City City Bang Bang, Columns

Of hungry angry progress

On a city road, the smallest cars seem to have the most powerful engines, if the alacrity with which they zip between spaces real and imaginary and the ominousness with which they breathe down the fenders of other cars is any indication. Traffic on Indian roads puts messrs Higgledy and Piggledy to shame, as every vehicle strains to fulfill its highly individualistic dharma through unremitting acts of disorderly karma. To call the driving reckless would be inaccurate, for to be reckless one presumably needs to understand what the heck reck is in the first place, and there is no real evidence of that. Indian roads are full of angry, fuming beasts armed with too much power and too little sense, straining to get somewhere an inch early.

The combination of power and agility packed densely in vehicles of small sizes that the Japanese and the Koreans in particular have conferred upon us, has meant that speed of a frightening kind has been granted to us, people who neither have prior experience of it nor have the means or desire to learn how to control the new found power at their command. Anyone can get a license easily without actually learning how to drive decorously, or in fact learning how to drive at all, and there is virtually no effective policing or punishment once one gets behind the wheel and lets rip. The result is the creation of a loud, angry unregulated space where no rules are followed and the strong, aggressive and slightly unhinged have their way.

This set of circumstances is a larger pattern that we can see across many areas in India today. Media jumps to mind, particularly the relatively newer forms like television and social media, where the power of the medium is utilized at full throttle, its neck veins bulging all the 24 hours that is awake. Television is an orgy of caffeine, consumed without sips for that would mean a temporary lull. For things to work, it would seem that they need to be souped up, juiced up, hallucinogenically colourful, celebrity-infested, Yo-Yo Honey Singh or Mika Singh soundtracked, eye candy peppered masala laden extravaganzas bulging with tautology. In other words, IPL.

Social media is another such space where the power to throw out one’s opinion into the world and particularly direct it at those that have got used to wielding the microphone is a heady one. So heady that it has increasingly become a space where largely extreme and endemically nasty opinions abound. To be fair, this is true in many other parts of the world, but in India, this has spilled over into other facets of life where having an opinion is becoming synonymous with the closing of the mind to any other possible way of seeing things. The first reaction to an opinion one may disagree with is extreme and often abusive; things don’t escalate, for they begin at the highest pitch.

Affluence too has powered the lives of those it has touched in ways that often take on an unseemly hue. Aggressive consumption, a lack of empathy for those without the means, a sense of entitlement that believes that the world must give way to all desires that they might become possessed of, have become characteristics that can be seen all too often.

Democracy is the most powerful engine of all, and all it has to channelize its potent power is the political system as it exists today. Increasingly imagined through the lens of power rather than through what the power is meant to achieve, it has in the last few years become a self-serving instrument for those in or even around the driver’s seat. The more democracy becomes about fulfilling the desires of those that can help form electoral majorities rather than about connecting some larger ideals with the hopes and aspirations of people, the more it ends up reinforcing things as they are rather than fighting for things as they should be.

In times when change is discontinuously fast, the gap between the power available and the mechanisms created to govern its use become untenably large. A consequence of this is that this power, free from considerations of any obligations it might have to a larger collective, then tries to fix the system so that the absence of responsibility can become a permanent feature. The imbalance it creates becomes its primary justification, for it becomes virtually impossible to correct given that all elements of the system become subordinate.

Without investing in institutions in all walks of life, that help convert power into meaningful performance, things cannot change. Top line growth provides energy but does not by itself distribute it across the system in a way that changes things in a fundamental way. It only increases the imbalances that exist. Given that the older mechanisms of self-regulation have either faded or been rendered irrelevant given the nature and speed of change and the newer ones thwarted by the interests of those with too much power, we now find ourselves in the midst of too much legislation without effective regulation.

A visit to a developed country was once a reason to get really depressed so wide were the disparities between there and here. Much has changed, but there is something about the quietness of affluence there, the air of ease that surrounds everyday life, the certainty that pervades interactions with the smallest institution and of course, the relative sobriety on television that makes one more than a little envious. Not because India does not have those, but because it does not seem likely that India will have those any time soon. We could well match those countries in terms of power, affluence and influence for conceptually, that is in our line of sight but making peace with our progress seems a long way in the distance.