Mainstream, VOL LIII, No 12, March 14, 2015
Change the People
Saturday 14 March 2015
by L.K. Sharma
In a message to the tax evaders, a frightening voice says: “We know it all! Every single transaction of yours! You can hide nothing!” Meanwhile, [‘Indians are getting more materialistic... Indian crowd celebrate newly elected politicians in Nagaon, 2013’. Diganta Talukdar/Demotix. All rights reserved.]
In a democracy called India, the people changed the government. The new government wants to change the people! Dissatisfied with their behaviour and conduct, it wants the motorists to follow traffic rules and men to respect women. It wants families to let the girl child live and be educated. Above all, it wants the people to clean up their towns and cities! The democratic government is not taking any draconian measures. It is using the power of persuasion through “public-interest” advertising. The ads urge the people to refrain from their normal unsocial behaviour that creates unsanitary conditions, affects public health and degrades the environment.
Immediately after his election, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called upon the people to remove garbage from public places. The Prime Minister himself wielded a broom and made some of his Ministers do the same. To ensure that leaders with the brooms are not spotted doing a token exercise, the party workers first spread the rubbish on the road before the TV cameras start running.
Some political leaders associated with the ruling party want to change the people in a more fundamental way. They want the people to change their faith! They are inducting batches of Muslims and Christians into Hinduism. Changing one’s faith is quite a fundamental transformation. Of course, the government is not involved in this mission nor can it be under the Constitution of the secular India. The Prime Minister himself has refrained from any sectarian appeal. He talks of “inclusive development” and wishes to take every
Indian with him on the road to economic nirvana.
The ruling BJP’s poll campaign did lead to the sharpening of religious identities and to the consolidation of the Hindu votes. Some leaders of the BJP’s extended political family hail Modi as “the first Hindu Prime Minister of India” and are trying to further freeze sectarian identities. This process was initiated by the ruling party years ago. Its success has been halting, thanks to India’s civilisational values, cultural diversity and country’s national DNA formed during the Gandhi-Nehru era.
Some leaders of the extended political family of Modi’s party are not bothered about the garbage in the lanes but want to remove the moral filth being spread by the bar-going women. When they find the government ignoring this menace to the “Hindu culture”, they themselves march to the bars and attack such women.
As a realistic politician, the Prime Minister knows that the removal of moral filth is difficult. Thus he is most eloquent talking of his Clean India Campaign. No previous Prime Minister ever personalised a Clean India Campaign despite V. S. Naipaul drawing the world’s attention to public defecation in India.
Some public interest ads are quite interesting. In one radio ad, film actress Vidya Balan is heard talking to flies. A woman asks her in disbelief: “Vidyaji, you are talking to flies!” The actress replies: “I have to, since you people don’t listen to me and stop public defecation. I am urging the flies not to sit on the human excreta so that you people are saved from diseases. The flies may listen to me!”
In another radio ad, the actress castigates the people who claim that their daughters and daughters-in-law represent the “honour of the family” but have no shame in sending them to defecate in the open!
Another radio ad features exchanges between a boy and a man who has renamed the members of the boy’s family. Each name indicates the kind of nuisance that person commits. The boy angrily asks why his mother is being called “Polyauntie”. He is told because she uses the polythene bags that are banned. Why his uncle is called “Thu-Thu Kumar”? Because he goes around spitting in public places. The ad gives new names to those committing even worse public nuisances.
The radio ads ask the listeners to shun the unethical investment companies and cheating shopkeepers. The consumers are asked to check the retail prices printed on items of purchase and their weight or measurement. The patients are told to check the expiry date before buying medicines. Visitors to public hospitals are told to avoid the pimps taking them to the private diagnostic centres! The buyers are told how to frustrate those selling impure gold or adulterated spices.
One radio ad says it all about the careless auto-rickshaw drivers who pack their vehicles with schoolchildren, endangering their lives. A mother tells the driver six things he should do and not do so that her son is deposited safely in the school!
Some ads warn the people against thugs. Other ads assume that the people are too smart. They evade taxes, demand dowry, and subject a pregnant woman to ultrasound tests with a view to killing the girl baby. In a message to the tax evaders, a frightening voice says: “We know it all! Every single transaction of yours! You can hide nothing!”
Some ads seek to help the helpless. In order to check the crimes against woman, the ads mention the police campaign against the road Romeos and predators broadcast the Helpline numbers. A depressed young man tells his friend that he wants to kill himself because his father will not allow him to marry the girl he loves. The friend gives him a Helpline number! A campaign against potential murderers tells the senior citizens living alone how to protect themselves. The visitors to markets and shopping malls are advised not to touch any unclaimed package.
The Election Commission of India also believes in the power of persuasion. Its radio ads urge the people to give up their favourite hobby of fault-finding and go and vote! “Your vote is your future.” A bolder ad alerts the voters against the defectors. A woman tells the voters that a candidate who was unfaithful to his party could not be faithful to his nation. A woman minister abuses those who do not support her party. A radio ad may have to request the campaigners not to abuse and not to threaten to kill the opponents.
Since the present Indian Prime Minister has a reputation for micro-management, this writer monitored three specific sites for assessing the impact of his Clean India Campaign. In Jaipur, the State Governor occupying the official mansion belongs to Modi’s party. The lane adjoining his Raj Bhavan continues to be used as a public urinal. In South Delhi, a wall running alongside a footpath is still being used for the same purpose.
And as the train approaches the outskirts of Delhi from Haryana, one still sees giant heaps of garbage dotted with pigs, dogs, cows and children. Only machines, not men, can move these mount-ains. No official agency seems bothered. The Prime Minister hopes that where the municipalities have failed, a few volunteers will succeed.
The dedicated volunteers cleaned up the blocked drains and footpaths in South Delhi but their work was undone in a couple of days by the people exercising the fundamental right to litter. During the election campaign, some critics portrayed Modi as another Hitler. Had he been one, the jails would be overflowing with those arrested for littering.
While persuasion fails, the economic policies and technology manage to modify human behaviour. When a modern car became available in India, the new owners became aggressive in their behaviour. Those driving the top-of-the-range cars feel greater contempt towards the pedestrians and drive recklessly. The mobile telephone’s contribution to women’s empowerment has been acknowledged.
Earlier, the economist-Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, wanted to awaken “the animal spirit” among the people. He need not have given this call. His economic policies had indeed awakened the animal spirit in a large section of Indians. Indians are getting more materialistic.
Margaret Thatcher’s social engineering experiment through economic policies showed encouraging results in Britain. She advertised the council house sales, promoted greed and changed the nature of the British people. Tony Blair unleashed an ad campaign to transform the old England into Cool Britannia locked in New Labour’s embrace.
It is easy to make the people greedier or nastier. But some old habits die hard. In India, those who throw rubbish on the road, spit on the walls or answer the call of nature standing on the footpath are unlikely to surrender their freedom.
Even stricter laws and stiffer fines fail to modify the behaviour of Indians. Empowered with the new money, they prefer to pay a hefty fine than stop at the red light. A city municipality deployed the rubbish-collection vans playing a recorded warning that those throwing paper tea-cups on the road will be fined 10 rupees! No one bothered and the outsourced rubbish collection service was withdrawn.
Where laws fail, can gentle persuasion succeed? Will a New Indian evolve through the force of the hidden persuaders? In a democracy, it is not so easy to change the people and make them do the right things. And India will never be a China!
The author is a senior journalist and writer who worked in India and abroad in several major newspapers. Now retired, he is a free lancer.