Symbols and Persons

Recently, I read a small book about Arnab Goswami, written by Vir Sanghvi. Till then, Arnab Goswami was merely a symbol for me- symbol of a certain kind of T.V. Journalism which I intensely dislike. The book helped me to see the person behind the symbol, but more importantly, it provided insights about the contextual forces which had created this symbol. 

Mr. Sanghvi looks at not just the personal background of Arnab Goswami but also at the ethos of T.V. journalism (specifically English news channels) prior to the Goswami era. It appears that several processes were at play which created a fertile ground for someone like Arnab Goswami to emerge. Some significant features of this context were –  pretence of neutrality, compulsive consensus, synthetic amiability, focus on a selective viewership, Delhi centricity, clannish elitism etc. In this scenario, it was to be expected that a strong counter point would emerge who is direct, blunt, populist, confrontational and very very loud. Mr. Goswami fitted the bill, but it is important to remember that what we see in him, is not just him. It is also a reaction to the processes which belong to the collective context. 

In our preoccupation with individual personalities, we often overlook how the person becomes a symbol who in a sense is not just his/her own person but a carrier of the wishes, hopes, frustrations, stresses, repressions etc. of the collective to which he/she belongs. This is not to deny the significance of personal attributes, differences, choice making or the Agency of the individual. Surely they play a part, but once the person concerned has swallowed the symbol placed upon him/her by the collective, there is very little choice left for the person. The person becomes a captive of the symbol and the entire collective puts its might behind ensuring that the person concerned sticks to the script which has been laid out for him/her.

This process is starkly visible in case of public figures but can be easily witnessed in day to day life as well. R.D. Laing in his path breaking research on mental illness found that “pathology does not belong to the individual alone but to the entire family”. In my own work with individuals and collectives (groups, families, organisations) I have often discovered that what is attributed to a person, generally belongs to the entire collective. At the very least, the collective ensures that the person remains fixed in the allotted symbol.

While this is a fairly normal process, some times the symbols become so powerful and exercise such a stronghold over everyone concerned, that both the person and collective are unable to break free, even in face of heavy cost to themselves. Let me take a few examples.

One of the widely prevalent symbols among leaders in the Indian context is that of the “distant father”. While there are other symbols as well (macho go-getter, brilliant visionary etc.) the distant father has a special appeal in the Indian psyche. Several CEO’s take it for granted that in order to be effective and also to maintain their authority, they have to act the distant father, lest they appear partial, vulnerable, unfair or be taken for granted. Invariably, the rest of the organisation, plays the complementary role of the “good obedient children”, putting their best foot forward, while dealing with the “father”

A direct consequence of this process is that the “distant father” remains blissfully unaware about the “messy” side of the organisation. I recall, once a CEO was sharing with me his sense of shock on learning that one of his bright stars had left the organisation because of “interpersonal problems” with his immediate boss. When I asked him as to how did he remain unaware of something happening right under his nose, his response was” but how was I to know? These things are never voiced in my presence- they behaved so normally in my presence that it was impossible for me to know that trouble was brewing”. When I suggested to him that it may be a good idea for him to spend some relaxed and informal time with his people, he was shocked because he felt that it could seriously impair his image as a fair and impartial authority figure.

The captivity of the symbol becomes so strong that it becomes impossible for the people concerned to operate in any other way. As a result, the entire collective remains caught in its unexamined fears about intimacy and how it can contaminate the sanctity of authority relationships.

Another symbol that I have frequently encountered is that of the “villain” . In many systems, I frequently hear people saying ” But for so and so, everything would be perfect and hunky dory– ” The belief is that all problems are arising out of a single source. Sometimes this source can be a group or collective and not just an individual. For example, one often comes across the symbol of “politician” as the villain. The central argument being that since politicians are supposed to be all powerful, all ills can be attributed to them. All religious tensions, communal/inter caste hostilities/corruption/ indiscipline etc. are sought to be placed at their doorsteps. I sometimes come across people who genuinely believe that but for these handful of crooked politicians, there will be bliss and prosperity for all concerned and different communities/religious groups will be living in perfect harmony.

Needless to say, in order to make the politician into a villain, the rest of us are required to play  the complementary role of “helpless accomplice” – we have no choice but to bribe/ seek favours/ bend the rules etc. etc. On the other hand, the politician has no other choice except to play the role of the all powerful demigod who is not constrained by “normal rules of conduct”. The beauty of symbols is that they lock the  parties concerned in a relationship which neither can escape.

