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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 14, March 29, 2014

Towards a Brave New World?

Wednesday 2 April 2014, by Uttam Sen

POLITICAL NOTEBOOK

The hurly-burly of elections is probably dimini-shing the thrust of changes in the national psyche, seeking coherence in a period of drift. The rationalisation is being forged with a fair bit of attention to detail. Discourse has been hitherto conducted along the accepted white line of the collective rather than the individual. Sociologists had been bemoaning the diminution of the individual in society, and flowing from that his/her perceptions of rights and responsibilities, values and choices, which had been set back by phenomena such as votebank and identity politics.

Yet the earlier hypotheses could be rebounding with the bulk of the purported 150 million new voters in the 2014 elections supposedly urban-oriented even when not actually located in the cities. Cosmopolitan grails such as individual incomes and independent nuclear households are subliminally eyed. The paradox is the yearning for collective solidarity, as in nationalism.

A relatively congruent context like the 150 million-odd with kindred goals and a world view spawned by the secular global culture of the information revolution could make a difference in future, in which the 2014 elections will be a marker of things to come. It befits the circumstances that ingenuity is emanating from diametrically opposite directions, or so it might seem. An acclaimed futurist like Alvin Toffler has noted our primacy in accessing know-ledge through information technology. It can be a defining aspect of our quality of life.

The eye-opening springboard has been the noticeable tendency among college students to dwell on national integrity and public ethics. They could well represent an exemplary cross-section, more thoughtful and articulate than the rule, but if it is youthful romanticism, the disposition could con-dition the generation in question. The apparent squabbling in political circles is creating doubt and apprehension about the future, as is an exceptional decade of kleptocracy and crony capitalism. A prying media picks up every possible detail, sometimes worrying the subject and bemusing the recipients of news.

But bad times could be universally drawing to a close. Both irritants could settle in a while. In the bargain the people blooded in political/civic consciousness could have their work cut out. Privy to the most phenomenal volume of information in the public sphere, their conclusions will elude most of us who have not undergone any corresponding experience in our formative years.

Their confidence and sense of responsibility owing to their numbers and trouble-shooting potential could play a role in constituencies throughout the country. Some samples of judgment are quite encouraging, for example, the commit-ment to vote on the merit of issues, a rejection of preferences based on caste or communal identity, an insistence on accountability from aspiring candidates, and an eye on keeping the country united, and so on. Admittedly some have already reposed their trust in a party or parties they think will deliver the nation from corruption and dissonance. But the effect of the rest would be important. There is no denying that many have been dulled rather than brightened by the availability of unprocessed information and its usage, and still others will act as stereotypical affiliates of the whole rather than a generational happening at the polling booth. So far no one has hazarded their impact in concrete terms, though their numbers are another first.

The initial part of the rationalisation was provided by the country’s most visible maverick political outfit which projected its pre-eminently anti-corruption agenda, got elected and formed a government, and tried putting theory to practice in an exercise that predictably concluded pre-maturely. The second part of the response seeking consistency with reason is coming in all shapes and sizes. One addresses the problem of jobs required, the living condition in cities and the measures required to absorb the countryside. Then there is a politico-economic approach, namely, vote in a leader and party in whom business (at home and abroad) and important institutions and governments have confidence, so that they can bring in the investment. This network will alleviate poverty and even cure the canker of communalism, it is argued.

Young people have visions of individual fulfilment within the fabric of a society and nation built on their combined synergy. Political parties in the business of putting across agendas to diverse principals from the electorate to their patrons, often walk their talk with astonishing resilience. The collateral implication is perhaps that the reinvented political party is as much an agency of business and realpolitik as group-oriented thinking, con-ceivably even more a universally applicable vehicle for adjustment and change in those spheres. That cross-cutting alliances can pit constituents for and against each other within an organisation and interest groups outside is probably on show at the moment.

For better or for worse, people today are less wary of off-the-cuff ideas than economic or political policies foregrounded in theory. Young people looking for good jobs and healthy living via vocational training or conventional education can find them through wisely chosen political representatives, a least one of whom is setting the benchmark in Bengaluru by financing himself through tax-paid income and promises to put in place systems which will meet his constituents’ requirements round the clock.

But when the priorities of the electorate (for example, governance, development) and potential investors (maximisation of profit) are not entirely compatible, bridging the gap can get difficult. Whether such considerations, and their post-election manifestations, will exercise the new voter’s mind is best not prejudged. But the foremost among them have the ability to make the fine-drawn distinction between circulated fact and fiction to determine the right choice.

The days of blind faith are gone, those who have been arraigned, and individuals accused of neglecting development on the ground, will be given the benefit of the doubt till proved wrong. But people (hopefully without age discrimination) keen to catch up with the business and technology of the day, yet sensitive to their own tradition, which for us includes indigence in some form or other, should feature in the choices the new generation will make. The concept of welfare to pave the way out of our impediments could survive. After all, compassion for the poor was an element even of Kautilya’s Arthashastra!

Deeply-embedded structural irregularities and resultant poverty are being addressed, sometimes with remarkable success, as in five anti-poverty schemes in 10 States. (‘Water for the leeward India’, Outlook, March 24, 2014) For example, tribals on both sides of the Rajasthan-Madhya Pradesh border remain miraculously alive after having been on the verge of starvation. They found a new lease of life on the Rajasthan side when the government took note of their plight and introduced the usual slew of anti-poverty programmes. Scrapping or undermining schedules on midday meals, the public distribution of essential items and integrated child development for imagined overall deficiency would be to live in denial of an inescapable reality and humanitarian predicament.

There may not be enough representatives to make the grade, reserving the space for the extension of practices sometimes developed in adversity, but the arrival of fresh blood would be registered in the quality of change. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World of latter-day omniscience could not guarantee fulfilment without addressing the human condition, the minimum response to which was an awareness of the larger perspective. A blank cheque for political discovery can help the discriminating young person of the future establish his/her set of attitudes.

March 28 Uttam Sen