City City Bang Bang, Columns

Go against the grain

What if the UPA government started 2011 by awarding Atal Behari Vajpayee with a Bharat Ratna and if it did so with grace and without much prodding from the BJP? As a gesture, it is largely symbolic and carries few costs. Of all the people in the BJP, Vajpayee is surely the one person whose appeal cuts across party lines and who is a highly regarded statesman amongst the public at large. He has been a distinguished parliamentarian who conducted himself with dignity and discharged his responsibilities as the Prime Minister with honesty and skill. Even for those opposed to his politics, he was never a divisive figure and earned a certain amount of warmth from most sides. He is in the evening of his life and an award like this, when he is still amongst us, will be much more meaningful, than if it is given under pressure posthumously. It creates goodwill, without any great cost and sends out a signal that politics can rise above petty party considerations.

What if Arundhati Roy commended the state on something that she thinks it did right? Surely, even from the somewhat extreme vantage point from which she sees the world, she would have stumbled across some initiative of the government that met with her approval? By showing an ability to discriminate between right and wrong and good and bad, she would signal the fact that her opposition to the state is not unthinking and automatic but part of a discerning critique. As it stands, her statements now run the danger of being exercises in shrill tautology, for she is merely repeating herself with increasing lack of nuance. The absence of a desire to criticise selectively, makes her entire position meaningful increasingly only to those who already share her beliefs. For the rest, it becomes a predictable form of noise.

What if a TV channel showed us a sting operation where the politician or official being filmed refused to take a bribe? What if it brought us pictures of those who are still incorruptible and are offended when their integrity is questioned? To be sure, it is currently believed that stings exist only to point out the evil that lies hidden amongst but what if it uncovered the good that manages to survive the onslaught of moral corrosion? At a time when we are surrounded by scams involving virtually all sectors of society, would this kind of reporting not be potentially inspirational?

In all these cases, the suggested actions go against the grain of the parties involved. They try and create new possibilities by challenging the implicit assumptions that govern our sense of who we are. A big problem with most of the key issues facing us today are that the entrenched positions taken do not allow for any meaningful dialogue. Debates are mere re-statements of stated positions and the only result is noise or disengagement as has been the case with the Parliament. Without a willingness to be open to some merit in the other’s side’s case, and the ability to act against one’s own established mode of response, we create situations that do not allow for any change.

And we need change now like we have never done before. 2010 was a low point for civil society for any number of reasons. Given that whatever the difference in our worldviews, we share a common goal of creating a more just, transparent and prosperous society, it becomes important for different constituents of civil society to engage with each other and acknowledge any common ground that might exist between them. Solutions to intractable positions are virtually impossible without room being made to accommodate the other’s perspective, and this will come only when some empathy is shown towards the other.

A good example of what is possible comes from Nitish Kumar. He has single-handedly reversed the discourse on Bihar, and done so largely on the back of the transparent innocence of his intentions. By going against the grain of politics as it had come to be defined in the state, he has demonstrated an ability to bring about rapid change in a situation which most thought of as hopeless. It is striking that he is nuanced in his characterisation of both his allies and his opposition, a trait that allows him to keep a variety of options open and allows him room for manoeuvre that most political leaders do not have. He does not define himself in opposition to anyone else, and by doing so, escapes easy and fixed categorisation.

The court verdict on Babri Masjid is another case in point. Given that this is a vexed problem for which no solution is likely to be perfect, the unorthodox verdict went against the grain of justice defined technically, but in doing so, offered a rare opportunity for both sides to accommodate each other’s perspective. It is unfortunate, if not entirely unexpected that both sides, after an initial period of openness, have chosen to reject the solution but the principle that it is possible to create a new imagination even in a particularly complex issue does get illustrated well in this case.

A desire for solutions necessarily needs for us to understand why a certain person or group feel the way they do. Hardened positions create immovable deadlocks. Even symbolic communication that conveys an appreciation of the other side can create openings while arguments only serve to make things worse. It is an irony that we see so much being made of empty symbolism in today’s time and yet balk at using it creatively. We get agitated at perceived affronts to our image at a host of symbolic things- Gandhi’s personal belongings getting auctioned, a tennis star with her feet near the national flag, invitation to Pakistani players, the words used by President Obama to describe us and yet when it comes to deploying symbolism where it would be most powerful, we fight shy. Vexed problems need above all, a climate where both sides know that the intention is honourable all around. And for that one must be open to doing things that go against our grain

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