Both the symbols described above, ensure maintenance of status quo. There are also symbols of disruption like Arnab Goswami. In this scenario the individual becomes the medium through which the repressed shadow of the system finds expression through a “counter point”.  For example, one may find a highly aggressive and violent person in an otherwise pacifist family. The person concerned holds the aggression and violence on behalf of the entire family.

The ‘counter point” disrupts the status quo but is sustained by the hope which the collective places on it.  The hope is that the ‘counter point’ will release the collective from its present entrapment and begin a new era.  While this may lead to sporadic outbursts and releases,  the apparent  shifts in the systems are generally of only an oscillatory kind ( pendulum moving from one point to another) with no real movement.

In case of Arnab Goswami, the hope was that the TV debates will become more substantive and real.  However, we can see that the “synthetic amiability” has been replaced by “in your face aggression”. But has it led to meaningful debate as was presumably the intent? It is intense and passionate alright but where is the listening to the other? Where is the space for calm discourse and dispassionate rationality? All that Mr. Goswami has succeeded in doing is that he has replaced “compulsive consensus” with a “shouting match”,where the louder you scream the better. Expectedly, this new “ethos” of shouting matches has become the norm for many other anchors/channels.

One of my learnings from my work is that in order to meaningfully engage with collectives(groups, families, organisations, society at large) one needs to go beyond the person and understand the “symbol” which the person has become. What plays out through the individual does not belong to the individual alone. In a sense, it is part of the collective psyche which is finding expression through the individual. In absence of this appreciation all that we are left with are blame games and scapegoating.

 

 

Unintended Consequences of Unholy Alliances

Some time back, I was talking to a well known journalist and political commentator about “Modi magic”. Both of us felt that to a large extent, Modi’s appeal could be attributed to his success in fusing Traditional India with Aspirational India.  I call this an unholy alliance, not because it is undesirable or untenable, but because it has been forged without paying adequate attention to the inherent conflict between the two. An effective alliance requires engagement with both synergies and divergences between the two entities. When the divergences and inherent conflicts are put aside, because they are inconvenient to look at, they end up degenerating into opportunistic unholy alliances with disastrous consequences which neither party had bargained for.

Historically, there has been an uncomfortable relationship between Traditional India and Aspirational India. The tension between Gandhi and Nehru/Ambedkar being a classical example of it. Inspite of Gandhi’s critical views about  several aspects of the Indian tradition, his anchorage in Indian tradition remained strong and hence it was easy for Traditional India to resonate with him. On the other hand, his stances on technology, modernity, economics, social arrangements etc. made him unpalatable to the Aspirational India. Nehru and Ambekar could find some traction with the Aspirational India but remained largely alienated from the Traditional India. With his charismatic personality, Nehru managed to create huge mass following, but his connect with Traditional India was largely through regional satraps . At various points, he had to make several compromise to accommodate the compulsions of “Identity politics”, but by and large he regarded “Indian ways” as more of a handicap than an asset.

The split between Traditional and Aspirational was a major theme in the popular cinema of the 60’s and 70’s. For example, the blockbuster “Do Raaste” ( later remade as Om Jai Jagdish) centres around the turmoil caused in a joint family when one of the brothers  (in whose education, the family had invested heavily) gets drawn towards material advancement, after his marriage to a rich and “modern” girl. I suspect, that preponderance of this theme suggests a latent fear that pursuit of aspiration will entail rupturing of traditional ties.

Thus it is not surprising that the split between traditional and aspirational has played out in different ways in most spheres of Indian life. In the political sphere the divide between “Identity politics” and “Developmental politics” is virtually taken for granted– with Identity politics representing Traditional India and Developmental politics representing Aspirational India. Several politicians mouth the development rhetoric but their essential emphasis remains on Identity politics. Similarly, several politicians have carved out a niche for themselves by playing on the “aspirations” of marginalised groups. Not surprisingly fighting against”discrimination” and “oppression” becomes their primary traction, which necessarily carries an “anti-tradition” hue.

In this scenario, there was/is a huge constituency which has largely remained unattended to- i.e. of Indians who wish to remain connected with their tradition , but also pursue their aspirations. It is this constituency which Modi&co. have carefully cultivated and harnessed. The biggest advantage of this constituency is that it is not restricted to any specific socio-economic category but is spread across different castes, classes and  communities. The choice of Gujrat model was an apt symbol for this purpose.Gujrat is associated with both Tradition and Prosperity, and hence could effectively carry the message of fusion between Tradition and Aspiration. Modi’s own rise from very humble background, an image of a diligent, confident, austere and no non-sense person was/is extremely helpful. He is a role model who can be identified with. He is not a distant prince like a Rahul Gandhi. Similarly, he is not a Mamta Bannerjee or Laloo yadav, who though seen as “one of us”, are not aspired for.

