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 Samant as well as our larger society, that letter remained largely unpublished, at least until the nineteenth of this month.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)

No comments: