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.



The Mythical Majority

Whenever I hear the term Majority Community, I feel a little lost. I am not sure as to who does it include and who does it exclude? I presume that term is intended for people who are branded as Hindus, and since I am one such person it should include me. While I strongly resonate with the philosophical underpinnings of what are considered Hindu Religion(s) as also the way religiosity is engaged with in our civilisation, I am not a religious person, have very little faith in many of the practices which are followed in the name of Hinduism and most importantly, do not subscribe to the Varnashram- which is an integral part of most Hindu Religion(s). In fact so pervasive is the influence of Varnashram that it has been able to make significant in roads even in religions which are not supposed to be Hindu e.g. Sikhism, Islam, christianity etc. Keeping all this in mind, I do not know whether I should consider myself as a Hindu and whether or not I should consider myself  as part of the so-called majority community. Further, all my sectoral identities(based on caste,language, region etc) make me into a minority with varying degrees of strength. As a hindi-speaking person I am part of a significantly large minority and as a Punjabi Khatri Arya -samaji, a relatively smaller one. However, since I do not have any significant emotive pull towards my sectoral identities (except the linguistic one) I can not consider my self a minority either. Hence I am in this strange place where I can neither consider myself as part of the majority nor a part of the minority.

This see-saw of majority-minority had not been of any great significance for large part of my life. I had assumed rightly or wrongly that most of my other countrymen are in the same situation. I had assumed that we are a collation of minorities who have done a reasonably good job of living together. (please see my post on the principle of limited consensus) This had been made possible partly because of tightly defined codes of behaviour for social engagement(e,g. restrictions on who one can marry) which are neither feasible nor desirable in the present context. Simultaneously there was a philosophy of life and psychological orientation (what I call Indian-ness)  which helped us to live with differences. Unfortunately I see this fast eroding. I feel very sad about this erosion but I am not sure how my fellow countrymen feel about it. Hence here again I do not know whether I am part of the majority or the minority.

What I am most concerned about it is that in absence of the traditional ways of living together, how will these different minority groups relate with each other. In this context, even groups who claim to be the voice of the majority community are in fact only a minority. If they really believed that they represented the majority voice, they would not need to resort to the tactics which they do. What I see happening around me is heightened anxiety bordering on paranoia in every minority group, quick closing of ranks, a complete refusal to listen to others except to the extent of forging alliances. This process has surfaced very prominently in the last few days but it has been going on for a considerable period of time. Thus  strife has come to define the basic relationship between minority groups and all co-operation is for the purpose of fighting a common enemy (the principle of enemy’s enemy being a friend) In today’s newspaper I was horrified to see the expression of “ideological war” being attributed to Sh. Arun Jaitely . I do not know whether he actually used the term, but his statement certainly had a win-lose flavour. If people who are supposed to integrate, synthesise and hold the total picture, talk in terms of a win-lose language, then we are in deep trouble. Let me also point out that Mr. jaitely is no exception in this regard.Most others (including the so-called liberals) have been doing the same thing.Several people who are talking today of the need to protect the right to dissent, have had no problems with crushing dissent when it suited them. This is  an inevitable consequence of forging alliances on the basis of animosity towards a common enemy. Today the minority group which wants religious/cultural hegemony has made a convenient alliance with another minority group which wants to convert India into Singapore,and found a common enemy in the liberal left. . I am sure in time there contra-pulls will surface and a new set of alliances/enemies will emerge. Similarly groups which have come together on the basis of their animosity towards the Sangh Pariwar will also have to deal with their animosity towards each other. The central point I wish to make is that when anxiety/paranoia of being a minority is fuelled then all relatedness gets determined by strife and animosity.

The win-lose paradigm seems to have now gone beyond the main actors and infiltrated among all of us also.Thus I find that it is becoming extremely difficult to talk to anyone on these issues without taking sides. The kind of mails a person reads, forwards, likes ,comments upon has a distinct stamp of which side the individual is on. Most of the writings of intellectuals  have a clear one-sided position. Even those who claim to provide a “balanced view” are only using relatively moderate language and taking extra effort to sound “reasonable”, though their basic position is the same as that of the group that they represent. The comments posted are close-ended and made from frozen positions. Any attempt to explore/raise questions (as I have sometimes tried to do) remains un-responded . I wonder whether anyone is really interested in a dialogue or do we only want to fight-sometimes in tones which sound reasonable and sometimes in loud/shrill and abusive ways.  I am afraid, in absence of dialogue, the anxiety of being a minority will push every group into forging a mythical majority with continual strife and hostility

I would very much like to hear how you have experienced the majority-minority dynamics for yourself and in the larger context


Indianness – In Search Of A Narrative

Indianness – In Search Of A Narrative

One fall out of the present crisis linked to the JNU issue is that it has brought to the surface a significant question as to what does it mean to be an Indian? Large part of this discourse is around meaning of Nationalism. However constructs like Nationalism have to be contextualised. Meaning of Nationalism for a country which has a long history of uninterrupted Nationhood and which consists of people who belong to the same race, language, religion etc. can not be the same as in case of a plural society with huge diversity and at best a sporadic history of Nationhood.


