The New India Project

Last few days, we have been hearing a lot about New India. Opinions differ about what exactly does it mean as also the hopes and fears that it generates. But what everyone seems to agree upon is that we are at a crucial inflection point and the next few years are going to see a significant transformation not just in the political space but also in other aspects of the Indian society. Personally, I am not too sure about the extent and depth of this transformation but I will not get into that debate. For the present, I will accept that we are likely to see some shifts, though they may not be as dramatic as some people expect.

There are two broad pictures of New India, which people are talking about- depending upon personal orientation and political ideology, most people subscribe to one or another. The feelings that they have towards the New India project, is a direct consequence of which picture they are looking at.

The first picture of New India is of a young, strong,  united, confident, meritocratic, aspirational society striving to claim its legitimate space under the Sun. In this picture, the emphasis is on your merit, performance and delivery – your lineage etc. are of no concern.  In this picture, everyone is ( or hopefully will be) on the same page. While different groups may  have different affiliations (e.g. of caste, creed, language, region, religion etc.) they are all aligned to same goals, values and nationalistic fervor. It is a picture which supporters of the New India project find extremely inspiring and even the detractors find it difficult to argue against.

The second picture which the detractors find very frightening is of a majoritarian, jingoistic, intolerant, insensitive, boorish society run by an autocratic regime. In this picture, there is no space for dissent and there is an insistence that everyone must adhere to the same ideology. Goals, values and behaviors which do not conform to those propagated by the majority have to be strictly regulated and any potential disruption weeded out.  Whether the ideology is called Hindutva or Bhartiyta or Indianness, is irrelevant. It is the monolith of the ideology which frightens the detractors.

The supporters of the New India project try to allay these fears by arguing that the ideology which they are propagating is inherently open, flexible, tolerant and diversity friendly. Acts of intolerance are attributed to “fringes”, but the failure to regulate the fringes( and often extending implicit support to them), brings into question the intent and motives of the powers that be.

Not surprisingly, often the discourse turns into an examination of intent and motive.  The detractors argue that the New India project is nothing but a sham and the real purpose is to gain power at any cost. On the other hand, the supporters argue that the detractors are blowing things out of proportion so that they can protect their vested interest in the “status quo” After all, the feudalistic and corrupt  politicians, the elite in various other fields (the so called Lutyens and the Khan market gang) have much to lose if the New India project becomes a reality.

In this bitter exchange of attributions of motives, the real issue gets lost viz. the inherent tensions and contradictions in the New India project.  It is easy to see that the two pictures of the New India project ( as portrayed by its supporters and detractors respectively) are intimately connected. In many ways, they can be seen as two sides of the same coin.

A monolithic ideology and an authoritarian regime are more pronounced in the second picture, but are an implicit part of the first picture also. A simple example of this is the PM’s speech to the MP’s of NDA.

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Take for example, his preference for “efficiency” over “effectiveness”. Efficiency requires adherence to a laid drown process in a disciplined and rigorous manner.  Thus, authoritarian regimes are best suited for efficiency ( recall  that  running of trains on times was touted as the biggest achievement of Emergency) Effectiveness is a more messy affair, it entails juggling with several variables in order to achieve the desired result.

In a soft and gentle manner, the PM kept reminding his MP’s to stick to their ” maryada” – refrain from speaking out of turn, ensure that they do not misuse (or let others misuse) their power and status, dedicate themselves to their duty in a selfless manner. The message was loud and clear- ” you are to be dedicated soldiers of my army- yours is not to question WHY but to DO and DIE. However, the message was delivered in such a suave and self effacing manner that the underlying authoritarian streak did not become “in your face”.  My suspicion is that perhaps he looks at himself also as a dedicated soldier who is fulfilling the task which destiny has bestowed upon him.

