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Monday, August 19, 2013

Majoritarian Thinking

The World Bears Witness to its Destructive Outcomes

Sixty-eight years ago on August 6, American planes dropped “atom bombs” on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  This reprehensible act 0f the Harry S Truman administration is worth examining. Apart from the moral and humanitarian dissent against nuclear weapons, there also were strategic differences. Allen Dulles, who was CIA chief at the time, admitted in a candid television interview years later that he knew the Japanese wanted to surrender and had informed the administration. There were other influential voices, including one Gen Dwight D Eisenhower, ranged against the bombings.  President Truman and his advisers ignored them.

Truman’s motives were duplicitous: one, avenge Pearl Harbor and two, get a head start on the Soviet Union in the incipient arms race. Besides, the Democrats had been in office since 1933, having been elected for three successive terms under Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  So it was easy for Truman, who was sworn in after FDR’s death in April 1945, to ride roughshod over dissenting voices.

The allusion to this controversial decision is by way of drawing attention to a political phenomenon that is sweeping emergent democracies in Tunisia, in Egypt, in Russia, in Belarus; also in established democracies like Turkey and Hungary: that democracy is a winner-take-all system in which the majority can assert power without any concern for dissenters.

Majoritarian politics has prevailed in most Western democracies. Concepts like public order and national security have often triumphed over notions of privacy and human rights. We’ve seen the case of the US National Security Agency snooping on citizens; Swiss authorities confining asylum seekers to mountainside bunkers and restricting their movement.

Challenges to the majority principle first arose in the United States and the United Kingdom, where equal rights, racial discrimination and nuclear disarmament became central political issues, on which elections were won and lost. In both countries though, conservative leaders emerged to revive the Majoritarian agenda: in Britain, Margaret Thatcher and in the US, Ronald Reagan succeeded in restoring national security and free-market economics as the focus of public policy, steamrollering “bleeding heart liberals.”

In India, too, prevalent political winds are driving policy in the Majoritarian direction.  Hindu nationalists want to define India as a Hindu nation. On the other hand, India’s business barons want a Thatcher-Reagan style focus on business-friendly government policies.  Both support a Majoritarian order, in which policies are made without concern for alternative views.

Such hard-line thinking, notable for its deaf-blind approach to alternative streams of thought, can lead to serious breaches of national security. Witness the strife on the streets of Istanbul, Cairo and elsewhere. It happens also in the mature democracies of the West, though  a strong and effective security regime there simply overwhelms protest.   

Back in India, the current government seems to be aware of the ascent of Majoritarian forces. Given an inept security apparatus, it has allowed dissent full play. For that, it has been lambasted as being paralyzed, without vision, corrupt and inept. A lot of the criticism is noise; fact is, the ruling dispensation has been able to complete nearly two full terms and notch up some significant policy gains.

Negotiation and the art of compromise could help govern this diverse milieu of warring interests and rising aspirations. However, in India, as elsewhere in the world, intolerance is on the rise and people, bureaucrats and politicians articulate extreme positions on every subject from economic policy to foreign affairs, from urban governance to rural development.

One group of people feels the government’s policies in aid of the poor are profligate, pointing to “leakages.” Another group feels the government is not doing enough to help the poor; a third lot feel the government’s policies are a drag on the economy. This clash of perspectives has fueled public debate in India since Independence. Today, this is compounded by an immature opposition party that disrupts Parliament; a shrill media with opinionated and crusading journalists, obstructionist bureaucrats and a cynical citizenry.

The result is a pervasive sense of disaffection in which rational and mature opinions have been marginalized; in their place is a general disenchantment with politics and its practitioners. This sort of opting out has created space for champions of Majoritarian politics. They offer visions of decisive leadership with a sub textual rant against the “vermin,” religious, ethnic and ideological opponents.

Kemal Ataturk, the first president of Turkey, led the nationalist movement after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. He is credited with turning his Muslim majority country into a modern, secular democracy following the First World War. India had a parallel in Jawaharlal Nehru, who did something similar after the Second World War.  Ataturk’s Turkey and Nehru’s India are both under challenge today by advocates of Majoritarian politics.

An edited version of this article appeared in The Economic Times, August 17, 2013.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Livin' the Impromptu Life

On the Spiritual Roots of Loafing…

There is a deeply spiritual element in spurning ritual to do something completely different: it’s liberating, this idea that you can just go off the grid. Call it going AWOL. No permissions taken; no explanations provided. This is not about vacation or travel. There aren't any surveys or statistics to cite but it’s a pretty good guess that not everyone can or wants to do it. It is an attitude that for me has begun to take hold as I grow older. Maybe it stems from a growing awareness that in the end, everyone goes AWOL.

