THE CURSE OF INTERESTING TIMES
There is an old Chinese curse - may you live through interesting times! The curse seems to be odd at first sight. Apparently, everyone would like to live through interesting times rather than through dull, boring, uninteresting times. Yet, what should be a blessing is called a curse. Either, the ancient Chinese, in spite of all their wisdom did not know some basic facts of life or we need to understand the fundamentals of life better.
Past few months in India have been very interesting. Tehelka, Agra Summit, Share scandal, UTI fiasco, Phoolan murder - enough material to keep newspaper printing presses busy and the modern byte-collectors happy. Analysts of all sorts are having a field day. TV channels running 24 hours a day, billions of pages beautifully illustrated with semi-nude women - are churning out so much analysis that one is indeed surprised at the capacity of the Indian mind to digest such huge quantity of intellectual fodder. Albert Camus wrote in his book "The Fall" - "When future historians have to write about modern man, they will write that he read newspapers and fornicated. And once that is said there will be nothing more left to be said." Possibly, while describing modern Indian man, future historians would just need to add that he saw television.
Political activity in India seems to be a comedy played for feeding the insatiable appetite of television channels and newspapers. Everything is judged in terms of the games of viewership and readership. Media is angry with the Government of India for not co-operating during Agra Summit. Most journalists in Delhi are highly critical of Vajpayee Government's handling of the summit. Almost without exception, the general consensus is that Indian Government should have 'managed' the media better. For the super-intelligent gents and ladies who can comment on every subject in the universe, the summit was a grand circus where one of the actors did not act sufficiently clownish. Naturally, the distinguished audience was disappointed.
The disappointment did not last long, since UTI's US-64 fiasco was just waiting in the wings and the icing on the cake was provided by Phoolan's murder. One should not, of course, forget the start of parliament session, the most expensive show on earth. To an outsider, it may seem grotesque to talk of everything from murder to parliament as a great photo-opportunity or as good raw material. But, to the ones who run the show and for those who provide raw material for the show, it is serious business.
All comedians think comedy is serious business and treat their comedy very seriously. So do the players of the Indian political arena. Their life hinges on being seen on the TV and being splashed on the front pages of newspapers every morning. Most of them would be even ready to risk their lives if the coverage was right. Almost without exception, they think their primary job as politicians is to be in headlines and the job of managing the country is at best an opportunity to make money and at worst a necessary evil.
No political party in India selects and trains its members / leaders to be good managers who can perform the job of governance efficiently. The job profile of a budding politician includes shouting slogans, garlanding leaders, participating in rallies etc., delivering lofty speeches, collecting donations, getting work done in government offices by hook or crook for friends or for those who are willing to pay for such services, forming groups and breaking groups, indulging in flattery, indulging in minor/major acts of bullying etc. Does any of these worthy acts involve any activity that prepares an aspiring young politician for a career in governance?
It cannot be overemphasized that the Indian political class lacks the skills essential for providing good governance to the country. Majority of the members of parliament do not know the difference between a bank and a mutual fund. There are cabinet ministers who have never read any law or any financial statement or for that matter any book (other than textbooks) in their lifetime. The incompetence and ignorance is well covered by arrogance and by media stories that create a larger than life image of the politicians. Media creates stars out of people, who are otherwise hollow and lack any qualities that can be called noble.
For example, in the past few weeks, media has gone gaga over the "savior of the downtrodden", ex-bandit-queen Phoolan. Her contributions to national well-being can be summed up as follows: a) killed twenty innocent persons in cold blood to avenge a rape (b) accumulated property worth hundred million rupees for which all her relatives are fighting. Instead of speaking the truth and demanding an enquiry into her accumulated wealth, the media and political class of India is falling over one another to pay homage to the great soul. Phoolan did not do anything for the downtrodden, but her life made an interesting story and her murder has made an even more interesting story. Being interesting can neither be a substitute for competence nor can it make someone moral.
India needs competence and morality in its ruling class, instead it has got a bunch of interesting people who make nice, juicy stories. It is however, not correct to blame only the political class. Sushma Swaraj, a great orator and at present a Cabinet Minister, was once heard remarking - "One cannot win elections by giving lofty speeches in the Parliament ; the days of great Parliamentarians are over ; now, one wins elections by attending marriage ceremonies and going for funerals." Sushma complained that on some days she attends as many as thirty marriages in an evening. A VIP attending a family function gives a good photo-opportunity for the family album and makes the VIP look so much like a family member. Good from the point of view of the family and helps the VIP keep his/her constituency intact. For a parliamentary constituency having more than five million population, this can mean a lot of marriages and funerals everyday. After attending all such personal functions and other public events, is it possible for a politician to devote any time to complex issues of national economy and governance?
Small personal interest of a nice photo in the family album, and such other small interests of the people at large take up all the time of any politician. It is almost impossible for any active politician to take time off for study, education and training. It can even be said that more often than not, the politician becomes a helpless pawn in the system rather than be a driver of the system as one would like him to be. He/she detests being looked upon as a performer, as a clown, as a dishonest person, but cannot help it. Most politicians including very senior ones are aware of the low credibility of a politician in India. Yet, they cannot do anything about it. Each one of them keeps playing the assigned part in the circus and keeps making interesting news for the morning newspaper and nine-o'clock news, gripped with insecurity that if he tries to play a different role, he will be thrown out of the circus.
Life outside the arc lights can be terrible for someone used to living in lights. The psychology of politician can be well understood, but understanding the mindset of the populace who drives these politicians is another matter. This is a problem of a contradiction between the collective psyche of a people and the psychology of individuals who make the society. As a nation, we would like to be well-governed by competent, honest, capable, visionary leaders who are not afraid to take tough decisions. But, as individuals, we like to have as our elected representative someone who attends our family wedding or moves strings to get that special job in violation of all rules or is a beautiful face or makes speeches that make audience laugh or is a known filmstar. This is a clash between short-term benefits and pleasures versus long-term needs and aspirations. Unfortunately, the balance in today's India is tilted towards the former.
The blame for this tilt in balance undoubtedly rests primarily with the politicians who as leaders are responsible for leading the country. While, as a country we blame the politicians, should we not do some introspection and ask ourselves some questions? Are we not as guilty as the politicians in looking for sensations, in looking for short-term pleasures and not being bothered about serving the long-term national interests? Uncomfortable questions that invite a cynical smile?
It seems that we, Indians are carrying the curse of living through interesting times. We know that we are walking towards doom but are condemned to enjoy each step of the journey even as we feel sad about the direction. The ancient Chinese knew life better when they coined the curse - may you live through interesting times! Let us hope that India will be able to shake off this curse and move to times that are not interesting.
4 August, 2001
Please write to me your comments about the above article.
ANIL CHAWLA is an engineer by qualification but a philosopher by vocation and a management consultant by profession.
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