How long will this alliance between Traditional India and Aspirational India last at the political level, is difficult to predict. The unease and tension between the two is fast acquiring alarming proportions. Two of the deadly consequences which have already begun to show  are as follows-

  1. Several rogue elements have given to themselves the right to create havoc in the name of Indian culture. Quite often, these elements are motivated by petty selfish interests and not any real concern for the values and traditions which they claim to be protecting. Besides the obvious law and order problem, it has become a serious hurdle in the path of Aspirational India, as several compromises are forced upon it in order to placate these elements. The worst part of this process is that a very narrow minded and intolerant picture gets painted of Indian culture.We are fast  reaching a point when many sane people will  cringe at the mention of the term Bhartiya Sanskriti.
  2. Several mediocre elements of Aspirational India, have found a convenient band wagon to latch on to i.e.  Indian culture. Scholars, artists, filmmakers with very little to their credit, have come to occupy positions of immense power and significance. What is worse is that many people with  with very high levels of credibility and contribution can be easily sidelined as “anti-Indian “. One may argue that this is essentially one set of coterie replacing another, but that argument ignores the fact that there are many hugely talented people on both sides of the ideological divide. Aspirational India can ill-afford to ignore merit irrespective of ideological orientation.                                                                                                                                                      I believe, the project of integrating Traditional India with Aspirational India is a commendable one, but it cannot ignore the landmines which need to be negotiated. If the inherent tensions are not acknowledged and addressed, it will only remain an opportunistic exercise. I also believe that a meaningful partnership between the two, will entail a recalibration  with both  Tradition and Aspiration.

 One of the biggest difficulties is that we  either glorify our Tradition or condemn it.  We attempt to preserve it  it as a relic of the past or discard it as an unwanted burden. Rarely do we engage with it as a living reality which needs to be understood and reinterpreted in the present context.  Consequently, Traditional India tries to ensure that we remain captives of our tradition, be like “frogs in a well” and look towards past for all our answers. On the other hand Aspirational India tends to treat Tradition as regressive and an unnecessary burden-  not an active partner or collaborator but a potential nuisance which needs to be placated, managed and controlled. In practice, this translates into collusion with a handful of self-appointed vanguards ( godmen, opinion makers, street goons etc.) rather than any real engagement with Traditional India. Needless to say, this only plays into the hands of these vanguards enhancing their nuisance value.

On the other hand, our engagement with the world of aspirations has got caught into the “me too” mould. Our aspirations are based more on catching up with the advanced world, rather than what we need/wish for ourselves. In our craze for glittering Malls and Smart Cities, we rarely ask ourselves whether we wish to follow a model of development which is largely based on insatiable consumption. Interestingly,  Traditional India, instead of challenging this model of development, has chosen to collude with it.There is a fast growing group of professionals/ intellectuals who are trying hard to sell the proposition that we can become world beaters by following the traditional Indian ways.

Some time back, on a visit to Haridwar, I was shocked to see large hoardings saying “lets make India the Jagatguru (teacher of the world) again”. I can not imagine anything more non- Indian than this absurdity. It is a classical example of the collusive relationship between Traditional India and Aspirational India. It conveniently sidesteps the inconvenient reality that Knowledge and Wisdom are configured very differently in the Indian tradition and deploying them for gaining dominance and supremacy may in fact, vitiate their basic essence.

Thus it appears that the present alliance is not seeing the interests of either party. This does not take away the need for a meaningful partnership between the two. In fact, as  stated earlier, meaningful partnership between Traditional India and Aspirational India is not just desirable but the need of the hour. However, this can not happen through collusive arrangements. It has to be accompanied by a healthy dose of mutual challenge and confrontation. Unless Traditional India stands up and challenges the development models of Aspirational India, and unless Aspirational India  puts pressure on Traditional India to rethink its existing beliefs and stances, we are unlikely to make much head way. Alliances become unholy, when they only accommodate, compromise and collude. In order to make them into meaningful partnership, one needs to address the inherent tensions and conflicts also.

