, they don't go underground but are acknowledged and encouraged. He says that in a democracy, one must learn to  live with a certain amount of disorder and learn to deal with them through discussion, debate and dialogue. It is better to allow free expression of dissent rather than be overtaken by a sudden explosion. In his book Anti-Utopia, he writes:
There is no way in which change can come about without the displacement of some norms and values by others. Nor do all conflicts over norms and values end by tearing apart the fabric of society; indeed, the suppression of such conflict may as easily lead to that outcome. It is important to acknowledge their presence and even their necessity, and to create and sustain institutions to negotiate them. This cannot be done by wishing present conflicts out of existence, or hoping for a future in which no conflicts will arise.
In 1957 Congress won the general election by a big margin and it also had power in all the states except Kerala. C. Rajagopalachari (popularly known as Rajaji)  was worried about the implications of the lack of  a strong opposition for the heath of Indian democracy. He thought that India needed a strong two-party system but he was initially reluctant to start a party because he  felt that he  was too old, had been a Congressman for long and was personally too close to Nehru.

He set out his views in an article (which  is given in Makers of Modern India where he said that without a strong opposition 'the semblance of democracy may survive but real parliamentary democracy will not be there' and 'government will inevitably become totalitarian'. He wrote:
In a democracy based on universal suffrage, government of the majority without an effective opposition is like driving a donkey on whose back you put the whole load in  one bundle. The two-party system steadies movement by putting a fairly equal load into each pannier. In the human body also, two eyes and two ears aid a person to place the objects seen and heard. A single-party democracy soon loses its sense of proportion. It sees, but cannot place things in perspective or apprehend all sides of a question. 
Before the 1957 general elections, Jayaprakash Narayan, who had been campaigning for opposition parties, clarified his position in a letter to Nehru (quoted in Makers of Modern India).  He said that this was not because of any dislike of the Congress but because of certain principles:
According to parliamentary democracy theory it is not necessary for the opposition to be better than the ruling party. Equally bad parties in opposition are a check on one another and keep the democratic machine on track...[A]s a socialist my sympathies are all with the British Labour Party, but I concede that when Labour is in power the Conservatives perform a valuable democratic function without which the Labour government might become a menace to the people...between the two evils of absoluteness of power and a little increase in the strength of certain undesirable parties, the former was the greater evil...
If the fears of totalitarianism can be there with Nehru at the helm, it cannot be lesser under anyone else. The last time such a big majority for one side happened before the last general election was when Rajiv Gandhi came to power with an even bigger majority. At that time I was too young to know that this could be a problem. It is unlikely that evil lies solely in one group and virtue is the exclusive preserve of the other.  The salutary message from that time is that even with that kind of brute majority, it took only about thrree years for Rajiv Gandhi to feel the heat. People always seem to reach for the sun like Icarus and fall back to earth.

Ashis Nandy gives the reson for continuous opposition: 'Yesterday's dissent is often today's establishment and, unless resisted, becomes tomorrow's terror.' And if continuous opposition increases undesirable elements to the extent that democracy is hollowed out, we have to conclude that Ambedkar was right: '...if things go wrong under the new Constitution, the reason will not be that we had a bad Constitution. What we will have to say is that Man was vile.'

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Ambedkar's warnings

The main reason for my reading Makers of Modern India by Ramachandra Guha was that there were many people in the book I knew nothing about - Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Jyotirao Phule, Tarabhai Shinde, Hamid Dalwai, Syed Ahmed Khan and Verrier Elwin. Many people in the book raised issues that are relevant for current times and I will write about some of them in the next few posts. (You can watch a discussion about the book here.)

Ambedkar is the only person who figures in two sections in the book. The first set of writings by him are on caste where his undelivered speech 'The  Annihilation of Caste' is well worth reading as also his criticism of Gandhi. The second selection of his thoughts are about the Constitution. In his final speech to the Constituent Assembly, he issues three warnings:
If we wish to maintain democracy not merely in form, but also in fact, what must we do? The first thing in my judgement we must do is to hold fast to constitutional methods of achieving our social and economic objectives. It means we must abandon the bloody methods of revolution. It means that we must abandon the method of civil disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha. When there was no way left for constitutional methods for achieving economic and social objectives, there was a great deal of justification for unconstitutional methods. But where constitutional methods are open, there can be no justification for these unconstitutional methods. These methods are nothing but the Grammar of Anarchy and the sooner they are abandoned, the better for us.

