Ideas for India: Three essential debates

 

I spent the last week at the Ideas for India conference in London. This conference had different strands, and brought the diaspora Indians, India watchers and a number of delegates from India together. 

Because Rahul Gandhi chose to attend - a rather last minute thing which changed the published agenda somewhat - the media narrative revolved around his 40-odd minutes of talk. And, of course, a sense of discomfort hung over the whole conference: A wholly new thing for me and it shows how much India has changed. Somehow, the people in India seemed to think that no conversation about India should happen anywhere else in the world, a strange thing for a country which is anxious to assert its global importance. Additionally, anything outside the official channel is seen as conspiracy. Gone are those days when the presumptive opposition candidate, the current Prime Minister, could freely interact with the diaspora Indians and slam Dr Manmohan Singh's lack of initiative; today, this would be considered treasonous.

Therefore, the whole conference was conducted within an atmosphere of fear, and every person, however impartial, could sense the same. This was perhaps my first take-away: The space for discussion about India is rather limited.This also provides an answer to another question: Why was this being held in London? It was rather clear that this could not have happened in India without turning into a full-blown political event, which it was not. The very fact that a Higher Education minister from a BJP ruled state could address an audience with opposition leaders on the National Education policy was testimony why this could only happen outside India. Besides, there were many discussions about UK-India cooperation, India's climate goals and the Free Trade Agreement (UK's Chief negotiator spoke at the dinner), which necessitated a London venue.
 
However, none of this was reflected in the media coverage the event received afterwards. The censorship came not from the State, but the media acting on its behalf. Stories that came out twisted bits of speech under purposeful headlines hinting at conspiracies and unleashed hate speech and memes in equal measure. It was clear that the danger to free speech emanates from the media, rather than the politicians, who are often endearingly incompetent.

But there were other conversations, debates and questions which were far more interesting than those which drew the headlines. Speakers did not agree with one another, creating the most interesting moments for those who were actually listening. Sometimes, the speakers invoked ideas without fully exploring it at first, without realising that their superficial inanity made the opposite point stronger. And sometimes, probing questions from the moderators opened the Pandora's box, unleashing trouble but, at the same time, hope that there could still be a future of conversation in India.

For me, there were three such moments, which I reflected on below. I did not get answers, but then I was not looking for answers; but the unleashed questions I came away with were made all of this worthwhile. 

Celebrity vs celebral politics
 
First, there was this question about how could a democratic opposition function if their preeminent party isn't democratic itself. This was a question, ably raised by the moderator to a senior leader of Indian National Congress, evidently about the dynastic nature of the party's leadership. The answer given was rather superficial and predictable: That the structure of the Indian society somewhat makes it necessary! Look at Bollywood, Indian businesses and media - dynasties are everywhere, the leader said! Of course, that was the wrong answer and the Indian Prime Minister, who came with no lineage, is the greatest counter-example. This answer also misses the point: The problem is really elsewhere and all parties equally indulge in it. I am talking about the culture of personalities - celebrity culture - that has taken over all conversations about India. No one talks politics in India, they just talk about personalities. What's called tabloid in Britain is usually mainstream media in India. In fact, the conference and its coverage were examples of just that, how we love to talk about personalities only! The celebrity culture ultimately destroys democracy, as it is doing in Britain now. This, rather than the dynasties, is the problem, and indeed, it is a more education and media problem than anything else.

Duties vs rights
 
Then, there was a moment when a panelist berated the Home Minister of India for saying duties come before rights. Such an inverted priority would indeed be sacrilege for the political left, whose politics since the French Revolution was been built around political rights. However, such obsession with rights have led them to succumb to identity politics, the indugent political equivalent of self-destruction button! The clever Indian Home Minister is actually one step ahead in this debate here: Duties unite whereas rights fragment, and he is dog-whistling majoritarian politics as effectively as one could ever hope for. But there is a bigger issue at stake here than electoral politics of first-past-the-post. 
 
For all my sympathies for the marginalised, I would find myself even morally agreeing with the primacy of obligations over rights. As Simone Weil said, obligations come first because rights are what we give to each other. If I become, by some freak accident, the only person alive on the earth, I  would have no rights because there would be no one to give me the rights, but I would still have obligations, including those to myself. A society can't be built on rights but only on obligations. Once the society is formed, it can grant rights to its members.
 
Connectivity vs equality

Finally, there was a brief and enlightening moment of disagreement between two speakers on the podium. This one was about equality. One of them, a technocrat, believed that hyperconnectivity changes everything, including the political paradigm we live in. The other, an erudite and thoughtful political leader, stated the quest for equality would still be at the heart of policy-making, no matter what. 
 
But hyperconnectivity does indeed change everything. Equality of what, one would ask, when technical reality makes possible a different kind of society where multiple life-objectives can successfully coexist? 
 
Don't get me wrong: I am not suggesting that a selfish society is good and we should deny people basic health care, education or unemployment benefits. I am rather envisioning this in the context of universal basic income, which a robot-tax in a hyperconnected world may make possible. Would equality still remain the key objective? We have to accept that human beings are constitutionally unequal, not just become some people are fairer, taller, prettier, more intelligent or more hardworking than others, but also because we want different things. Human dignity, freedom to live one's own life, freedom from oppression would surely trump equality as the key political goal, and even more so in a hyperconnected world.

Sadly, the reports coming out of the conference have not considered such issues worthy of mention. Rahul Gandhi's presence has dominated the coverage, perhaps appropriately for the celebrity-obsessed nation. The bits that were meaningful in his speech - like, his observation that the usual economic policy levers, designed for a US-dominated world, stopped working after the great recession - got no attention whatsoever.

In the middle of all this, I have achieved one thing for myself. Carlo Ginzburg said, "the country one belongs to is the country one is ashamed of." I got a country now.

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