The Times of India - October 22, 2016, Edit Page
Sometimes jokes become unintended metaphors for much wider concerns. There is this one about a gentleman driving a car who abruptly turns without giving a signal. Not unexpectedly, there was an accident. ‘Why did you turn without giving a signal?’ asked the furious driver of the car behind. ‘You could not see such a big car turning, how would you see a small indicator?’ was the prompt reply.
The aggrieved person was stumped. Absurdity had overwhelmed reasoned argument. There was a ‘dialogue’ but it was bereft of meaning. It had, in fact, reduced itself to farce.
Is this form of ‘dialogue’ becoming endemic in India? If so, the primary responsibility lies with our voluble political class. It monopolises most of the visible public space for debate, but rarely do we find interaction that enlightens and informs. Instead, we have people shouting at each other, high on decibel points, but low on reason, facts and linguistic restraint. Parliamentary debates, where leaders spoke with eloquence and substance have almost become a thing of the past.
In such a milieu the real loser is the ordinary citizen for she has almost no chance to hear political leaders calmly debate issues, or to evaluate, through exposure to reasoned discussion, what political parties have to offer in response to larger national issues and constituency-specific needs. In many other democratic systems, opposing candidates meet to debate issues in institutionally organised public forums, such as the Donald Trump versus Hillary Clinton face-offs we just witnessed.
Some democracies have the system of primaries that enables voters to actively participate in a pre-election exercise so that they come to know through the process of debate not only the calibre of the candidates but also the issues of the day. None of this happens in our democratic system.
What we mostly hear is leaders holding forth without waiting to hear a response. For instance Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is an eloquent speaker, has perfected the art of the one-way monologue. He addresses people on radio, TV or from elevated, inaccessible podiums. It is difficult to remember the last time he met ordinary people, including journalists, in a forum where they could interact with him in a non-prearranged format.
The dialogic remoteness of some of our leaders has a lot to do with the lack of inner party democracy. India, the world’s largest democracy, must face up to the fact that it is replete with absolute leaders who are completely undemocratic in the way they run their political parties.
We are increasingly living in an era of absolute leaders, absolute dynasties, absolute subjects and absolute followers. The freedom of conscience given to politicians in the UK for the vote on Brexit would be unthinkable in India.
Anyone who would have dared to vote against his party leader’s choice would be automatically labelled as disloyal, and be dealt with accordingly. This frozen intellectual conformity, and the mind-numbing sycophancy it breeds, seriously jeopardises our democratic credentials.
The educated are also increasingly culpable of cerebral laziness. The explosion of 24×7 news has reduced information to a few quick sound bytes, or the reiteration of selective facts, or panel discussions that rarely offer in-depth insights. But, paradoxically, this very exposure, in this superficial ‘breaking news’ fashion, gives the average middle class person the sense that he knows it all, even if he actually knows very little about almost everything.
Moreover, the informational blitzkrieg hardly devotes required space to pivotally important but less ‘glamorous’ issues like the appalling state of health or education, or the plight of farmers, thereby further constricting the canvas of debate to only the frenetic pace of transitory political developments.
In the past, all our seminal works emphasised the importance of democratic dialogue. Vatsyayana begins his Kama Sutra by allowing an imaginary interlocutor to question him on the need for a book on erotica. The Upanishads are not a fiat; they nudge you to think and question.
Badarayana’s Vedanta Sutra, ranked along with the Upanishads and the Bhagwad Gita as one of the three foundational texts of Hindu philosophy, has an entire section authored by him on the objections to his thesis. Shankaracharya’s Bhashya (commentary) on the Vedanta Sutra has lengthy tracts where he invites objections and is willing to debate the validity of his point of view.
The tragedy is that this deliberative pillar of our civilisation is being gradually asphyxiated after India has become a democracy. Perhaps, it was not so evident in the years immediately after 1947, where differences in opinion were taken on board with an open mind and without questioning bonafides.
But today every point of view is articulated as a simplistic dictatorial assertion, as is amply illustrated, for instance, in the ongoing debate on nationalism. There are no nuances, only the projection of brittle black or white certainties. Rhetoric has overtaken substance thereby reducing public debate to the lowest common denominator of ‘I am right, and you are wrong’. In such a milieu, the shallow repartee in the joke we began this column with, will always prevail.