The second thing we must do is to observe the caution which John Stuart Mill has given to all who are interested in the maintenance of democracy, namely, not "to lay their liberties at the feet of even a great man, or to trust him with power which enable him to subvert their institutions". There is nothing wrong in being grateful to great men who have rendered life-long services to the country. But there are limits to gratefulness. As has been well said by the Irish Patriot Daniel O'Connel, no man can be grateful at the cost of his honour, no woman can be grateful at the cost of her chastity and no nation can be grateful at the cost of its liberty. This caution is far more necessary in the case of India than in the case of any other country. For in India, Bhakti or what may be called the path of devotion or hero-worship, plays a part in its politics unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country in the world. Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.
In a country like India, where there is a significant level of poverty and illiteracy, leaders who give something to those people will inevitably acquire demi-god status among them. It is more surprising to see educated people treat their favorites as beyond criticism. These leaders seem to have a mindset similar to that of Ferdinand Marcos as described in this talk by Ashis Nandy. Marcos told a friend of his at a party:
You know, everybody thinks I am a despot but  actually I am a democrat in my heart. But these Phillippinos, they are totally ungovernable and undemocratic in the spirit, so I have to guide them like a strict schoolmaster towards a strict democratic Philippines and that  is held against me.
Ambedkar's third warning had to do with equity:
The third thing we must do is not to be content with mere political democracy. We must make our political democracy a social democracy as well. Political democracy cannot last unless there lies at the base of it social democracy. What does social democracy mean? It means a way of life which recognizes liberty, equality and fraternity as the principles of life. 
For discussions about various forms of inequality, the different meanings of equality, the distinction between rights and policies, and the relationship between distributive justice and institutional well-being, you can check Anti-Utopia: Essential Writings of Andre Beteille.

14/01/2015 - One link added.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Suresh and I - II

The clonus and stiffness that I have as a result of my stroke is often mistaken for anger especially by people who are not familiar with my reactions. For eg., if Jaya and the nurse are busy talking to some people, I have to make some noise in order to attract their attention in case of some emergency like urine.For this, I have to make some effort which will set off the clonus - my hands and legs will become stiff. To a casual observer, it will look as if I am having a fit. When the nurse notices me and I indicate that I want to pass urine, she will ask, 'Why are you getting angry for that?'

In The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins talks about the problem of communicating over long distances. For example, it will take about 4 min. for radio waves to travel between earth and Mars. In such a case, conversation in alternating sentences between people on the two planets  would be difficult and often a message would not be timely. A similar difficulty arises when I try to converse with eye blinks. And if Jaya is not present, then the problem is increased because of misinterpretations.

I now generally keep quiet and just listen to what everyone else is talking about. And if the conversation doesn't interest me,  I drift away. For eg., I was recently re-reading A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper (which I had written about a couple of years back).  I had just read a problem in the book when I had a visitor. After the  introductions, I listened to to him for a while and then drifted away since the conversation didn't interest me  and started thinking about the problem which was as follows:
In the correctly solved additions below, each of the five letters represents a different digit, EA being a two-digit number. What is the value of B +D if 
 A    C
+B   +D
__   ___
C    EA 
Suddenly I heard the visitor say, 'He is listening so intently to what I am saying!' I had no idea what he had been talking  about!

Perhaps it is because there are always books near me (which apparently is not a common sight) that people seem to think I know everything.  (At what point in human history were there too many (English) books to be able to read them all in one lifetime?) This becomes embarrassing because I am generally dazed and confused about how to make sense of the mess in the world, like Raj Kapoor in this song. The problem is increased because of  my mode of communication which forces me to give a yes/no answer and most questions cannot be answered in this way. And I am reluctant to say 'I know' about anything because I will know only some aspects of it.

For eg., I was once asked, 'Do you know about Tiruvalluvar?' I don't want to sound Clintonesque but it depends on what is meant by 'know'. If it meant whether I had a general idea of who Tiruvalluvar was, the answer would be 'yes' but if it meant whether I knew his Tirukkurals, about his contribution to Tamil literature etc. the answer would be 'no'. I will wait for some clarification but if after some silence, I am forced to blink (I can't stare unblinkingly forever) after some time, the person may conclude that I know quite a bit about Tiruvalluvar. How many such instances of my non-existent knowledge there are is anybody's guess.

This illusion of knowledge that I seem to have acquired made one physiotherapist say, 'I am trying to be like you!' If he meant the mythical Suresh that I keep hearing about, I will second his opinion. He sounds a cool guy, the Superman to my Clark Kent. As Borges said:  “The original is not faithful to the translation.”

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

.Suresh and I - I

The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges wrote a short story called Borges and I in which he wrote about the public and the private Borges. The public Borges is the one to whom things happen, who is in the news, in a list of professors or figures in some biographical entry. The private Borges likes ' hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typefaces,  etymologies, the taste of coffee and the prose of Stevenson'. Although the public Borges shares these likes, he is more put-on. Although, little by little, the private Borges will fade away and the public Borges will live on.

