Intoxicating Invincibility

Let me stick my neck out and make some predictions about how the political scene in the country  is likely to unfold. My guess is that it will be something along the following lines-

  1. By end Dec/ Mid Jan. things will settle down and the demonetisation move will be hailed as a masterstroke.
  2. Mr.Modi and Co. will become even more convinced of their invincibility and the dependence of BJP on Mr.Modi will increase further.
  3. The support for brand Modi and demonetisation may somewhat help BJP in its electoral performance in the forthcoming Assembly polls but will fall significantly short of its expectations.
  4. This trend will continue leading to internal rumblings within BJP.  However, Modi &Co will not be directly challenged.
  5. Just as Congress men never hold Sonia/Rahul accountable for below par performance, similarly Modi will be shielded lest it erodes the value of brand Modi.
  6. Modi& Co will hear only what they wish to hear and will gradually get totally disconnected from the ground reality.
  7. Brand Modi will gradually start losing its sheen which will put BJP into a quandary. It will neither be able to dump Modi nor be able to carry on with him.
  8. In short, this could be BJP’s first significant step on the path of self-destruction.

Needless to say, I could be completely wrong and the events may take a very different course. The main point that I wish to make through this scenario is that assumption of invincibility is a time tested recipe for self-destruction. Yet ,the belief in one’s invincibility is so heady that very few of us can resist it. This is particularly so, when the entire collectivity ( be it a family, an organisation or a country) colludes in thrusting invincibility on some one.

This process is by no means confined to the realm of politics. In virtually all spheres of life, one finds people being made symbols of invincibility. This could be a charismatic leader  or a maverick individual performer. The worst consequence of this process is that the individual is shielded from all potentially bad news and hence gets completely cut-off from the ground reality. In effect, the individual starts living in a “make-belief” and even when confronted with “reality” finds it too bizarre to be true. The person does not even have to be a megalomaniac for this to happen. The collective process which is unleashed has a momentum of its own and knowingly or unknowingly, with good or bad intentions, almost everyone gets engulfed by it.

I sometimes wonder as to what lies beneath this process? Is it a projection of our own need for invincibility on to a “hero” OR is it our unconscious resentment and hatred of a hero which gets expressed in a seemingly harmless way but none the less ensure in killing the “hero”. What do you think?






Honest beneficiaries of a Corrupt System

Over the last two weeks, we have seen a significant shift in the opinions of “experts” on demonetisation. In the first few days, virtually every newspaper, T.V. commentator, financial expert  was busy  hailing it  as a “bold and courageous” step which will usher a new era of economic progress and social justice. This was followed by the phase of “good move but not well planned/properly implemented”. We are now moving towards the phase where the wisdom and effectiveness of the move is being strongly questioned and several people are calling it a whimsical decision of a dictator.

So what has happened ? The most obvious explanation is that initial euphoria is invariably met with disappointment and the pendulum swings the other way. This perhaps is largely true but why the initial euphoria to begin with ? Why not shock and anger ? The answer perhaps lies in the fallacious belief that it is only the “dishonest” which reap the benefits of a corrupt system. Hence when the move is seen as an attack on the dishonest, the premise is that it will not affect the rest of us who are honest . As the reality begins to sink in that it is the fundamental structure which is being shaken, the euphoria begins to turn into a rude shock.

Most of us regard ourselves as honest and  and perhaps are seen as such by others. . We may admit to paying an occasional bribe, trade a few favours,  make purchases without taking a cash-memo, or even inflate some of our expenses in our I.T. returns etc., but none of it shakes our basic idea that “I am an honest person who is forced to indulge in a few questionable activities because of systemic deficiencies” In fact, I have even heard some politicians claim that they are forced to use illegitimate cash because if they don’t ,they will be at a definite disadvantage vis. a vis. their rivals. Thus our basic stance is that of a victim, or a saviour but never the perpetrator . The reality is perhaps a lot more complex and each one of us is simultaneously all three.

This simultaneity of the victim,saviour and perpetrator was brilliantly portrayed by Vijay Tendulkar in his famous play “Kamla”. The protagonist of the play Jaisingh Jadhav is a ambitious journalist who buys a woman Kamla and presents her in a press conference in order to expose the human trafficking racket. Not merely is Jaisingh totally insensitive to Kamla’s discomfiture and humiliation but his relationship with his own wife is akin to a “master-slave” relationship. Eventually, Jaisingh is fired by the owners of the paper presumably because he dared to take on powerful vested interests.

