Monday, September 19, 2016

What Happens When Leaders Stop Walking (and apparate as holograms instead)

I find that I cannot write about modern India without dealing with a mischievous little (ish – he wasn’t nearly as tiny as most people imagine) imp who went by the name of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. The man was a walker. It was something that stayed with him from his time as a broke, hungry student in England, persisted into his time as a wealthy, less hungry barrister and community leader in South Africa, and then fed into his life-work as the tallest leader of the Indian nationalist movement. South Africa, a country he called home for over two decades, was to prove Gandhi’s laboratory: it is where his experiments with diet, direct non-violent action, civil disobedience, truth or soul force (satyagraha), brahmacharya, caste-less living et al first began. Prime among these was the elevation of walking from an individual activity into an act rife with political significance in the public sphere: think about the Great March of 1913[1]. It involved 2,221 men, women and children (striking Indian miners – indentured labourers - and their families) walking, if they weren’t arrested or ‘deported’ en route, from Newcastle in Natal province to Tolstoy Farm in Johannesburg, in the Transvaal region.  

In the Indian context, I can do little better than to point you towards the apogee of Gandhi’s political life which came in the form of the Dandi March (1930)[2] and salt satyagraha that followed it. This man knew the power of walking as a collective act, not to mention, a symbolic one. An astute semiotician, he knew how to occupy symbols well. Gandhi realised that walking roots and grounds one like no other activity does. Further, it allows the walk-er to be seen as much as it allows her to see – to survey, learn, take in from – her surroundings. This aspect of walking-as-spectacle came to the fore during the Dandi March, but the old man had himself wandered (and covered) the length and breadth of India prior to this, and several times over, in a bid to make himself real to the “masses” he was slowly in the process of crafting into a people. During the Harijan Yatras of the 1930s, given that he was already in his 60s, he no longer walked as much as he once did, but took trains instead. It is said he bled between stations because his skin was chafed from being touched by the thousands of people who turned up to see him, to partake of the magic of the mahatma, everywhere he went. No smoke and mirrors here; there was no room for distance or obfuscation at such close quarters. Those who saw him went away knowing that their leader was as real as they were; wrought of blood and sinew as they were – as human as they were. This inspired faith and belief in his ability to negotiate for them the treacherous terrain that was dealing with the implacable Imperial government.

The Nehruvian era that followed – the dawn of independent India as it were – was configured around the tenet that nation-building was work which took serious doing. A patriot was a producer; one who contributed to the very real task of keeping together this newly hewn nation-state. The leaders were still visible, more or less accessible, and the country seemed to shimmer serenely in the after-glow of the nationalist movement. This period was also characterised by the performance of that rite of passage which marks the most intimate ritual of any democracy: participating in the first set of elections in modern India. If the civic engagement so central to this era has waned since, and with it the sense of a patriot as one who works to build – and keep – a nation, it almost certainly has something to do with the euphemistically titled ‘structural reforms’ unleashed upon the Indian economy at the behest of the World Bank in 1991. The ‘opening’ of the economy has led, among other things, to the shift from patriot-as-producer to patriot-as-consumer (including of narratives such as nationalism itself), and has in the process dismantled the moral imperative upon the nation-state to engage in social welfare (visible in how much ground the State has ceded of what it once occupied in health and education as sectors). This makes it vital to ask, does democracy mean to-day what once it did? If not, what are the new contours of this idea? In a country where leaders are mere holograms – simulated and see-through – and can no longer walk among us (something about security concerns, they say: it would have been fun trying to have this conversation with Gandhi or Nehru or Patel or even Jinnah, no?), how can there be anything but trust deficit in leadership? For example, consider that the last Indian general elections in 2014 saw the BJP sweep to a thumping victory despite the fact that their vote share (the lowest for any single party which has won such a majority in Parliament[3]) was merely 31%. This is indicative of a splintered polity, and it begins with the very real problem of disconnection between so-called political leaders and the lived reality of the citizens they are meant to represent.

Am I suggesting that all is doom and gloom? Possibly. Heaven knows I often feel cynical enough to entertain this possibility. How do we raise and nurture our young – those that Kofi Annan once called the “lifeline” of any nation – into a sentient and sapient citizenry? How do we begin to tackle the problem of trust deficit in political (and corporate, but that’s almost the same thing as we know only too well) leadership? By walking again, I hold. By walking again so we know the land and its inhabitants: the land will learn leaders as leaders learn it back. We need less opaque governance and more accountability, which sounds too obvious to actually need stating, and yet here we are, living in a grossly unequal society, where not everyone can access the categories ‘citizen’ or ‘rights’ in equal measure. Programmes like Swaraj Abhiyan’s proposed rural immersion programme for students, or the Legislative Assistants to Members of Parliament (LAMP[4]) Fellowship are instances of interventions which seek to reduce the spaces between us, but over and over again I can only come back to the idea I started this post with. Nivedita Menon says that a nation is a daily plebiscite[5], and if we are to reclaim it for ourselves, it begins with knowing and naming this nation over and over. And to know it, we must walk it together again.