No; this is not a lament about growing old or a nervous look at death. On the contrary, it’s about life and joy and sensual pleasures; about the free spirit and the liberated mind that enables the impromptu life.

Periodic trips to Goa fall in that category. They let us explore the elasticity of time in which breakfast is on the table and every bite of buttered poi (Goan bread) with homemade jam satisfies so much you think you’ll never have lunch. Thinking of lunch while eating your breakfast is the impromptu state of mind in which minutes expand to fill an hour; the same minutes disappear in a fleet rush of seconds to leave you breathless, as you finish the clams or put down the book.

In the end, you become so embroiled in non-purposive activity that you lose track of time and begin to live on the wax and wane of nature: sunlight, moonlight, stars, dusk, dawn, rain, breezes, birdsong, rustling palms and the scent of the sea.

You lounge, you laze, go on long drives; read books and magazines all day or go to the beach and watch the Arabian Sea churn and roil in the Monsoon or gently roll at other times. You look for exciting new restaurants, cafes and watering holes; hook up with local friends and shoot the breeze late into the night; catch a movie at Panjim’s slick Inox cinema and in the auditorium, eat bhel instead of popcorn.

Eventually, when the sojourn draws to a close, you are refreshed and ready to look routine in the eye. That lasts a few weeks; then the soul begins to stir; your mind turns once again to the impromptu life in Goa and the serene experience of green rice fields, large rivers, lovely beaches, calamari, clams, shrimp and beer. So you go back again and spend another few days, unmindful of time. In that sense, it is a slice of immortality.

As you grow older and begin to see life’s finite horizon, such experiences gain in importance. You realize you may have done okay for yourself if, in your later life, you can indulge in such spiritual pursuits.  As you plan another journey into timelessness, thoughts hearken ahead to the new restaurant that’s just opened; succulent figs for breakfast; shrimp curry and rice for lunch; for dinner, chilly fry; dessert, custard apple ice cream; pickled green peppers in the fridge and the very dry vodka martini which their corns will flavor.

But wait…why can’t we disrupt routine more often? Is the impromptu life only available in Goa or some other such idyllic place? Of course not; it is a state of mind, as I recently discovered.

Having slept over at our house on a Sunday not too long ago, our granddaughter awoke early and climbed into our bed, making sweet sounds in her own dialect: “Wake up, sleepy head,” she seemed to be saying. My eyes opened and she smiled. I knew immediately then, Monday or not, there was no going to the office, no newspaper…even my tea remained undrunk.

Soon we were in the garden, chasing after birds and chipmunks. Of course, they disappeared; so we spent time scanning the skies and trees, whistling, gesticulating, making noises: trying to lure them back. Finally, the sapping heat got to me so we shifted the impromptu show indoors and went upstairs to sit directly in front of the air conditioner.

Then she happened on the remote control. Well, if we were going to watch TV, I felt Discovery HD was the best option for a stunning visual and learning experience. Except that we came upon the Cartoon Network while surfing…and lo and behold, it was the Tom and Jerry show, with Brahms’ Hungarian Dances as the soundtrack. So heads leaning together we watched as Jerry outwitted the cat every which way.

Another work afternoon, we took her to a playground in a nearby mall where she climbed up slides from bottom to top and ran around among the ingenious sprays that kept the place cool with their mist on a sultry day. Equally thoughtful were the soft cork board tiles that lined the playground…no scraped knees or elbows, no tears, no fears. Then last week, we took the time out of a weekday morning to take go swimming with her.

There was a time when even a half-hour delay in reaching the office would upset me. The pride and joy of my professional life was never missing a day of work, arriving early, leaving late. Things began to change when our house in Goa was ready to be occupied some dozen years ago.

Suddenly, a new appreciation of reality dawned: time isn't all about achievement. It’s about books read, movies seen, friends met, food enjoyed…or just sitting in an armchair, nodding off moments after flipping on the television set.

Years ago in a psycho-linguistics class, we learned the distinction between nominal definition, chair and operational definition, thing to sit on.  This disruption of ritual, which includes squandering of time and indulging in sensory pursuits, is living the impromptu life. The nominal definition is loafing.

The key is to let time wash over you; not watch over you and bind you with punitive schedules.