In Jaisingh we have a very interesting character . He is not a bad or dishonest person. He does not indulge in any wrong-doing, he neither mistreats his wife nor Kamla, who he actually rescues. His only folly is his utter self-absorption and insensitivity to everyone else. He starts off trying to be a saviour, becomes a perpetrator and finally a victim. This perhaps is the bitter reality of all  systemic oppressions- they make every constituent into all three, thereby ensuring that everyone has a stake in the preservation of the system and its prevalent inequities. Thus whenever the basic foundation is destabilised it is met with ambivalence.What we are witnessing today is a very mammoth shake up, but the ambivalence can be witnessed in almost all instance of fundamental departures including changes in families, communities and work organisations.

Generally, this ambivalence is polarised creating a split between those who are “for” the change and those who are “against ” it.  Inevitably both sides lay claim to the victim/ saviour location for themselves and attribute the perpetrator location to the other side. This is quite evident in the present situation, where everyone is talking “on behalf” of the “common man” , who by common consensus is the victim with each side looking at the other side as the perpetrator.

This creates interesting double-binds for both sides. For example, in the present situation, any one expressing doubts about the government’s decision runs the risk of being branded as a “defender of black-money”. Similarly, any one who supports the move runs the risk of being branded as “insensitive to the sufferings of the underprivileged “. Thus all expression becomes guarded, making it very difficult to assess as to how people are actually feeling and what do they really think. Bereft of any real connect with the ground reality, people at the helm of affairs are forced to pretend that they are completely “in-control”, and what ever is unfolding  is as per the plan. If they course-correct, they can be charged with unpreparedness and inconsistency; and if they don’t ,they can  be charged with insensitivity and being stubborn.

This of course is a massive exercise, but anyone who has handled change at even much smaller scale will know that once a process is set into motion, it acquires its own momentum. No matter how well prepared one is, the unforeseen will always have to be contended with. The only thing that one can do is to engage with the “emergent reality” in as authentic a way as possible. In order to do this, the first step has to be give  up the victim-perpetrator game, which makes any meaningful dialogue and engagement an impossibility.

To conclude, issues of personal honesty and dishonesty become irrelevant when one is focussed on systemic transformation. Invariably,a focus on personal honesty/dishonesty   ends up with musical chairs between Victim, Perpetrator and Saviour. It may be more meaningful to look at systemic issues which are heavily loaded in favour of certain class/categories of people and where by even the honest and respectable become beneficiaries of systemic corruption.




Indian Resilience- Paradox of Dharma

It is debatable as to who will win the ideological and political battle being currently fought in the country but one clear winner which has emerged is the average Indian, who has demonstrated, yet again his/her grit and resilience in dealing with hardship. Over the past few days, many common Indians have been walking long distances, standing in serpentine long queues and that too with no certainty that their efforts will bear fruit. They have felt frustrated, anxious, angry and wondered how they will meet their immediate day to day needs. In spite of all this, at least so far, there have been very few instances requiring intervention from law enforcement agencies. In fact, one could even spot a few smiling faces, some friendly banter, and quite a few expressing their support for the decision which has caused them so much hardship. “It is a problem right now but it will be alright soon and in any case it is for the overall good of the country” is the sentiment expressed by at least a sizeable section if not the majority. This optimism may be misplaced and may not last too long but there is little denying the fact that it is playing a crucial role in sustaining their resilience.

Simultaneously, there are thousands of bank employees, working tirelessly in a a highly demanding and stressful situation. They do not have adequate infrastructure and more importantly adequate cash to meet the requirements of those who have been waiting in front of them for hours. They often have to absorb the ire of the angry and anxious crowds for no fault of theirs. Yet from whatever I have experienced and heard from others, they have handled the situation with exemplary equanimity, maturity and sensitivity. Many of them have gone out of their way to extend help and support particularly to senior citizens like yours truly. And then there are the invisible ones, the ones who are working behind the scenes – printing currency, transporting it to many outlets, crunching numbers, responding to emergencies, devising ways and means to minimise the hardship to different segments etc. etc. The sheer size of the exercise is mind boggling and one can not help but wonder as to where are these people finding their energy from and what is keeping their spirit alive?

Of course, this is not the first time that Indians have shown this spirit. It has been seen on several such occasions like the Chennai floods last year. What is perhaps not appreciated is that  resilience in face of hardship is part of everyday life in India. We may notice it only in moments like this but it is ever present. A couple of years back I had seen a research study which ranked Indians amongst the highest in terms of sense of well being/satisfaction/happiness etc. in spite of the hardships of everyday life in India. Sudhir and Katharina Kakar have talked about the “pervasive presence of hope, even in the most dismal of life circumstances” in their book “The Indians” It appears that resilience in face of hardship is an integral part of the Indian psyche.