The simple point that I wish to make is that there is no way you can pursue the first picture of New India project, and stay clear of the second picture. Nationalistic fervor is a necessary ingredient of the New India project, without which it loses its emotive appeal and inspirational value. Similarly an authoritarian streak ( even if it be of a soft benevolent variety) is necessary to enforce the “selfless disciplined effort” which lies at the heart of the New India project. The similarity  between the New India project and protestant work ethic is quite stark and its aims seem to be inspired by the western concepts of progress and development. In this sense it is closer to Calvinism than Hinduism.

This is a significant difficulty which the New India project is likely to encounter. Its success depends upon its ability to manage the tension between Indian cultural identity and western notions of progress and development. Not surprisingly, the path chosen by the New India Project is far removed from both Gandhi and Deendayal Upadhayay, though it claims to be inspired by them. Significantly, both rejected the western notions of progress and development.  Both were great champions of Indian cultural identity though they defined it in very different ways. Similarly, the differences between Gandhi and Ambedkar were not just tactical but fundamental. They conceived of an ideal society in very very different ways. If the New India project claims to draw inspirations from these conflicting sources, then it has to address the tensions between them. Without that it is unlikely to go beyond well intended homilies.

Indeed, the vision which underlies the New India project is problematic and full of internal contradictions. However, with all its limitations, at least the supporters of the New India Project have a vision, which is much more than what can be said about the detractors. Every time, the detractors are asked for a vision, they have very little to offer except homilies like pluralism and social justice. This is essentially a fall back on the Nehruvian vision, which I believe has already run its course.

The Nehruvian vision was a source of great inspiration for people like me who grew up in the fifties. There were several reasons for its losing steam after the first decade post independence. One of the significant reasons was that it was a culture agnostic vision. It side stepped the question of what does it mean to be Indian, beyond citizenship of the geo -political entity called India. Unity in Diversity was a great slogan – it  urged us to transcend our sectoral identities( based on caste, creed, language, region etc.) and embrace a national identity. However, the national identity remained an abstract construct with no cultural anchors. Not surprisingly, people either remained caught with their sectoral identities of caste, creed, language, region etc. or embraced soulless, rootless notions of national identity and/or global citizenship.

It is great to talk about diversity and pluralism, but simultaneously one needs to ask as to what holds this diversity together. Does India have a heart and soul or is it a mere geo- political convenience to hold together disparate, disjointed clusters ? Thus at  the core is the issue of our Identity – Who are we and what do we wish to become ?

The supporters of the New India project have defined it in a certain way, which is both problematic and full of internal contradictions. On the other hand, the detractors do not wish to engage with it at all. They either dismiss it as irrelevant ( let us only focus on issues of development, social justice and individual liberties) OR respond to it with negation ( we are not Hindu Rashtra).

I find it rather disturbing that  terms such as cultural identity or  Indic have been virtually usurped by the right wing. I am sometimes invited to participate in discourse around Indianness, and invariably it is by bodies and institutions which lean towards the right side of the political divide. It is another matter, that very soon they discover that what I have to offer does not suit their agenda and promptly drop me like a hot potato. I have rarely come across initiatives from the other side ( generally referred to as left liberals )  to explore this issue. At times I feel that they are allergic to terms like cultural identity  and see it only as a reactionary, regressive endeavor which will support oppressive monoliths.

I believe, it is high time the detractors of the New India project give up their aversion to notions such as cultural identity and Indic. Mere denial or defiance will keep them perpetually on the back foot. It is time that they start defining Indianness in their own way. Their fears are very real but the only way to deal with them is to actively participate in the New India project rather than scoffing at it or fighting it. Whether they like it or not, a New India is emerging and will continue to emerge.  In this transformation process, we can ill afford to ignore the issue of cultural identity. A culture agnostic rhetoric of Pluralism, Inclusion, Development, Social justice etc. is just not enough. It must take into account the salient predispositions of the Indian people and their cultural identity, otherwise it will not have any emotive force.

In other words, if we do not wish to get trapped in a narrow, restrictive definition of what it means to be Indian, we have no choice but to participate in defining it.

