Saturday, April 18, 2009

Taming the shrew

I am reminded of my high school civics professor who was teaching us about the election commission. Civics classes used to be held thrice a week during the final periods; when the sun was too hot to bear and we were too distracted to listen. Yet we sat, quietly, most of the time lost in our own thoughts, because as chairman of the school, the professor couldn't be fooled. And none of us dared. Besides, his love for his country seemed so pure, that none of us had the heart to break him out of his reverie. So we let him drone, occasionally amused enough to listen but most of the time not spririted enough to believe that India was ever going to get anywhere. We'd inherited that attitude partly because of our age and partly because middle class India was fed up at that time. And we wondered if we were ever gonna have anything great to say besides counting every year, the number of years we had been independent. But my civics professor remembered the days of the youth, when he was full of hope for our young independent country, when everyone seemed honest and everyone seemed united. And he spoke fondly about democracy, about adult francise, and about the power of being able to decide your leaders. By the people, for the people, of the people, he would say. Stressing, in great british style, the world "by", "for" and "of". All of us wanted to pat him on his back and say "there, there old man, wake up, and look around, where has your beloved independence got us". With cable TV making its foray, we saw India and we saw resplendent foreign lands. And we didn't think too much of democracy. And of the electoral commission, the ones that set up electoral booths in the farthest of India's corners, from the might peaks of Kashmir to the horizon where the three seas meet, Kanyakumari, from the desert of Rajhasthan, to the "non-described" north eastern states ( I've never known much about those states except they simply get lumped as a north-eastern-mess), we had almost no regard. We weren't old enough to vote yet. And so we couldn't really be impressed by the feat of getting everyone to come and have the smallest say in choosing their government.

We simply were resigned to be lower than those glorious foreign lands. And this we took to be our burden, our albatross around neck, for sins that we hadn't ever committed. And somehow we all got old enough to vote and hardened enough not to bother. I've wanted to vote. But I've been appalled by who my choices were. Furthermore, I was appalled by how streets and roads of houses would go missing from the electoral list and how the few times I had a choice to make (SM Krishna for CM was something I felt strongly about, although they've packaged him off and sent him to Maharashtra while Deve Gowda and his rowdy lot seem to be either to sleepy to speak or to incoherent to be understood) my name was never there. And I too wondered why we could never manage to pull it together. Progress, consistently seemed to be happening, but it seemed like it was because the higer-ups were too dumb to stop it, instead of smart enough to initiate it. While a party needed to rein in a whole theme called Hindutva will forever be beyond me. And why scores of educated people supported them will continue to stupefy me. Perhaps because the only other option at that time, the Congress was getting too bulky and corrupt and complascent. Perhaps too, that we wanted something else to bind us all together apart from, "tonight we make a tryst with destiny". It seemed like it was a destiny with a twist instead. I took politician and crook to be synonymous. And government and incompetency to be synonymous.

And then, I guess my prefrontal cortex grew. The prefrontal cortex in the brain is the region of executive control, of judgement, and its evolution is one of the many things that mark humans as cultured and other apes and monkeys as uncultured. And we aren't born with a large prefrontal cortex. It grows through our lives, till about the age of 20. Until which time all of us show amazingly poor lack of judgment. The glorious years of teenage are stamps of poor judgment and many mistakes. And so today, with, what I hope is a fully developed prefrontal cortex, I see things in a better light.

I see, that democracy is not easy with a billion people. The one thing Indians seem to be able to take for granted is that we're a democratic country. And I remember once again, when my civics professor, thundered at us, apparently possessed with the words of the preamble to the Indian constitution. SOVEREIGN, SOCIALIST, SECULAR, DEMOCRATIC, REPUBLIC. Now, the world(and by that I mean the who's who of the world) wants to bully us into give up our sovereignity, and many of our own threaten our secularity, and we seem cursed with the Congress's need to forever have a Gandhi at its helm ( though the Gandhis seem to have a more slowly grown prefrontal cortex- they do seem to make it up by occasionally listening to non Gandhians), we're not republic either, and socialism is always going to be a distant ideal. But democratic, we surely and truly are. And I begin to see that now and I am beginning to well up inside when I reflect that it couldn't have been easy.

We've been given our democracy. Along with that, we take up very seriously, the art of yelling, screaming, rioting and wearing our heart on our sleeves. It must be something about the tropical sun and the crowds and the dusty humidity but we're forever walking around with blood that's about to explode. And I mean it. And there are times when we need a collective, tight slap. Every one of us. And we seem bent on understanding democracy, the right to have a say, as really the right to veto. And yet we've come along haven't we ? Through fits and starts and apparently calculated risks. And the country I know today is vastly different from the country during the time of my civics classes. There's hope again, and that powerful feeling that perhaps, just perhaps, we might just make it to the top. And we're not going to give all that credit to those bumbling politicians, but we will continue to give them a chance. Elections happen systematically. And many of us seem to take it seriously. And we won't stand if we have no choice to make, even if the choices aren't all that appealing. Pranay Rai has made a living out of analyzing election news to death. And it must be because we take our chance to have a say seriously enough, to have that say counted and analyzed and leads to results which if disappointing, we quickly are ready to change our say the next time around. Poor voting records, notwithstanding, there are several that turn up and vote. Enough for the ticker tape to buzz, to buy pranay rai is ammonia free hair dye and for us to listen. Politicians come out on the roads with the loudest of speakerphones telling us what their garlanded leaders are going to do for us. And while some of us believe, the rest pooh pooh, but we're all affected by it, no matter how distant we want to be.

And this time we've manage to dispatch our cricket to south africa (not cancel it mind you), do our elections in tiny phases(not suspend it mind you )because we're all afraid of terrorism, but it only gives us reason to get stronger and fuller with our democracy. And its in our blood. In every household there's going to be the confusion about what to watch- cricket or the election. Both equally important. Both equally elements of self expression. And some households will consider buying a second TV to sort out this mess. This for me is progress, that we're finally able to have the cake and eat it too, love our cricket and get mad at our politicians too - because after over a half century of independence, now we can, and yes we can !!!

1 comment:

Deepu Vasudevan said...

Well analysed. But even in those civics classes, I've wondered several times if we were better of being under the British for a while more. We haven't progressed markedly in the last few decades, save for the sycophantic IT industry and the occasional rocket launch. Our poverty lines are etched deep, the current standard of living gets more expensive while not necessarily better and we still continue to suck up to the west.
I agree with you on the voting part. I was not once convinced that my vote mattered, much less making a choice. We can rally up and have all the damned *makeovers* we want, but we still remain underdeveloped because of the political system. Until the current generation of politicians die out, this country will stagnate and the western world will "tolerate" our stench, immigrants will justify their departure and China will be condescending.