Thursday, June 30, 2011

Wanted: An authoritarian rule

In one of his lectures, Francis Fukuyuma summed up “Asian values” ( as popularized by leaders like Lee Kuan Yew) as “a system in which people are born not with rights but with duties to a series of hierarchically-arranged authorities, beginning with the family and extending all the way up to the state and emperor. In this world, there is no concept of the individual and individual rights; duties are not derived from rights as they are in Western liberal thought."

“Indian values’ too have the same elements. In an essay titled. “Authority and Identity in India”, T.G.Vaidyanathan, an English professor and regular columnist in The Hindu in the 80s and 90s, showed that 'in the Indian ethos, the guru-sishya relationship is the paradigm of all relationships. Whether it is the relationship of a devotee to his creator, of a servant to his master, of a friend to friend, of lover to beloved, of parents to children, and even of enemies to each other.'

Few principles, he says, are exempt from the influence of the guru principle, including games. In fact, to be Indian means to respect authority- all the way down the line. It is not surprising, concluded Vaidyanathan that for many Indians insecurity is nearly always a consequence of the withdrawal of external authority but never of its presence.

So, counter-intuitive as it may sound, a western system of constitutional democracy that we adopted after independence and that promised us freedom and liberties, may have been completely incompatible with our genetic make-up. To function as a cohesive nation, perhaps,we need the reassuring force of an authoritarian rule. Denied the guru-sishya framework that is hardwired in our brains, we tend to get disoriented, undisciplined and to slip into complete chaos. We simply need an 'authority' to submit to. Without a teacher watching over us in the classroom, there is mayhem. Without a traffic cop around,  we will just not bother to stop our vehicles when the signal turns red. "Shame of punishment if caught' rather an 'innate sense of guilt in breaking rules" is what shapes our behaviour.

Would a more authoritarian system have worked better for us? One that took away a share of our individual rights but, as a trade-off, ensured a more disciplined, orderly society? Would the Singapore model work in a large country like ours?

This question need not be just a hypothetical one. Results of an experiment performed in India are available to corroborate the theory. I am talking about the Emergency period from 1975-1977.

The imposition of the Emergency was based on dubious arguments, but few would dispute that it resulted in a period of absolute calm. Just four months after the Emergency was imposed, Time magazine would call it a ‘needed shock” and report :

These days India is engrossed in a frenzied campaign to encourage discipline, punctuality, cleanliness, courtesy. Placards appear everywhere, some of whose messages of inspiration are attributed to Mrs. Gandhi but most not. On a street corner in New Delhi: ECONOMIC OFFENSES BRING STERN PUNISHMENT. Another, quoting Mohandas Gandhi: A BORN DEMOCRAT IS A BORN DISCIPLINARIAN.

The campaign for discipline may be having some impact on the country. In Bombay, for instance, streets are no longer littered with debris, telephone repairs are made promptly, and state ministers are arriving at their offices at the hitherto unheard-of hour of 9:30 in the morning. Police claim crime is down 10%, largely because they no longer have to spend so much of their energies controlling political demonstrations. One veteran foreign observer of Indian affairs believes Mrs. Gandhi "administered to the country a massive punch in the jaw, which it probably needed." He adds that if the government can bring the emergency to an end within six months, "the retrospective view will be that it has benefited the country and given a badly needed shock to a society whose values were crumbling."

On the first anniversary of Emergency rule, Time would again report:

Thanks to a record wheat harvest of 114 million tons last year—which in turn was produced by the most beneficent monsoon in modern history—the country is enjoying a period of rare prosperity. As a result of a two-year-old tight-money policy and a very tough economic reform program imposed during the emergency, India last year may have been the only major nation in the world with a negative inflation rate (-6%). India's educated classes still lament the suspension of civil liberties and the continuing detention of thousands of people without trial, but the country at large is reasonably contented.

Well, we all know that the rule did not last. It became evident that there had been gross abuse of power. Gory details of ‘excesses’ and high-handedness on the part of police officials and bureaucrats in North India surfaced– and the Govt was thrown out of power.

But, the part that is forgotten is that, the same Congress swept the elections in all the Southern states, losing just three of the seats. How did this polarisation take place?

It was argued that perhaps only the ‘beneficial’ effect of the authoritarian rule was felt in the South- which mercifully was spared the ‘excesses’.

I endorse that view. I lived in Chennai during the Emergency and remember that period for its ‘orderliness’. Trains ran on time, labour Unions did not resort to strikes at the slightest provocation, colleges were not closed due to students’ agitation and there was general contentment. The Emergency was welcomed. Most people agreed it had injected a much needed ‘dose of discipline’.

It is worth analyzing that phase more objectively? What was done right in South India? How was that optimal balance between discipline and ‘freedom’ struck- without resorting to ‘excesses”? Can we challenge the popular belief that ‘individual liberty" is sacrosanct and an inviolable right that Indians will not compromise on, even if it is for the common good?

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Hi ho, Eversilver.