 

“Not to Deny, Not to Defy, but to Define”

gully-boy_1547029867140The title of this piece is a quote from late Professor Pulin K. Garg (of IIM Ahmadabad) and refers to possible responses to systemic rigidity and oppression. I was reminded of it while watching “Gully Boy,” where I found the response of the protagonist as very refreshing- neither rooted in denial nor in defiance. Instead the protagonist chooses to pursue his own path.

I believe both denial and defiance are counterproductive.  Denial(non-recognition/engagement) leads to collusion and perpetuation of systemic inequities, and ironically, defiance leads to the same result- it can be easily dismissed as aberration or suppressed as disruptive. Meaningful transformation requires defining a new vision, a new path, which is not just a reactive response but embodies the hopes and dreams of the individual/collective.

The journey from denial to defiance to defining is complex and entails engagement with multiple aspects, particularly in respect of power and authority relations. Some of the shifts in the popular Hindi cinema can give us some clues to this process.

Till the emergence of the Angry Young Man in the 1970’s, most protagonists were in the denial mode- they were good sons and daughters, excelled in studies, did well in sports/extra curricular activities, chose respectable professions and generally stuck to the “straight and narrow”. If any of their deviations (e.g. falling in love) met with parental disapproval, they either gave in meekly (e.g. “Dhool ka phool”) or became self-destructive (e.g. “Devdas”). They rarely challenged the rigidity and oppression of the System. A few of them rebelled (e.g.”Birju” of “Mother India”), but these were exceptions not the rule.

Willing to defy the straight and narrow!

The 1970’s changed this and defiance became the norm. The Angry Young Man refused to be confined to the “straight and narrow” and was willing to confront systemic oppression head on. Often the trigger was injury to the father, who was invariably in the denial mode – either on account of naive idealism or due to lack of courage (e.g. “Deewar”). Sometimes the father was the perpetrator(e.g. Trishool) and the protagonist’s main agenda was to settle score with him. In either case, the protagonist remains tied to the father, irrespective of whether the father was seen as a victim or a perpetrator. While the Angry Young Man evoked our sympathy, he also left us with a sense of futility.

For the “Gully Boy”, the father is both a victim and a perpetrator, but he is not hooked to either. He neither yields to his father’s helpless resignation to the situation, nor does he fight the father’s tyranny. Instead he chooses to stand firm and pursue his own path. His angst towards the systemic oppression is expressed through his music. In this respect he reminds us of “Vijay” of “Pyaasa”, but there is one major difference.

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Unlike “Vijay,” “Gully boy “does not deny his own ambitions and aspirations. Thus he does not turn away from the System but works towards carving out a meaningful space for himself. Similarly, he does not break away from his personal context, but remains integrated with it even after achieving success.

In this sense, Gully boy is a new response to systemic oppression, coercive power, authority relations and systemic membership. What the Gully boy seems to be saying is that ” Yes I know, I am a product of an unjust system, there are several injuries that I carry both in my personal space and the larger context to which I belong. I would neither Deny, nor Defy, instead I choose to Define a new world which is meaningful both for me and my context.”

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Standing firm without rebelling against the father!

The Gully boy is only a dramatic representation of a change which is taking place all around us. It is much more pronounced in relatively smaller towns and lower socioeconomic strata. I find many young men and women in this segment (sons and daughters of domestic help, drivers, semi skilled workers) who are working as company executives, I.T specialists, doctors, engineers etc. The most interesting thing about these young men and women is that they remain deeply rooted in their context, without getting limited by it. For many of them their parents (usually one of them) are their role models. Even when they have grouse against their parents or family, their affiliative links remain strong. What they seem to be saying is ” I am part of a context, which I know is limiting. However, I do no wish to break free. Instead, I will anchor myself in my context and stretch its limits”.

