Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Speaking State: Strategies in a time of utopian politics

On the third of April Mr. Vijay Samant from the village of Bastora wrote an open letter to the Chief Minister Mr. Manohar Parrikar. This letter, he also sent to a number of the prominent newspapers in the State with hope for publication, and no doubt, the initiation of a public debate. Unfortunately for both Mr. Samant as well as our larger society, that letter remained largely unpublished, at least until the nineteenth of this month. 

Mr. Samant’s letter to the Chief Minister hinges on his concern regarding the 'abolition of house tax for personal dwelling houses in panchayat area(s)'. The letter indicates that given that there are a number of apartment blocks, and ‘holiday homes and Portuguese-style houses in coastal belt
panchayat areas which are equipped with swimming pools, saunas, DG sets etc. located in many villages especially in the coastal belt, such a move not only closes the door to an age-old revenue generation option for village panchayats’, but also smacks of ‘a typical populist and cheap policy initiative’. Mr. Samant makes an argument that is typical of a number of critics of Mr. Parrikar’s pre-election manifesto, and budget, that it is filled with populist sops; and fears that Mr. Parrikar’s actions have been populist measures aimed at securing power, rather than engaging in a long-term establishment of mature governance mechanisms for the territory.

This column will not debate the pros and cons of the Chief Minister’s action. What it will do however is to focus on the possible significance of Mr. Samant’s letter. To be sure there have been a number of open letters that have been written to politicians in power, both in Goa and without. However in the context where Mr. Parrikar’s position in power is being heralded as the possible start for utopian politics, this letter assumes a larger significance than what one would normally grant it, and is an interesting location from where to contemplate the changes we would hope Mr. Parrikar would bring to realize better (rather than merely good) governance in Goa.

As stressed in the last installment of this column, the inauguration of Mr. Parrikar’s stewardship is looked forward to as the mark of a new era. We expect things to be done differently now. If a letter of the nature of Mr. Samant’s, had been written in the course of Mr. Kamat’s time as CM, there would have been no hope of a response. Furthermore, for very real reasons, Mr. Kamat’s tenure was seen as a time when the State was ruled with an eye to the accrual of personal profit rather than common interest and benefit. From Mr. Parrikar therefore, there is the hope that his promise of good governance will mark the commencement of open governance. For this reason alone, i.e. of the hope that is placed on Mr. Parrikar’s shoulders, a letter such as Mr. Samant’s should not be seen as just another open letter, but one heralding a new kind of politics. A politics that is utopian, more participatory, and hopeful of responsive governance.

For someone who is acclaimed to be a good administrator, with a technocratic predelictions, when queries, such as those initiated by Mr. Samant, are raised, one should reasonably look forward to what we could call, the Speaking State. To every query put to it, rather than the stony silence, or the helpless hand-waving, of the Kamat-government, the authorities of the State respond in detail, explaining its logics through which the particular decision has been reached.

There are a number of reasons why the Parrikar-government should set a precedent in initiating this development of the Speaking State. To begin with, Mr. Parrikar unfortunately comes along with the reputation of being a glib speaker, wriggling out of earlier verbal statements, by claiming misinterpretation, or misquotation. This does unfortunate damage to his reputation. Statements in writing, in the public sphere would go a long way to challenging this perception. Furthermore, setting up a system where the State can be relied on, and expected to deliver a reasoned response for its actions, could perhaps be Mr. Parrikar’s lasting contribution to ensuring a system of accountability of the State in Goa. Past experience, especially of the recently concluded Kamat administration, demonstrates that this has been woefully lacking in the past years. More importantly, effecting this response would set up the necessary requirements for the development of an educated public sphere, encouraging substantial debate, hinging on reasoning and larger policy goals, rather than flimsy common-sense and mud-slinging that largely marks Goan public debate. A reasoned response by Mr. Parrikar, to Mr. Samant, in the neat, precise manner that he has demonstrated on earlier occasions, even if those earlier responses have largely been verbal ones, would set a welcome precedent on this front as well.

Mr. Parrikar, or any Chief Minister, cannot however be expected to respond to every such letter individually. Once more this letter opens to us a possibility; of the office of the Chief Minister, and eventually those of the legislators, being composed of educated, policy-wise persons, who can identify letters, and issues of concern in the public sphere to the Chief Minister, aiding his response.  This letter opens to us therefore, the possibility of opening a new form of politics, encouraging a more dialogical representative system.