In many ways,I also have such public and private faces as a result of my stroke. I have been saddled with various characteristics by various people after my stroke depending on how they interpret my blinks  and because of certain characteristics I have as a result of my stroke.I think there are many versions of me floating around. I had mentioned earlier about various misunderstandings.

Sometimes when I  seem interested in watching a particular scene or song in a program that the nurse is watching, she will instantly conclude that I am a big fan of that particular actor. For eg.,  I  once kept laughing over those parts of the lyric that I could understand in a Vijay song. The nurse instantly concluded I was huge Vijay fan.  She told the physiotherapist about it.He unfortunately turned out to be a Vijay fan and started quizzing me about his movies. Since I have seen only one movie of his, the physiotherapist soon concluded that the nurse was exaggerating somewhat. I have been a fan of several actors in this way..

Sometimes, when the nurse will be watching some program and I will be lying quietly thinking of something, she  will suddenly say, 'Isn't that guy married to someone in Coimbatore? His wife owns a flat in ...'.I don't know how she got the impression that I am interested in such information because she would never have seen me watch these programs.

My expression at these times would be similar to that of Lord Emsworth when he is disturbed by a pesky relative while he is contentedly contemplating the potato munching skills of his prized pig The Empress of Blandings as she prepares to compete in the  "Fat Pigs" class at the local Shropshire Agricultural Show. I am sure you will agree with me that it is impolite to disturb a man who is enjoying the sight of his pet pig fattening itself.

I will often be told "You look handsome!" or "You look like a model!" etc., things that I was never told before my stroke! P.G. Wodehouse said in Uneasy Money, 'At the age of eleven or thereabouts women acquire a poise and an ability to handle difficult situations which a man, if he is lucky, manages to achieve somewhere in the later  seventies.' Considering my demeanour before my stroke, seventies would have been considered rather optimistic.

It seems that people are accustomed to making such flattering remarks to handicapped people ostensibly to improve their morale. Some time back I watched the Tamil movie Anbe Sivam. In it the character played by Kamal Hasan meets with a terrible accident in which he suffers grevios injuries. When he recovers, he has a grotesque face with protruding teeth, has lost the use of one hand and walks with a pronounced limp. When the nun who had nursed him back to health meets him after a long while, she says, 'Doesn't he look handsome!'

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

'Morcha organiser'

In this interview, when Ashis Nandy talked about media consultants moulding the image of politicians so that it is the way the public wants them to be,  I was reminded of a character in the novel A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. This character had throat trouble and said that he had got it by working in 'morcha producion'. This job involved making up slogans, hiring crowds, and producing rallies or demonstrations for different political parties.He had gone into this job after being a proofreader for many years. He explains the intricacies of his job:
'Writing speeches, designing banners -all that was easy. With years of proofreading under  my belt, I knew exactly the blather and bluster favoured by professional politicians. My modus operandi was simple. I made up three lists: Candidate's Accomplishments, (real and imaginary), Accusations Against Opponent (including rumours, allegations, innuendos, and lies) and Empty Promises (the more improbable the better). Then it was merely a matter of taking various combinations of items from the three lists, throwing in some bombast, tossing in a few local references, and there it was - a brand new speech. I was a real hit with my clients.' 
'My difficulties lay in the final phase, out on the street. You see, I had spent my working life in an office, in silence, and my throat was unexcercised. Now suddenly I was yelling instructions, shouting slogans, exhorting the crowds to repeat after me. It became too much. Much too much for my underused larynx.'
When asked why he didn't let the rented crowd do the yelling for him, he said that he couldn't break out of his old habit of doing everything himself. He says:
I could not leave it to the rented crowd to do the shouting.  after all, the success of a demonstration is measured in decibels. Clever slogans and smart banners alone will not do it. So I felt I must lead by example, employ my voice enthusiastically, volley and thunder, beseech the heavens, curse the forces of evil, shriek the praises of the benefactor - bellow and clamour and cry and cheer till victory was mine!'
I had not heard the term 'morcha production' before reading this book. Perhaps the folks involved in morcha production have more respectable, corporatised designations now like media consultant or member of the communication cell or, in these days of popularity of the war metaphor, he or she may be a member of the 'war room'.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Drowning in the trivial - III

Remember the third slogan of the Party in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four? IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.That appears to be the new mantra. People may not know the difference between an Assembly and General election, they may not be able to locate a major Indian city on a map (eg. for Ahmedabad, there may be guesses like, 'Is it in Orissa, Bihar, Punjab...?), may not know that Sherlock Holmes is a character and not an author...(I am talking of graduates.) One Std. XII boy was asked in a TV program whether he had ever heard the name 'Charles Darwin' and the answer was 'No'.