I am not a student of history and can not comment about the competing accounts regarding constructs like Aaryavrata, Akhaand Bharat etc. All I can say with a reasonable degree of confidence is that in 1947 when we came together as a nation, our primary anchors of belonging were more sectoral (based on province, language, religion etc.) than national. Thus at that time it was not uncommon in Punjabi households to use the term hindustani for people in U.P. The official clarion call was to transcend our sectoral belonging, embrace a national identity and participate in the task of building a fair, progressive, equitable and secular society. However the notion of what this Indian identity was remained abstract and could at best be linked with what we wished to become rather than who we were. The end result was that the Indian identity got split into two parts-one part was what my friend Raghu Ananthnaraynan calls the “ urban, english speaking, featureless, odourless, colorless Indian” who has no link with either his heritage or his context. In many ways this part of ourselves is very much like what Macaulay wanted us to become. The other part remained deeply entrenched in the sectoral identity ( and its associated fears, anxieties and prejudice) and mechanically adhered to all its prescribed ways. This split was inevitable since we had a narrative for our sectoral identity, we had none for our national identity. The only way we can deal with it is by building a meaningful narrative of being an Indian which resonates with us both emotionally and intellectually. A narrative which we feel/think understands who we are and who we wish to become.

Continue reading “Indianness – In Search Of A Narrative”

Principle of Relative Consensus

Principle of Relative Consensus

In India it is almost impossible to have everyone agree on anything. We have our opinions on virtually all matters- whether or not we know anything about the issue is of little consequence. Thus the good old Addas ( an expression used in Kolkata for gathering of friends in street corners, tea shops, verandas etc. where there is endless discussion on local/ national/international affairs, politics, sports, films, literature, religion and spirituality etc. etc. ) are extremely colorful spaces with high decibel levels and heated exchanges of both ideas and feelings. Invariably, these Addas do not lead to any final outcome. Nor do they end with bitter acrimony. They usually end when they reach a point which all parties can “live with” and are willing to give up/postpone their need to establish the supremacy of their view point.

I have come to believe that this is the only viable way of living with differences in the Indian context, if we wish to retain our ethos of diversity and plurality. I have called it the principle of relative consensus i.e. some thing around which there may not be complete consensus but something that every one can live with. This is fundamentally different from the concept of “majority rule”. Majority rule is a quantitative construct whereas the principle of Relative Consensus has a strong qualitative dimension.Let me illustrate the difference with a help of an example. Continue reading “Principle of Relative Consensus”

Feats of Self Destruction

Feats of Self Destruction

I am a compulsive gambler and I have lost a small fortune (by my standards) in this pursuit. One of my significant learning has been that there is a common pattern to all my significant losses. They all begin with a winning streak and my taking winning as my birth right,, followed by a reversal of trend, followed by my intense rage, desperation and recklessness, followed by a state where I “stake it all “ in a spirit of “all or nothing” and eventually getting “cleaned out”

I find a remarkable similarity between this process and what I see happening in the country today. First let us look at the Modi Sarkar. It started with a strong winning streak, not just in terms of electoral results but also with the hope and enthusiasm that got generated on several fronts. Soon the trend began to reverse with gradual disillusionment. The tipping point I think was the defeat in Delhi elections. Ever since the government seems to have been in a state of directionless desperation. The present crisis around JNU captures the entire process very well. It started with what seemed like a victory for the Government against its arch-rival (usually described as liberal, secular left) and more importantly providing it a platform from where the passion could be raised in the name of Bharat Mata rather than only Hindu religion. However it over-stetched itself and through manipulated evidence did a “self side goal”. Ever since, its reactions are becoming increasingly mind –boggling. One would expect that in a situation like this the government will try to diffuse the situation rather than escalate it. Hence inaction of police at Patiala court, Ms. Irani’s histrionics in the parliament, tacit support to people who wish to see the issue in terms of Nationalism and disapproval of those who see it in terms of liberalism and veiled threat of charges of sedition against all and sundry, suggest a state of panic. I will not be surprised if in not too distant a future it reaches a point of no return and where it will find itself compelled to “stake it all” in a mother of all battles. Continue reading “Feats of Self Destruction”