This is particularly significant in the Indian context. The tussle between personal needs, desires and ambitions on one hand, and responsibility towards one’s family and community has often been difficult to negotiate for many Indians. If the individual rebels and break free, he/she has to live with the resultant guilt. On the other hand, a meek surrender to the diktats of the context, is suffocating and saps the vitality of the individual. This is a very real double bind in which many Indians find themselves and are forced to make a choice between Self or System. Several Hindi films have been made on this theme (e.g.”Do Raaste”) and almost all of them glorified the stance of “System before Self”

The stance of the Gully boy shows a third alternative which can be very liberating. It does not place the individual in classic binaries such as selfish vs altruistic, ambitious vs caring or modern vs. traditional. It enables the individual to find her agency/individuality without losing connection with the context.It is this simultaneity of self and system, which gives me a lot of hope.

Aggression Vs. Punitiveness

Virat Kohli’s aggressive behaviour on the cricket field evokes both admiration and revulsion in us. Recently, the famous actor Nasseruddin Shah described Kohli as the “worst behaved player”. Needless to say, this created its own chain reaction against Mr. Shah. While Mr. Shah may have been more direct and upfront, the unease about Kohli’s aggression has also been expressed by several others.

A couple of months back, when Kohli had reacted to a fan by asking him to leave the country, it created quite an uproar. This was widely interpreted as jingoistic and intolerance towards a fan’s preference for a foreign player. Kohli did clarify that he was not objecting to the fan’s preference for a foreign player, but reacting to the disdain in the expression “these Indian players”. However, Kohli’s clarification was generally ignored.

I have no idea as to what kind of person is Virat Kohli. What seems reasonably apparent is that he is passionate, ambitious, intense, competitive and expressive. Beyond that it is difficult to say anything about him. To best of my knowledge, he has never resorted to physical/verbal abuse or been involved in drunken brawls or been accused of unfair practices like ball tampering etc. He has rarely been a “bad loser”(blaming others) and has often been generous in his praise of his opponents. Thus it is difficult to associate punitiveness with his aggression.

Aggression and Punitiveness may look alike but they are quite different from each other. The most important difference of course is, that in Punitiveness, there is a clear INTENT to harm/hurt the other. The motive for causing the hurt/harm may vary ( e.g. teaching a lesson or settling a score etc.) but Punitiveness is a MOTIVATED ACT.

As against this Aggression is an EXPRESSIVE ACT. Here, the other is incidental or in a sense irrelevant. It is essentially a release of one’s own aggressive impulses, which may have got triggered from fear, insecurity, frustration or even a sense of relief and achievement. This may cause harm/hurt to the other, but it arises from the insensitivity/callousness of the aggressor rather than an active intent.

Aggression is often deployed in the service of Punitiveness, but not always so. Seemingly non-aggressive behaviours (e.g. sarcasm, mockery, slight, disdain, dismissal etc.) can be equally effective in punishing the other. In fact, they carry an additional advantage as they are very difficult to counter. One often comes across instances when people justify their insults and ridicules as “just joking”. Thus non-aggressive act of punishment, allow the perpetrator to get away without taking any responsibility in the matter.

Aggression and Punitiveness may overlap with each other, but not all Aggression is punitive, and not all Punitiveness is blatantly aggressive. The distinction between the two is particularly important in the Indian context.There is plenty of evidence to suggest that we Indians have a very uneasy relationship with Aggression. We either tend to deny/suppress our aggressive impulses OR discharge them indiscriminately. Consequently-

a) It becomes extremely difficult for us to harness the positive potential of aggression.

b) Whenever we are faced with aggression ( either in ourselves or in others), we become punitive(towards self and/or other) and

c) Much of our punitiveness gets expressed through seemingly non-aggressive ways.