I saw an ad which stated that the most important reason for having a successful career is good looks! People will keep asking me what diet I am on to get a fair skin. The simple explanation never seems to occur to them that I don't roam in the sun collecting sunburns, dust and grime. A Tamil song says, 'Black is my favorite colour', but nobody else seems to say so. The level of narcissism keeps increasing. There are many people who don't wear helmets when driving a two-wheeler because it will spoil their hairstyle! People are never satisfied with the number of dresses they have, weddings become more garish, the bride keeps staggering under increasing amounts of jewellery... I saw an ad in which a model sees a pimple on her cheek and cries out, 'My life will be ruined!' Methinks the lady protests too much.

Many well-heeled people seem to be divorced from reality. It is as if uncomfortable facts like infant mortality, chronic hunger, female foeticide, etc don't exist. I once saw a program about e-commerce. One speaker said that the worst punishment you can give to a teen these days is to impose a 'no-screen day' on them. Apparently this means that they can't access any social media that day. That is the worst punishment? Really? And how many kids are there like that?

In The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan writes that 63% of American adults think dinosaurs lived with humans, half don't know that the Earth goes around the Sun and takes a year to do it, that some of his students in his undergraduate classes at Cornell don't know that the Sun is star. Bemoaning the preponderance of pseudoscience and psychic explanations on TV, Carl Sagan writes in The Demon-Haunted world:
In American polls in the early 1990s,two-thirds of all adults had no idea what the "information superhighway" was; 42% didn't know where Japan is; and 38% were ignorant of the term "holocaust". But the proportion was in the high 90s who had heard of the Menendez, Bobbit, and O.J. Simpson criminal cases; 99% had heard that the singer Michael Jackson had allegedly sexually molested a  boy.The United States may be the best-entertained nation on Earth, but a steep price is being paid.
Don't worry, America. India will catch up soon. I know that a science tuition teacher didn't know that stars produce their own light. Now she knows! Children here are not taught to think.  By the time they are in about Std VIII or Std. IX, they stop playing. They will be running from tuition to tuition memorising the same things over and over again thus strengthening their sphexishness or uncomprehending competence.  I get the uncomfortable image of kids in madrassas memorising verses from the Koran.The only difference seems to be that they are not memorising a religious book.

Sturgeon's law states that ninety percent of everything is crap. Unfortunately fluff and glitz will generally win because they require less bandwidth for human beings to appreciate them. A type of Gresham's law works in acquiring information with the bad driving out the good. People actually seem to think that the bromides that glamorous models coo like 'It doesn't matter where you come from as long as you believe in yourself' is true. The are seduced into believing that life is like an Amitabh Bachchan movie.

Politicians and marketers keep saying that people are getting 'more aspirational'. It increasingly seems to mean that people are becoming shallower. They seem to think that the raison d'être of life is to buy the next fancy gadget available in the market. I saw a clip in which Shah Rukh Khan said, 'I love the commercialisation of life. I am willing to sell my soul.' People who should know better buy into the catchy statements of politicians who follow a strategy explained by Obama in this article:
 “Nothing comes to my desk that is perfectly solvable,” Obama said at one point. “Otherwise, someone else would have solved it. So you wind up dealing with probabilities. Any given decision you make you’ll wind up with a 30 to 40 percent chance that it isn’t going to work. You have to own that and feel comfortable with the way you made the decision. You can’t be paralyzed by the fact that it might not work out.” On top of all of this, after you have made your decision, you need to feign total certainty about it. People being led do not want to think probabilistically.
 For eg. the BJP is very good in coining catchy slogans like 'Minimum government maximum governance', 'zero defect, zero efffect', etc., but translating them into reality is a complex, long drawn out process filled with false starts and disappointments. Or take the obvious idea that improving and widening roads will reduce traffic snarls. Only that, it is not so obvious due to what economists call 'induced demand'. But people easily buy into these statements without appreciating their complexities.