A friend visiting Chennai expressed surprise that many restaurants here continued to serve snacks in stainless steel plates and coffee in stainless steel “tumblers’, and naturally attributed this practice to a South Indian fetish for anything glossy. Such preferences have deep cultural roots and defy explanation, we agreed. Coming to think of it, I have my coffee only in stainless steel ‘tumblers’ when I am at home.

My friend’s observation reminded me of an article written by Prof T.G.Vaidyanathan many years back. I managed to trace it in a book that contained a collection of his essays. Here is an extract from a piece titled “ The Stainless Steel Culture” written by the author after he attended a prize-distribution ceremony in Chennai, in which the prizes given away were – stainless steel buckets of different sizes.

The presence of stainless steel (or, should I rather say, ‘eversilver’ to give the shining metal its telltale Tamilian nomenclature) is ubiquitous to the Tamil heartland. Its unquestioned and commanding presence at weddings in the shape of the girl’s dowry is too well known to bear repetition here. Humble brass, delicate bronze and sacred, immemorial copper have long since fallen by the wayside and have now been relegated to some forgotten limbo of the mind. That ruthless and rampaging usurper, stainless steel, is now king. Long live, stainless steel. Swept unceremoniously under the carpet are those poor brass and bronze tumblers and coffee filters and dhamaras (small round containers with tiny protective walls) in and through which one first imbibed that magic South Indian brew: “decoction coffee”. No more bronze lamps or bronze bells for worship, In fact, no more vigrahams (idols) either in that sacred combination of metals (panchalokam). An unholy and satanic effect has imperiously ordained that henceforth every single thing on earth shall be in stainless steel and stainless steel only. What we are silently heading for is the ruthless dictatorship of one proud metal in place of the old, lazy democracy of several peacefully coexisting metals. One can only fervently pray that the gods themselves will be spared the final ignominy of being cast in stainless steel and be allowed to remain in humble stone at least in temples. But, who knows?
And he wrote this is 1991.

Friday, June 03, 2011


Every argument between a diehard devotee of Satya Sai Baba and a non-believer will end with the former saying, “Whether you believe in his powers or not, you can’t deny that he has done so much for the community. He has built hospitals, canals, roads, educational institutions…”.

This line of reasoning kills any objections one might have on the means adopted for making the money that later went into building roads, canals, etc. The message is clear: ‘Don’t be obsessed with the methods. Look at his large-heartedness. So many people have made tons of money. Not all have distributed their wealth for the larger good of people, as he has done’.

Without getting into discussions on Sai Baba’s methods of accumulating wealth that he then used for charity, let’s ask why we hold as ‘philanthropists’ only those who give away material goods in some form?

In fact, the word “philanthropy’, according to Wiki, etymologically, means ‘the love of humanity’. It is not to be confused with charity.

In her book, “Bazaars, conversations and freedom”, Rajni Bakshi provides a perspective:

The notion that commodity exchange is a higher form of civilization was a key element in the rise of the market from the eighteenth century onward. It followed that progress in the world would now be measured by the ability to accumulate material goods and money, even if some of the money is later given away through philanthropy. This partly explains why Bill gates as a billionaire philanthropist is treated as a folk hero and Tim Berners-Lee who gifted us the World Wide Web is not a household name.

..The emergence of the Internet itself has been a vast collaborative effort. But it was the crafting of the Hypertext markup language (HTML) and the Hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP) that brought order to cyberspace and gave us the easy access Internet that we take for granted. Tim Berners-Lee created these protocols and released them as a global commons.

Berners-Lee’s driving motivation was to ensure that the fundamental value of the web could be created by its users. He designed the hyperlink protocols to serve this purpose. Refusing to patent the protocols he created was for Berners-Lee both a technological and ethical imperative. This was the only way to ensure its universality, as opposed to competing webs.

As Time magazine put it, “You’d think he would have at least got rich; he had plenty of opportunities. But at every juncture, Berners-Lee chose the non-profit road both for himself and his creation.

Berners-Lee gifted away as much money as Bill Gates did. Only he did not accumulate it first for distribution later. His act of charity was in not charging for his invention worth several billions. He was a philanthropist in the classical sense.

Remember this simple distinction, and realise that by not charging you anything for the gyaan that I come up periodically, I am being a true philanthropist.

Update 040611: I realise I had omitted an important angle- the ability of godmen to distribute wealth by doing a Robin Hood act. Rich people, who would otherwise not part with their money, willingly and readily hand it over to godmen once they turn believers. Some of them may do so to atone for the methods adopted in accumulating their wealth. Some may genuinely believe in the power of the godmen. Whatever may be the motivation, money collected using the 'pulling power' of the godman brand, can be used for 'charity' -  to help the poor and the needy.

Look at it this way. When Coca Cola sponsors an event that brings about awareness of climate change, they earn brownie ( or rather 'greenie') points for their generosity. Nobody bothers to think that they earned their money in the first place by selling sugar water as the 'real thing'.