Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Sometimes, Sundays 8pm turns a little interesting - We, the People on NDTV 24X7. A noted Indian journalist triggers an issue—terribly trivial or vividly vital—and a cacophony of voices follow. Most of the time she tries to reconcile speaker’s attitudes, not their thoughts. One shouldn’t mistake her fluency for fluidity of thought. Nonetheless, she does make her presence felt and the so-called Delhi intellectualism as well. But, does the issue(s) raised have any palpable answer (if not a solution). Of course, we should not expect her to be the all-solution sage. But she does a journalist’s vocation of knocking amnesiacs like me off the oblivion to the important issues of our time.

The Nov 1 debate was about revisiting the past and to reconcile with the present. It was a timely debate about the so-called iron lady of India, Indira Gandhi. Much like that metal, she was magnetized about reaping power and repressive politics. One speaker on the show said we should swallow the hard fact that leaders can be fallible and we should tolerate their imperfections as well. Another said Indira should be seen from the lens of 1970s, when the country was in utter disarray. I cannot testify to the second claim as I wasn’t born then. But the previous speaker’s confession about a leader’s fallibility shouldn’t let that leader go on to commit more crimes, in the name of inherent erroneousness.

Psychology has much to say about these power relations. The psychology of power distinguishes between outcome orientation (focus on power as a means to get something done) and process orientation (the enjoyment of using power to direct others). Lord Acton said that “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” A commander believes the command is the reason for the commanded to obey the order, whether they would not do it or not if they hadn’t been ordered to do so.

Simply, this means in the Indian context, Indira thought her (ability to) command was why she could impose the emergency. A famous psychological study called the Stanford Prison experiment is a case in point—conducted in 1971, when Indira was voted back to power for a second term as Prime Minister. In that experiment, normal college students were randomly assigned to play the role of guard or inmate for two weeks in a simulated prison, yet the guards quickly became so brutal that the experiment had to be shut down after only six days. So the inference is that “it seemed the situation caused the participants' behaviour, rather than anything inherent in their individual personalities” (Wikipedia).

So does this mean Indira’s excesses can be excused as a reaction to the situation rather than something inbuilt in her character. She partly unfurled her character saying she was no saint like her dad. Maybe, a critic would say this is a clever ploy to remind the reader of her legacy—thoroughly used down the ages, right until the charmer at Janpath (who scaled the Congress ladder on a rocket). Her assault on every possible Indian institution during emergency couldn’t have been an one-off affair. Slowly, she decimated the power of all others and absorbed the snatched power into herself.

But as the political thinker, Pratap Bhanu Mehta wrote in the Indian Express (a day before Indira’s 25th death anniversary) “even as she was subverting institutions, she could project an aura of democratic grace; her authoritarianism worked precisely because her persona seemed not dictatorial.” Indira is India may have been too great a slogan to say but in that era when coalition politics were absent and for one leader to command the entire India, Indira may be the “last leader who could truly belong to the whole of India.” Mehta concludes his piece with a set of questions, in the typical political style. “Are we safer with a fragmentation of interests, however narrow they appear, checking and balancing each other? Or do we need a leadership that is an embodiment of the people as a whole, with all the risks that such personification of popular power entails?

See the cartoon, not much difference exists between the erstwhile Indira and the queen of India meanwhile.

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