To move on to other players in this episode, in not publishing Mr. Samant’s letter, the Goan newspapers have failed in their duty toward the construction of this public sphere. In failing to publish this letter, and with the normally vitriolic Goan Observer alone publishing the letter, the newspapers seem to have sent a couple of messages. First, that critical discussion is not encouraged within the Goan public sphere. This only goes to underline another perception of Mr. Parrikar, one that dates from his earlier period in office; that he is hostile to criticism. This silencing of critical voices then, does no favour to Mr. Parrikar; on the contrary, it builds the platform for the persistence of such criticism. What these newspapers fail to realize though, is that the era of the complete dominance that the corporate-house run newspaper has over making (or breaking) Goan news is at an end. With the lively adoption of the virtual space by the Goan middle-class, issues can be introduced even when boycotted by the newspaper. The newspaper can still however, through its editorial role, play a valuable role in shaping coherent, informed debate, which is critical to creating a public sphere that is necessary if the utopia that we all expect with the coming of Mr. Parrikar to power is to come into being. Another impact of the disregard of Mr. Samant’s letter, puts him in the unfortunate position of looking like an enemy of the public, and Mr. Parrikar, rather than the public-spirited individual, that he clearly is. This is a role we must all look forward to play. In silencing his voice, the newspapers have done a great disservice to this man, who is, as has been argued above, in fact a herald of the hope that is placed in Mr. Parrikar for responsive governance.

(A version of this post was first published in the Gomantak Times dtd 25 April 2012)

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Letters from Portugal: Divine Drama

There exists an impression among some Goans that there exists in Portugal an image of ourselves; one that is more elaborate, deeper-rooted, and above all, more enduring. It was perhaps with this impression in mind that the question was posed “Do they have the same kind of traditions in Portugal as we do in Goa during the Holy Week, and especially on Good Friday?” For those unaware, it should be explained that traditional Catholic practice in Goa, is to re-act the passion of Christ over Lent, commencing with the crucifixion on a figure of Christ on the cross, and its subsequent removal from the cross and internment of the normally life-sized image of the protagonist of the Christian story. 

To the question posed, the answer was that my experience was limited to the happenings in Lisbon, I could not speak for the most rural Portugal. This response was necessitated ofcourse because we seem to have these ideas in our heads, that ‘authentic’ and ‘traditional’ practices inhere in villages for much longer than they do in the city. For the city of Lisbon however, it appears that there are only two churches that go whole hog on Good Friday. The Church of Santa Catarina, and that of Nossa Senhora da Graça, with personal experience being limited between these two to that of the former.

The Church of Santa Catarina has a dramatic Baroque interior, gilded and infused with the smell of incense. Perhaps it is in keeping with this Baroque sensibility that some of the older traditions of the Church continue in this space. For example, when the Blessed Sacrament is returned to the tabernacle at the high altar, it travels under an umbrella, while the congregation pauses, standing up in respect. And yet, it appears, the Passion Play of Good Friday does not occur in this Church. All that one has, is the service, the adoration of the Cross and the close of the service. Some hours later however, is when the drama actually begins, with the figure of the corpse of Christ being carried in solemn procession through the parish (which it must be pointed out borders on Bairro Alto, one of Lisbon’s night-life zones, where in the words of the poet Harivanshrai Bacchan, every night is Diwali – there is as such, no space for Lent in that zone).

Solemn may be a difficult word to use in the context of the procession of this church however. Pomp perhaps being a better word.  Whereas in Goa, there is a veritable funereal air to the events of Good Friday, at Sta. Catarina the air is somewhat more celebratory. Banners reminiscent of Imperial Rome, way larger than any one sees in Goa; a band that was definitely not playing funeral marches, and balconies along the route of the procession decorated with carpets or tapestries. The entire experience seeming more like a demonstration of power, complete with representatives from the Guarda Nacional Republicana. This tiny detail seemed extremely out of place, because Portugal is a secular republic, and logically there ought not to be a formal participation by the State in a religious event. But this is a matter for another discussion.

And so there is something of an air of a celebration at this procession, with none of the orchestrated, per force recitation of the rosary that accompanies the  processions in Goa. But what a show. What a grand spectacular show. A show that perhaps reaches it climax when the image of Christ returns back to the church, is lowered into a coffin, after which commences this intense fugue from the organ of the church. The culmination of the drama coincides with the conclusion of the fugue and the slamming shut of the lid of the coffin, the only sounds in the building despite the crush of humanity within the building. The British jocularly refer to Catholic practice as ‘smells and bells’; but it is when one is witness to a performance such as this do you realize, the post-reformation pre-conciliar Catholics really, really knew how to put on a show!

(This post was scripted for publication in the O Heraldo dated  15 April 2012. However due to the Editor's resignation, the format for the Sunday issue changed, taking with it the space for the fortnightly column. Rather than let it go however, I decided to put the piece up anyways, and maintain the frequency until it is picked up again.)

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Rough Notes: Attempting sight from the other side.

Some weeks ago, short on the heels of the election of the present set of legislators, a friend questioned what would be the implications of a BJP-ruled State. There are a number of responses that could be provided to this query, and one of them would be; ‘Who knows? As of now, it looks as if it is not a BJP-ruled state, but a Parrikar-ruled State.’