PS: I was pleasantly surprised to see these videos of Ramachandra Guha which had longish discussions with a young audience. The audience had read books and thought about issues beyond the narrow confines of their careers.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Drowning in the trivial - II

With Reliance taking over Network 18 which includes TV channels like CNBC TV18, CNN-IBN and CNN Awz, the media scene in India looks worrying. Carl Sagan says in The Demon-Haunted World:
I hope no one will consider me unduly cynical if I assert that a good first order model of how commercial and public television works is simply this: Money is everything. In prime time, a single rating point difference is worth millions of dollars in advertising....the content of commercial programming is in the course of a steep, long-term dumbing down.
Much the same can be said about TV in India. In the last IPL, there was a match-fixing controversy and there was some doubt over whether the final will be held. I normally don't watch IPL but this time I decided to watch the pre-show before the final to see what will be said about the controversy. (I am often told that I am wasting my time watching Test cricket. I never fail to be amused by the thought that I seem to have wasted a lot less time than most of those who are smitten by T20 cricket.) With the King of Hype, Navjot Singh Sidhu in full cry, I needn't have bothered.

There were the usual flashing lights, music, jokes that had to be advertised as such and raucous laughter. It seemed as if the people were living in an alternate reality. If an alien had come and watched the program it would have thought that people had nothing better to do than watch the King of Hype in hyperactive mode. In one program, a senior executive of IPL was asked whether there was too much cricket. He replied, 'There is never too much of cricket.' As Upton Sinclair said, 'It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.'

And now that many sports have IPL-style matches, it will keep everyone busy all year with the menfolk watching sport and the women watching serials. A humorous old man told me that he had stopped going to people's houses after 6 p.m. because they will be glued to the idiot box. He said that beneath their welcoming smiles they may be thinking, 'What a time for this old man to come and pester us!' It is ironical but I seem to remember watching more interesting programs in my neighbours' houses when I didn't have a TV and DD was the only game in town.

Before my stroke, I had a mental frame whereby even though I was not religious, I was deferential to religion. (In this video, Simon Singh gives a good demonstration of mental frames.) The message of respecting religion is constantly reinforced in movies, TV programs, newspapers, conversations etc. This mental frame got shattered only some years after my stroke after the full blast of the weirdness hit me. Earlier, I was hesitant to advertise the fact that I am an atheist. Now, I don't give a damn.

Most people have some irrational behavior or the other which they often indulge in especially when under some sort of pressure. It will be like the story of Neils Bohr. A visitor to his house was surprised to find a horseshoe above the front doorway. Tradition asserts that a horseshoe brings luck when placed over a door.  He expressed incredulity that a man of science could possibly be swayed by a simple-minded folk belief. The physicist replied: 'Of course I don’t believe in it, but I understand it brings you luck, whether you believe in it or not.'

But what I encounter often is of a different order. A Maths teacher said that nothing is a coincidence, everything is the work of God. Sujit was told that he should keep an empty place next to him while writing examinations where Lord Ganapati can sit. Apparently, the birth of the Kauravas is evidence for the existence of stem cell technology in Mahabharata times. I was told that Modi recites some mantras everyday before dawn which makes him invincible in any argument. I was told that a college in Puttaparti run by Sai Baba gave admission to a student because he said, 'I knew Baba from the time I was in the womb!' And this was presented as evidence of how great the college was! Spinoza's God, indeed!

The majority of people from the PM down have strange beliefs - politicians, bureaucrats, army commanders, bank officers etc. are all in the same boat.  Many well-heeled people take great pride in flaunting their religiosity and spending ostentatiously for religious events. When the Minister for Water Resources, Uma Bharati, was asked about mixing science and mythology, she said that in India, both were the same. Thanks for the clarification, ma'am. How can anybody doubt that this century belongs to India?! Considering the amount of mental baggage that people carry, if I was a believer, I would have required an Electric Monk described by Douglas Adams in Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency:
The Electric Monk was a labour-saving device, like a dishwasher or a video recorder. Dishwashers washed tedious dishes for you, thus saving you the bother of washing them yourself; video recorders watched tedious television for you, thus saving you the bother of looking at it yourself; Electric Monks believed things for you, thus saving you what was becoming an increasingly onerous task, that of believing all the things the world expected you to believe.
The man from the Monk shop...pointed out that the new improved Monk Plus models were twice as powerful, had an entirely new multitasking Negative Capability feature that allowed them to hold up to sixteen entirely different and contradictory ideas in memory simultaneously without generating any irritating system errors, were twice as fast and and at least three times as glib, and you could have a whole new one for less than the cost of replacing the motherboard of the old model.
Being an irrational atheist is good enough for me. I had come to the conclusion long ago that talking to people with such beliefs would be a waste of time especially for me.It be like talking to the deaf person in the following episode. An old man I knew who was hard of hearing was going to Palakkad in a car. A friend of his was travelling in another car in the opposite direction and when they crossed each other they slowed down for a brief conversation. The friend asked, 'Are you going to Palakkad?' The old man replied, 'No, no. I am going to Palakkad.'