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Thinkers at Jaipur Literature Festival hope for a better political discourse

Eminent Indian and international thinkers shared their varied views on the present wave of change in India's political climate. In the run-up to the 2014 General Election, the discussions centered on the challenges facing the country and the priorities for the prospective political leadership. A report on the six ‘Democracy Dialogues’ sessions at the Jaipur Literature Festival.

type=box-article;; position=right;; articleid=5630624;; As India gears up for one of its most challenging elections to the Lok Sabha in 2014, glimpses of a poet’s hope for innovative solutions to the nation’s varied political issues unfolded at the six-odd ‘Democracy Dialogues’ sessions at the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF).

The political dialogues during the five-day festival in the Pink City, which ended on January 21, were aimed to capture the pre-poll dynamics that were at play as the many voices and multiple narratives of eminent thinkers and writers came to the fore at these sessions.

The thirst for a political alternative, and the need to look at larger socio-political issues, “sidestepping the bias and prejudice of traditional party lines” as JLF’s Director, Namita Gokhale put it, was unmistakable. However, Delhi’s Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) turned out to be a thorny reference point at almost all these political sessions.

Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen came up with a seven-point wish-list for the nation’s welfare from ‘high above the clouds’ in an outstanding keynote address at the inaugural session, in which he allegorically rode piggy-back on India’s latest space pride, the GSAT-14 communication satellite. But even he could not ignore the AAP. Emphasising that the party had skilfully used the opportunities given by India’s democracy, he struck a note of caution saying that the new party still had a “lot to learn about on what their programmes should really be.”

Prof. Sen, known for his left-wing views, took the large audience by surprise expressing a political wish that India should have a strong and flourishing right-wing party that is secular and not communal somewhat like Minoo Masani’s Swatantra Party of the 1960s, even while wanting the Left parties to get stronger with more “clear-headed” priorities. The Nobel Laureate was even more candid about the AAP at a conversation with the scholar John Makinson later that afternoon.

‘Indian Democracy has Improved since Globalisation’: Meghnad Desai

M.R. Venkatesh

Ever candid, and unafraid to be irreverent in questioning ideas and received opinions, the Indian-born British Economist, Lord Meghnad Desai, continues to be happily defiant in his just-released new book, Who Wrote the Bhagavad Gita? – A Secular Inquiry into a Sacred Text, described as a humanist critique of the Gita.

A recipient of the Padma Bhushan and a member of the British House of Lords, the distinguished Emeritus Professor of Economics at the London School of Economics, took time off on the sidelines of one of his sessions at the seventh Jaipur Literature Festival to speak to The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy on several issues, even as scores of young autograph seekers swarmed around him.

Excerpts from the interview with M.R.Venkatesh:

The Hindu Centre: As we approach the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, do you feel Indian democracy is maturing as a coalitional polity or getting more vulnerable and fragmented?

Meghnad Desai: I think there are two separate questions there. You see democracy maturing (in India). Whether a matured democracy is measured by a coalition government or a single party government, is irrelevant. You know most European countries have coalition governments. So, having a coalition government is not a sign of immaturity. Democracy, when it is confident, will throw up any result which reflects the diversity of opinion among the people. Because we have a first-past-the-post system, coalitions are even more difficult to achieve and that shows that there is no single agreement about political ideology in the country. And that’s a healthy sign.

Is technology and economic globalisation today posing a greater threat to democracies, particularly South Asian democracies, than in the past?

No, no. Globalisation is good. Indian democracy has improved since globalisation.

Corruption had become a major issue of electoral politics, Prof. Sen acknowledged, and remarked that it was “wonderful” how the AAP in Delhi could appeal to the people’s sense of grievance over this issue. But it was possible, thanks to the “credit of the Indian voters,” he was quick to add.

Prescient about what New Delhi was to witness a few days later, when some AAP Ministers battled with the police on the streets, Prof. Sen said, “if you come to office, you need to know what to do.…They [the AAP] must think more clearly who the Aam Aadmi [are],” and “while we cheer the AAP, they must also think far more clearly”, he added.

The Governor of Rajasthan, Margaret Alva, in her inaugural address, recognised the need to address the rich-poor divide, amid an impatient and angry youth demanding more jobs and a new social order. If that was an oblique allusion to the AAP phenomenon, the Governor also made clear that such issues needed to be discussed with greater sophistication and depth, hoping the JLF, as the ‘Kumbh of Literature’ would enable such a process.

Eminent sociologist Dipankar Gupta, who taught at the Jawaharlal Nehru University for nearly three decades, saw the current political dynamics from an altogether different perspective of citizenship at another political session ‘Citizen Elites: The Dominance of the Privileged’. For him, the AAP was still in its first phase as a movement with ripple effects, concerned with just one or two demands. The larger issue was that it was “time we give ourselves citizenship; if democracy is only about votes, I am not interested in it; Without a vision, there is no point in asking for votes,” he asserted.

Politics for positive change

Manvendra Singh, a former Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP recently elected to the Rajasthan Assembly, whose austere Rajasthani turban was a sartorial statement in itself, and the self-effacing but firm political leader from Bhutan, Lily Wangchhuk, could not agree more with the sociologist on the big picture. “It is true that people want something tangible, and politics is the best platform to bring about positive transformation,” said Ms. Wangchhuk. But that by itself is insufficient to imbibe the best democratic practices, she underscored. Mr. Manvendra Singh emphasised that the challenge across the political spectrum was to have a certain vision accepted by a large number of people. But “that critical mass of politicians is not yet there,” he rued.