 

 

 

 

 

Illusory Agency

These days whenever we  wish to find out anything about anything, we go to Google da, who invariably obliges. We have taken it for granted that Google da knows everything, but somehow we also seem to assume that this “everything” does not include “us”. Thus when we discover that Google da knows everything about “us” also, we feel offended, betrayed, intruded upon and violated.

Our basic stance is that Google da should be able to fulfil all our needs for information/knowledge, but the flow of information from us to Google da should be restricted by our choice. Since Google da is faced by similar requirement, not just from us, but everyone else as well, it has no choice but to “dig deeper” into what ever information each one of us is willing to provide. This exercise in “data mining” enables Google da to meet the various demands being placed on it. However, in the process, we realise that Google da has come to know a lot more about “us” than what we intended. Moreover, we also discover to our horror that in a surreptitious manner Google da has been controlling and deciding for us, what we are exposed to and what remains hidden from us.

In our feelings of outrage, we overlook the basic principle that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. We intended Google da to be our “slave” but in effect, it has become our “master”. By “outsourcing” our need for information and knowledge, we have given enormous power to Google da. It may therefore be worth asking as to what makes us outsource our need for information and knowledge. The obvious answer is that    we need a lot a more information and knowledge than what we can gather by our own efforts. Then the next logical question would be as to why do we need so much information and knowledge?

Perhaps, we believe that Knowledge helps us to enhance our Agency i.e. making informed choices, gaining control over our context, becoming masters of our destiny etc. Thus when we discover that the knowledge provided to us had a hidden agenda behind it, and was actually an attempt to manipulate us, we are left face to face with the illusory nature of our so called Agency. We cope with it by getting angry at the entities who we believe are responsible for it, but rarely recognise that it is only a logical corollary of the process we have set into motion, in our pursuit of ever expanding Agency.

In my younger days, one of my favourite definitions of Progress was “expansion of choice”. The more one progresses, the more choices one will have. For example, our ancestors had limited choices regarding where they lived, what work they did, who they married , how they commuted etc. etc. Isn’t it a sign of progress that today we enjoy many more choices in these area? Similarly, I would argue that a “mature” person would have many  “choices” in dealing with a situation than a less mature person who would react compulsively.

As I have grown older ( like many other people, I guess) I have begun to recognise that much of my so called Agency, was in fact an illusion. Many of these “choices” were in fact a product of forces (both internal and external) of which I was largely unaware. Like in the Google example given earlier, I believed that I was in control whereas in many ways ,I was a captive, who was only seeing what he was meant to see, whose interpretations followed a set pattern and whose choices had already been laid out for him. But most importantly, I have begun to realise that Progress can mean both “expansion of choice” and “living with limited choice”. In other words, not having a choice, has its own virtues.

Over the ages, philosophers have wrestled with the issue of “Free Will”, and no matter how the issue is approached, the final outcome is always the same- a simultaneous affirmation and negation. In other words, what we regard as our “choices” are really not our choices, and what we regard as our compulsions, are in some ways “our choices”. For example, is love a matter of one’s choice? A Ghalib will say ” hai ye woh  aatish Ghalib,  jo legaaye na lage or bujhyaye na bane” ( a spark which can neither be ignited nor extinguished by volition) Just as a Psychoanalyst will show how seemingly involuntary attractions, are in fact a product of complex motives and volitions.

The other day, a friend was narrating to me an exchange which took place between his 90 year old father and 30 year old son. The young man was trying to explain to his grandfather, some very interesting work that he is doing to unravel the mysteries of our universe. After listening to his grandson, the old man asked -Do you believe in God? The grandson responded by saying that he will provided he has sufficient evidence.

What struck me in this conversation was the two fundamentally different positions in respect of human volition and agency. For the young man, believing or not believing in God was a matter of choice which had to be exercised intelligently. For the grandfather, “choice” did not come into the picture at all– after all the only way one can “choose” to believe or not believe in God would be by placing oneself at an even higher plane than God.

Listening to this narrative, I was asking myself, which of the two stances do I resonate with, and I couldn’t find an answer. Earlier, it would have been easier for me to resonate with the grandson, but today I am not so sure. All I can say is that like all human beings, I have no  choice but to believe that I have choices and I must constantly endeavour to expand the range of possibilities. Simultaneously, I recognise that any “compulsion” (including that of expanding choices) can only mean  negation of  Agency.

This perhaps is the paradox which lurks behind all choice making. Nonetheless, To choose or not to choose, remains the basic question- and ironically we don’t seem to have a choice in the matter.

I wonder, how all this figures in your scheme of things.