Thus when some one like Virat Kohli comes along, who is able to deploy his aggressive impulses to his advantage (I have rarely seen him play a shot in anger) without becoming punitive towards himself or others, we experience strong ambivalence. On one hand, he becomes a symbol through which our own aggressive impulses are finding expression, and on the other, all our demons about aggression begin to haunt us. We want to both admire him as also punish him for doing what we are unable to do ourselves. Just as people who do not know how to stand up for themselves feel both elated and upset, when they see someone else doing it, so do we when we see a Virat Kohli showing his raw aggression without getting consumed by it. We want to admire him, emulate him and also punish him.

Strange as it may seem, there is perhaps an inverse relationship between Aggression and Punitiveness. The more discomfort that we have with our aggressive impulses, the more punitive we are likely to become. And the more we grace our aggression, the less punitive we are likely to be.

I have often come across people who are extremely aggressive but not punitive, just as I have come across people who seem non-aggressive, but are extremely punitive. I have also found that generally we are a lot more tolerant of the non-aggressive punitive people, and a lot more critical of the aggressive ones, even if they are non-punitive. What has been your experience?

Strong Leaders- Weak Leadership

More than two years back, in a blog post “Intoxicating Invincibility”, I had speculated about the rise and fall of brand Modi and how it may impact BJP. So far, the events have unfolded, more or less in line with what I had anticipated. Whether or not, they continue to follow the same script is yet to be seen.

I am not a political analyst, nor am I very well informed in such matters. Essentially, I am a student of human behaviour and dynamics of human collectives such as organisation, families, communities etc. My speculations were based upon my understanding of the interesting relationship between systems(human collectives) with charismatic leaders, particularly of the alpha male variety. The script that unfolds has an eerie commonality across different individual narratives. It goes something like this-

1. An individual with some outstanding capabilities emerges,often from sections which are not central but peripheral in the system. He/she has a meteoric rise and becomes the most significant and powerful person in the system.

2. Under the leadership of this person, the system experiences some early successes, which enables the individual to consolidate his/her position as also the grip over the system.

3. Very soon, the person gains almost complete control over the system. All significant role holders are handpicked by the leader, with loyalty to the leader being a major criteria.

4. While a facade of openness and accessibility is maintained, the operating norms are-
a) The judgement of the leader is never to be challenged, and
b) No “bad news”should be allowed to reach the leader i.e. he/she should only hear what he/she wants to hear.

5. Over a period, the gulf between the “grass roots” and centres of power begins to widen and consequently, the performance of the system begins to slip. This is often attributed to individual failures and sought to be corrected through scapegoating and/or enhanced controls. The end result is further alienation of Leadership from the people at large.

6. At this stage, the disillusionment with the Leader begins to simmer and his/her sheen starts eroding.However, often the disgruntlement is not directly acknowledged or engaged with.

7. In a sense the System is now caught in a double bind.It is far too heavily invested into the belief that leader is invincible and hence can not release itself from the stronghold which the Leader has over it.Simultaneously, the Leader who till now was its greatest asset, now starts appearing like a liability. Simply put, the System can neither get rid of the Leader nor go on with it.The problem is further accentuated by the TINA factor, as usually under such leaders there are very few alternatives.

8. Most Systems at this stage go into a “free for all” state of drift and start waiting for the next Messiah to arrive, who invariably meets the same fate.

The only way that Systems can break this double bind is through unclogging the channels of upward communication which have got blocked. This is easier said than done, particularly in “high power distance” cultures like ours, where a high power distance between the leader and the follower is taken for granted. In case of strong charismatic leaders the problem is even more acute.

In relatively smaller systems, strong leaders take care of this problem through direct personalised connect. Thus one often hears of great leaders who knew each and every one of their employees by name. This is clearly not feasible in large complex systems, where one needs institutionalised processes to facilitate upward communication.

It is therefore not surprising that exercises such as “employee surveys” are being increasingly used by several organisations. While such exercises have their utility, they rarely go beyond identifying what people are feeling “good” about and what they are feeling “unhappy” about.