More challenging issues were to emerge at another ‘Democracy Dialogues’ panel which discussed ‘Why India Votes’, also the title of the latest work by Mukulika Banerjee, Director, South Asia Centre and Associate Professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). There are barely 100 more days to go for the Lok Sabha elections, with 720 million voters to exercise their franchise in eight million polling stations across the country, with the average size of an Indian Parliamentary constituency being 20 times larger than its UK counterpart.

Dr. Banerjee, who has worked in a village in rural Bengal for the last 15 years tracking this political dynamic, posed her own counter-question. “The title of my book must rather be ‘why the hell do we vote’?” she said. Her research found that several factors accounted for high voter turnout in polls in recent decades, one of which, interestingly, was that “peer pressure of the ink mark is enormous”. If you have not voted on polling day, a special occasion when every citizen feels he or she matters, the indelible ink mark on the fingers of the early voters goad others to head towards the polling booth.

So, it is always the aam admi who decides which party should rule the country, despite all the non-performance and corruption of incumbent governments. But the coming election still has its puzzles. Mr. Manvendra Singh, who shared the dais with Dr. Banerjee, remarked that while past voting patterns showed marked different voter-preferences for the Assembly and national elections, the coming polls would answer whether the recent State Assembly elections would decide the Lok Sabha poll outcome as well.

“The 2014 polls are a real big challenge to those who say they understand the Indian system,” Mr. Manvendra Singh said, indirectly hinting that no party, including the BJP under the leadership of Mr. Narendra Modi, could be complacent. “In [the] 2004 Lok Sabha elections, nobody expected the NDA to lose,” pointed out senior journalist-turned-author, Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, whose recent biography on Modi has come in for wide notice. What Mr. Modi pursues is “the politics of prejudice”, observed the author.

It was a “bundle of motivations” that psychologically drove the ordinary voters, Dr. Banerjee opined. Without naming the AAP, she said that the shift now seen to be occurring in the Indian polity from a “representative democracy to a participatory democracy” largely stemmed from people being furious about non-performance of elected governments. “They want a larger participation; how you involve the aam admi (in this) will decide the shift to participatory democracy,” she summed up.

The AAP’s tactics again caught the attention of learned scholars and writers at the session on ‘India at the Crossroads’, chaired by the Emeritus Professor of Economics at LSE and Labour peer, Lord Meghnad Desai. They crossed swords on the big issue of corruption. Desai hit the nail on its head when he argued that economic liberalisation had brought “huge monies” at stake, making the temptation (which is not always money) even more for the political and the bureaucratic class. But the things that parties like the AAP want to do “may be different” insofar as they see stopping “petty corruption” as a good in itself. For, most citizens are hit more by the daily hafta (extortion money) than the huge kickbacks politicians got.

Not so, in the view of Sunil Khilnani, Professor of Politics and Director at the King’s India Institute at King’s College, London. “It is not petty corruption; it is a felt corruption, whether it is to get a water connection or a power connection,” he countered at that absorbing session. The “civic vigilantism” of parties like the AAP is an “important tool” to use laws, including the Right to Information Act, to hold public authorities to account, he argued.

Batting for the influence that petty corruption had on the public psyche, John Elliot, a New Delhi-based foreign correspondent and author said: “But people would not have come out if not for petty corruption,” Moreover, the supply side of corruption, namely the politicians who want money, should also be tackled alongside curbing “petty corruption”, he emphasised.

Former diplomat-turned-author, Pavan Varma, in another political session on ‘Democracy and People’ bemoaned the complete lack of transparency in the finances of political parties and the progressive criminalisation of politics. Former Chief Election Commissioner, Navin Chawla, was a trifle more generous to the AAP experiment. Asserting that two major problems confronting the nation were the powers of muscle and money, Mr. Chawla attributed the emergence of the AAP to the quick connectivity that has come with the telecommunication revolution in the country. “The AAP has shown that a clean election, with no caste, no criminals, is possible,” he said. Yet, all the ‘Democracy Dialogues’ at the JLF left the AAP’s future open-ended.

The political ramifications of a democratic polity spilled over in non-political sessions as well. The well known American feminist, Gloria Steinam passionately argued that the quality of democracy was not tied only to economics by any means, a case in point being prostitution which was basically “a function of inequality of various kinds in society”. Tamil poet Salma reflecting on her session, ‘Burdens of Identity’, called for more translations of literary works between Indian regional languages for better understanding “that helps us go beyond our respective regional linguistic identities” and towards an Indian identity.

Joseph Koyippally, an English Professor from Kerala, pondering over the plight of the Malayalee diaspora in the Gulf countries, as portrayed in a recent award-winning Malayalam novel Adu Jeevatham (Goat Days) by Benyamin, lamented that there was no industry in Kerala to give local employment to its people. The caste system was another factor influencing migration from Kerala, he said. If a State or a country has to export its human resource in such large numbers, “there is something wrong with our policy making,” he added.

In the cold winter at the Pink City, this edition of the JLF saw no major controversies at the sessions hosted simultaneously at six venues spread across the premises of the historic Diggi Palace hotel. Yet, for all the spiritual balm of soul-lifting Sufi music on the sidelines, there was a brief protest by about a dozen members of the Rajput Karni Sena against movie and television producer Ekta Kapoor for allegedly showing Rajputs in poor light in her TV show, ‘Jodha Akbar’. These were some sideshows, however, to the main narratives that touched upon the various genres of literature, workshops that engaged the attention of the young and the old, and, of course, the intensely debated political narratives.

The essence of these political discourses was best captured by what the poet, Paro Anand, mused while penning a poem with a young and cheerful group at the festival: “melting barriers, carving ideas”. One measure of the impact of these ‘Democracy Dialogues’ at the JLF would be the finding of a common ground at a political level to make citizenship meaningful. The need to do so in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha election would substantially increase the quality of India’s political discourse.

*A photo caption in this article has been corrected.

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