The claims being made for life under Parrikar, are nothing short of utopian. Take for example, the rather encouraging discussion, penned by a Veeresh Malik, of Parrikar’s ‘controversial’ reduction of the cost of petrol. Malik’s argument is that this decision by Parrikar, one that has been labeled populist by some, and fool-hardy by others, is in fact nothing short of laying the ground for the utopian in Goa, given that it “is a brilliant move to plug revenue leakage caused by smuggling petrol into Goa and by adulteration of petrol with kerosene; and the first step to improving transport services.” There is no space in this column to discuss Malik’s arguments, but they bear a good read, and perhaps evaluation by political-economists who are more capable of a serious evaluation, not just of Parrikar’s controversial action, but of Malik’s analysis as well. 

An earlier installment of this column, discussing the election campaigning, had suggested that there was a danger to this singular focus on Manohar Parrikar. The danger is that Parrikar ‘(T)he man is no longer addressed as just a man, but per force becomes… the target for the larger claims that are being made on his behalf.’ In other words, when Parrikar is discussed, the discussion is not about him, but his name is merely a platform for other discussions. The same caution holds good for the utopian expectations that are being pinned on the new Chief Minister, and perhaps the claims that are being made for him (if not by him). To promise, or to encourage utopia is a double-edged sword, since we cannot ever really reach this magical space, even as human progress is necessarily predicated on our striving for it. More practically, what very often happens is that when our utopian ambitions fail to materialize the golden boy of one moment, becomes the whipping boy and scape-goat for the next. A good dose of realism therefore, even as we strive toward these utopian goals would be very much in order.

To change track momentarily, but only marginally, a lesson learned in the course of shifting from being a student of law to that of anthropology, has been that rather than judge from predetermined positions of right and wrong, black and white, (as the lawyer is wont to do); one should be open to listening to what the people one is working with are saying. Rather than dismiss what they are saying, because it does not fit into our preconceived notions, the anthropologist must strive to make sense of what they are saying. This exercise, to be sure, requires some amount of interpretation, but at the end of the day, it requires us to carefully sift through popular discourse and listen for the sounds we have not been expecting to listen to. It was such an ethic that caused this column to make a turnaround with regard to the politics of the controversial representativecurrently from Santa Cruz, and then from Taleigão. The politics of Mr. Monserrate, that may appear offensive to some, are in fact the liberatory politics of others. We may not agree with it, in deed we may see problems in it, but we cannot deny the fact that his returning time-after-time to legislative power is indicative of the aspirations of a good amount of people. The democratic imperative does not require us to silently agree with the majority opinion; it does however require us to positively engage with it, compromising at times, countering at others, but always, as in the anthropological exercise, giving respect to the groups one is in conversation with.

This is not to suggest however, that this column will turn into another roll of fanfare for Mr. Parrikar. (pause for smile). What this column will however attempt to do; is to inquire what one is to make of the utopian (and other) responses to the helmsman-ship of Mr. Parrikar. In other words, is there another way of looking at the situation, that isn’t Jeremiad?

As many have already suggested, the victory romp of the BJP into the Goan Legislative Assembly should not necessarily be seen as a pro-BJP wave, but an anti-Congress wave. Let us take the statement beyond the obvious however and point out that perhaps this is more than just a motion against a particular party, but indeed against a particular kind of politics that amply marked the period of Congress rule in the state for the last five years.  Perhaps there is too great an awareness of the fact that regardless of its rhetoric, the BJP once in power, could fall victim to similar patterns of behavior. It is for this reason then, that there is this fervent acclamation of Parrikar. Given his personal credibility as an honest person, and an efficient administrator has never really been suspect, Parrikar can be very easily read, as indeed he is, as more than just a member of the BJP. He is being read as the harbinger of radical change in the Goan polity.

It is this demand for a difference that is perhaps the single-most interesting feature of these obsessions both for and against Parrikar. Clearly Parrikar has become the symbol of a desire for change, and is being presented with a wide variety of agendas that diverse segments of the population wish to see fulfilled.  There are equally other groups that are opposed to these agendas, or simply opposed to Parrikar (both as an individual and as representative of the agendas he stands for). These diverse opinions are finding voice and will necessarily battle it out in the public sphere. They will first acclaim Parrikar for the change that they hope he will bring. When he is unable to, or does not, or simply fails, for no fault of his own, but for larger systemic reasons, to meet up to their expectations, he will be bitterly criticized. This will launch another round of soul-searching, discussion, introspection. This kind of discussion, this public hankering for change, and the demand to see it realized can only be good, in terms that it will, for better or worse, ensure that there is no business-as-usual in our otherwise petty Goan republic. It will mean a public sphere alive with discussion, and charged, after that long winter of ideologically-poor, and opportunistically rich, politics. This much we can expect during the time of Parrikar as CM. And even if for this reason alone, it appears that his presence must be welcomed, like the bitter pill that purges the system of rot.

(A version of this post first appeared in the Gomantak Times dated 10 April 2012)