The feelings of “happiness” and “unhappiness” are mere symptoms- they may have little connection with what the real issues are. This is so, because all collectives have both “wisdom” and “noise” and what the surveys throw up is a peculiar mix of the two. To take an example from the socio-political sphere, a survey may well reveal that a large number of people are unhappy about “minority appeasement”. On this basis, it would be downright foolish to conclude that “minority appeasement” is either factually correct or is indeed the “real” problem.

In a way, such surveys are attempts to “by pass” the intermediary levels and connect the “top” with the “bottom” directly. This would be akin to a political boss who believes that he/she is directly in touch with the “masses”, even when, people who are directly working with him/her are scared to open their mouths in his/her presence.

The problem of clogged channels of upward communication can not be addressed through structural arrangements and introduction of systems like employee surveys. It requires us to revisit our basic notions about leadership. So long as we see leadership as vested in a person, we will continue to create the same double bind.

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that leadership is a process to which all members of the system contribute. The so called “leader” is only a medium through which a collectivity expresses itself. How this leader is created, how he/she functions, how he/she is dethroned, has much more to do with collective (its myths, its aspirations, its anxieties, its mythology etc.) than with the individual concerned. This is not to suggest that the individual is of no consequence, but only to emphasise that over-emphasis on the individual blinds us to the forces which create and destroy leaders.

Efficacy of leadership process in a system is hugely dependent upon the quality of communication and state of communication channels, particularly of upward communication. If these channels get clogged ( which they often do, in case of strong leaders) the efficacy of leadership is bound to suffer. Ironical as it may sound, Strong Leaders often mean Weak leadership. Thus perhaps we need to let go of our obsession with Leaders and pay more attention to Leadership.

Two faces of the Hindu Monolith

Significance of the excluded

One of my teachers, late Pulin Garg, had a favourite question- ” In saying what you are saying, what are you not saying AND in not saying, what you are not saying, what are you actually saying ?” Besides being a nice tongue twister, the question is also a reminder  that in order to understand any phenomenon, it is important to take into account that which has been edited out.

Thus I was quite amused by the fact that Shashi Tharoor in his recent book “Why I am a Hindu”, makes no reference to Ambedkar’s ” Riddles in Hinduism” or even ” Annihilation of caste”. In fact, Ambedkar’s name figures only thrice in the book with no serious engagement with his views. One wonders, where does Ambedkar figure in the grand narrative of Hinduism ( religion for the 21st century etc.) offered by Mr. Tharoor. Presumably, Mr. Tharoor does not agree with Ambedkar’s position, but then why does he not refute it and explicitly state his disagreement. Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that Mr. Tharoor’s book is essentially a political statement and the best thing to do would be to stay clear of everything which could spoil the grand narrative which he wishes to lure us with, as also to sidestep anything which could be potentially controversial.

Political dilemma and the same Monolith 

Mr. Tharoor’s predicament is understandable. His party has FINALLY recognised that the secular card has lost much of its sheen and credibility, and hence carries very little traction with a large part of the electorate. On the other hand, its main political rival has achieved considerable success through consolidation of what is somewhat simplistically referred to as “Hindu vote”. Under the circumstances, the only viable choice that it is left with, is to offer its own version of Hinduism and convince the electorate that it is being hoodwinked by its rival in the name of Hinduism. The strategy is identical to what its political rival had done by coining the term “pseudo-secularism” . Mr. Tharoor is now trying to turn the tables by suggesting that what his political opponent is following is “pseudo- Hinduism ( though he does not use this term) and his party is the torch bearer of “real Hinduism”

Consequently, there is very little difference in his version of Hinduism and the one subscribed to by the Hindutva brigade. . They draw from the same scriptures ( Vedas, Upanashids, Gita, etc.) offer identical interpretations and extol the same virtues of tolerance, plurality, etc. Even in respect of social ills (like untouchability, superstition, oppression of the downtrodden, cruelty towards widows etc.) their perspectives are  identical i.e. these are distortions which have emerged (mostly in the last few centuries) and have very little to do with the intrinsic nature of Hinduism.