What makes the present situation even more striking is the fact that the hardship has not resulted from a natural calamity (like the Chennai floods) or enemy action (like Bombay blasts). The present hardship is a direct consequence of a somewhat controversial decision taken by their own government. While politicians, media persons, activists, financial experts, have screamed and shouted at each other on behalf of the “common person”, the so called “common person” who is at the receiving end of it, has gone about his/her business with minimum of fuss. He/She has expressed helplessness and/or satisfaction with all the commotion around but has simultaneously found ways and means to sustain “life as usual” with the stoic stance of “this too shall pass”Interestingly, no political party has so far succeeded in organising any sort of public action and/or mass protest. On the contrary, most of them have been rather diplomatic in their criticism focussing more on issues of implementation and integrity of intent rather than the step per se. The obvious hypothesis is that they believe that in the eyes of people (rightly or wrongly) “dharma” lies on the side of the government and hence it would be suicidal to make too much noise till such time that people run out of patience or can be convinced of the adharmic nature of the government’s action. A mere appeal to hardship may not suffice.

This brings me to the centrality of dharma in the Indian consciousness and its relationship with faith in cosmic benevolence and resilience to deal with ups and downs of life. Needless to say, I am not using the term dharma in a religious sense but as a perspective and way of life. The core belief on which this perspective is built is that Cosmos/Universe is  orderly, fair and benevolent. All that a person needs to do is to focus on his/her role obligations and not worry about the fruits of his/her endeavour. The cosmic order ensures that in the ultimate analysis each person receives his/her “karmon ka phal” i.e. legitimate due in accordance with one’s actions.

This may sound like Hindu philosophy ,but perhaps is a perspective shared by most Indians irrespective of their religious affiliation. Most Indians believe that the short term vicissitudes of life are beyond human comprehension and hence it is best to accept them with the spirit of “whatever happens, happens for the good and hence the seeming adversity is perhaps also a blessing in disguise”. Recently, I heard a lady talk about a near fatal accident of her husband which has left him with serious disabilities. What was amazing in the tonality of her narration was the complete lack of bitterness and complaint.Instead she seemed full of gratitude and feeling very lucky because “it could have been a lot worse”. One can not help but marvel at this tremendous ability to extract what ever little positive that one can from any situation- an ability which I have sensed in many Indians and which I believe has something to do with the centrality of dharma in their lives.

This leads us to the obvious question- If Indians are such dharmic or virtuous people, then how does one explain the widespread corruption, nepotism, insensitivity, oppression of the weak etc.? It is tempting to attribute these ills to a handful of evil people, but perhaps, the reality is a lot more complex. I think, the root of this paradox lies in the notion of dharma in the Indian consciousness. To the Indian mind, dharma is not an absolute but only contextual. The same act performed by one person in a certain situation can be regarded as dharmic , but becomes undharmic in another situation and by a different person. I suspect that Indians must rank as the most frequent users of the term “it depends”. As the famous poet and scholar A.K. Ramanujan suggested, Indians have a distinct preference for “context- sensitivity” rather than “context-free” ways of thinking. For us virtually everything is contextualised be it morality, arts, health, day to day living,relationships or any thing else.

Our propensity to be context-sensitive provides us great amount of flexibility, adaptability and resilience. Simultaneously it creates many ethical ambiguities. Take for example, the fact that many shopkeepers and small traders are continuing to accept the old currency notes despite the ban. Their only precondition is that you should not place too much burden on them to return change. Thus they are not willing to accept a 500 rupee note for a 50 rupee purchase but will happily do so for a 400 rupee purchase. Technically speaking their act is “illegal”, but would they regard it as immoral or undharmic? I do not think so. From their point of view, there is a world of difference between laundering large quantities of unaccounted money through purchase of gold and striking an honest business deal by stretching the rules a bit. The issue here is not whether what they are doing is right or not, but only that it is perfectly possible for an Indian to regard his/her act as virtuous and dharmic even if it violates some other standards of legality and morality.

The absence of absolutes in our notion of dharma is both a curse and a blessing. We are all too familiar with its downside viz. our double standards, our “chalta hai” attitude, our insensitivity to oppression of the weak, our lack of systemic discipline etc. etc. While it is important to take cognisance of these and address them, it is equally important to celebrate the positive side of our “context-sensitivity” which enables us to be flexible, adapt to the imperatives of a situation, respect diversity, peacefully co-exist with differences and deal with vicissitudes of life with resilience and equanimity. In other words, learn to celebrate ourselves for “who we are”. Perhaps for far too long, we have searched for our national pride in either our glorious heritage and/or aspirations to become a super-power. It may be more meaningful and productive to look for it in the smiling face of an average Indian who refuses to give up his/her cheerful optimism in spite of all the adversities which life throws at him/her.