Thus beneath the veneer of modern sensibilities Mr. Tharoor offers as the same monolithic version of Hinduism as the Hindutva brigade – the same smug claims of being the only universal religion ( without of course seeking to proselytise) and the same subtle  “holier than thou” stance. Note for instance Mr. Tharoor’s assertion- ” India’s secular co-existence was paradoxically made possible by the fact that the overwhelming majority of   Indians are Hindu” Net net, Mr. Tharoor has no difference of opinion with his Hindutva counterparts as far as the understanding of Hinduism goes. All that he is saying is that ” They are fake, I am the authentic version”

Hinduness as a cultural construct

Both Mr. Tharoor and Hindutva brigade, also seem to agree that Hinduism ( or more appropriately Hindu-ness) is also a cultural construct- a perspective, a philosophy, a way of life, a set of values, a psycho-social predisposition about different facets of human existence. This notion of Hindu-ness is not restricted to any specific religious creed but transcends  religious affiliations. In this sense, the term Hindu becomes quite similar to the way Mohd. Iqbal used the term Hindi, in his famous verse ” Hindi hein, watan hai hindustan hamara” ( We are Hindis and our land is Hindustan)

It is therefore logical to infer that both for the Hundutva brigade, and the likes of Mr. Tharoor, Hindu-ness is not the monopoly of only those who belong to the so called Hindu religions. ( I use the plural because I do not believe that there is anything called Hindu religion. At best, we can talk of a wide set of belief systems, which can broadly be classified as Hindu) . To a large extent, both the virtues and ills of Hinduness, cut across the religious barriers and can be witnessed in most inhabitants of this land, including the followers of Abrahamic faiths. 

The two fallacies

There is thus an undeniable overlap between Hinduness and Indianness. Where Mr. Tharoor differs from his Hindutva counterparts, is in his response to this overlap. The Hindutva brigade treats Hinduness and Indianness as identical and refuses to acknowledge any difference between the two. From their point of view all Indians are Hindus who belong to different sects( or Panths) Thus Moslems become Mohammed Panthi Hindus, Christian become Issah Panthi Hindus, Sikhs become Nanak Panthi Hindus, and so on.

On the face of it, this approach seems quite inclusive, but what it conveniently overlooks is that religions are not just about theology, worship of God and religious rituals. They are also social arrangements and significant anchors of a person/community’s identity. This insistence to erode the distinction between Hinduness and Indianness only fuels paranoia and enhances the need to assert one’s separateness . What is worse, it leaves the community feeling vulnerable about unwanted intrusions into its ways of living e.g. dietary preferences and the like. The net result is that non-recognition of difference between Hinduness and Indianness, only heightens the difference between them.

On the other hand, people like Mr. Tharoor treat them as disjointed separate entities,  They believe that  Hinduness and Indianness should not be mixed with each other and each should be respected and valued in its own right. This sounds perfectly rational but the trouble is that humans are not just rational beings – they also have emotive needs. Devoid of Hinduness, the notion of Indianness is reduced to a mere geo-political convenience and carries no emotive force with it. 

This approach of dealing with the overlap, not merely leaves a huge  emotional vacuum for exploitation by various vested interests, it also puts people like Mr. Tharoor in a peculiar double bind, because they are unable to take any cogent stance in respect of our collective cultural heritage. Thus on one hand Mr. Tharoor wants epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata to be treated as non-religious texts which should be taught in our schools, but simultaneously castigates Doordarshan for telecasting them and contributing to the Hindutva agenda.

There is no way we can remain connected with our heritage without gracing our Hinduness, because a large part of our epics, mythology, cultural symbols, architecture,  art forms, etc. have a strong stamp of Hinduness. Similarly in order to infuse our notion of national identity, with emotive force, we are forced to fall back on Hinduness, because it lives within us ,irrespective of our religious affiliations,  and provides the invisible thread which connects this diverse and pluralistic society. 

While the Hindutva brigade commits the error of not differentiating between Hinduness and Indianness, people like Mr. Tharoor err by disassociating them. Neither approach helps us in pursuing our cherished goal of “Unity in Diversity” In the first scenario, diversity is sacrificed and all that we are left with is a hegemony in the name of unity. In the second scenario, the invisible thread of Hinduness, which holds us together, is forgotten and all that we are left with is a soulless, incoherent melee in the name of diversity.

Unresolved Feelings about Hinduness

It is indeed not easy to acknowledge the overlap between two constructs without confusing them with each other.  What makes it even more difficult for us is the strong religious associations with the term Hindu and the host of unresolved feelings around our Hinduness.  For a variety of reasons, the followers of Hindu religions have carried a strong sense of stigma, shame and feelings of victimisation. These are either discharged through hyper aggressive reactivity or compensated through a self-image of hyper graciousness( we are tolerant, inclusive welcoming, non-violent etc.) The Hidutvawadis try and exploit the sense of victimhood and injury, whereas the likes of Mr. Tharoor appeal to the innate graciousness of the Hindu identity. The  ill effects of  stoking the victimhood are well known but ironically the appeals to graciousness are not likely to work either. This is so because graciousness and victimhood become two sides of the same coin- “We have suffered because we are too gracious” kind of syndrome.  Hence the more we exaggerate the gracious side of Hinduness, the more we will fuel the sense of victimhood, and the greater will be the counter reaction in terms of crude aggressive “show of strength”  

The followers of non- Hindu religions have their own set of difficulties . Often,the fear of being swallowed and losing their identity, makes it difficult for them to embrace their innate Hinduness.  Also, they have a clearer and tighter religious organisations, which do not always sit well with the “open-ended and fluid” notions of religiosity associated with Hinduness. This creates a conflict of loyalties for them. Their innate Hinduness pulls them towards an open ended approach, but it also leaves residual discomfort/guilt about betraying their religious doctrines. Additionally, there is sometimes a sense of superiority about the foreign ( and hence more advanced/progressive) origins of their religion and a wish to differentiate themselves from the heathen Hindu.

Another difficulty stems from the fear that any emphasis on either Hinduness or Indianness, will make us parochial and closed. This is particularly prevalent among a section of English educated urban elite, who see themselves primarily as “global citizens”. Their belief is that all social/cultural codings ( like race, gender, ethnicity etc.) create prejudice and stereotypes, and consequently prevent us from acknowledging the innate humanness which cuts across these differences.

I have a great degree of resonance with this perspective, but I also find it limiting. Human beings are not just autonomous entities but also relational beings. A large part of our identity ( a sense of who we are) stems from our belonging system (family, community, culture etc.) .Thus codings received from these systems have a significant impact on how we think, feel and act. When this impact is not acknowledged and graced, it either operates in a surreptitious manner or makes us rootless and alienated ,not just from our context but also from ourselves. It is true that often these codings become a burden and prevent us from thinking freely, but it is equally true that they are an integral part of ourselves. The more we fight them and deny them, the more virulent they become. It is only through acknowledging them, understanding them and gracing them, that we can go beyond them and release ourselves from their captivity.

To sum up, we can not escape the reality that beyond our differences of class, creed, religion, ethnicity etc. there is a shared invisible  cultural thread which holds this diverse society together. We also share a heritage which is largely ( though by no means completely) associated with the term Hindu. In this sense Hinduness  can be seen as an integral part of us. We may like it or hate it, but we cannot wish it away. This Hinduness deeply impacts the way we see ourselves as a nation. We can neither equate Hinduness with Indianness, nor can we disassociate them with each other. We simply have to learn ( both individually and collectively) to walk the tight rope of ” differentiation without disassociation ” However, this will only be possible if we first learn as to what does Hinduness really mean, and deal with our own unresolved feelings around it.  The more we get caught in the” victim-gracious ” binary , the more difficult our task will become.

 

 

 

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.