Monday, June 27, 2016

Diana and Actaeon: Brexit and the end of empires

‘Diana and Actaeon’ this was the allusion that struck me when I heard the news of Britain’s vote in the recently conducted EU referendum, popularly known as Brexit.

The myth of Diana and Actaeon can be found within the Roman poet Ovid’s epic narrative, Metamorphoses. The tale recounts the fate of a young hunter named Actaeon and his encounter with the chaste Diana, goddess of the hunt. In the myth, Actaeon unwittingly stumbles upon Diana bathing nude in a spring with help from her escort of nymphs. The nymphs scream in surprise and attempt to cover Diana, who, in a fit of embarrassed fury, splashes water upon Actaeon. The hunter is transformed into a deer and, robbed of his ability to speak, promptly flees in fear. It is not long, however, before his own hounds track him down and, failing to recognize their master, tear him apart.

Diana and Actaeon by Paul Manship, 1925.

The myth can be interpreted in multiple ways. In one interpretation, Actaeon could represent David Cameron. Before the 2015 elections in Britain, Mr. Cameron had pledged to hold the referendum on EU membership if his party, the Tories, won a majority. The pledge to hold a referendum was a way of mollifying members of his own party and others, who were unhappy about the UK’s membership in the EU. In making this promise, Cameron disturbed a delicate scene very much like that of the goddess bathing. Given the fact that despite authorizing the referendum Cameron had in fact been campaigning to stay within the EU makes him a figure very much like the unwitting Actaeon, who really had no intention of intruding on Diana’s bath. Regardless of his intentions, however, Cameron has faced an Actaeon-like fate, having now promised to step down from the post of Prime Minister. Only time will tell if this exit marks the end of his political career, but for now, the allusion holds.

Another way to read the myth in the current context is to see Actaeon as the English constituent of Great Britain, who will now be set upon by the hounds that the English have held on an imperial leash for so long. Like so many political entities, Britain is a cobbling together of various entities. Britain was constituted by the imperial ambitions of the English, who first added Wales to their imperium and subsequently Scotland and Ireland. There is a long history of resistance to English imperial rule that has resulted in the assertion of regional identities, as in the case of the Welsh, and wars of independence, as in the case of the Irish. More recently, the Scots made an unsuccessful bid for freedom through a referendum to leave the UK. However, in the wake of Brexit, which shows that the Scots overwhelmingly chose to stay in the European Union, and it was the English who chose to leave it, there is every likelihood that the Scots will demand another referendum. This time round, the English may not be so lucky and find their imperial union being torn apart. England may regret that it trespassed upon a site that it should have left alone in the first place.

Diana and Actaeon by
Giuseppe Cesari, 1603-1606.
A third contemporary reading of the myth could allow Britain to be seen as Diana, who has cursed the Actaeon EU to now potentially be torn apart by the Eurosceptic hounds. No sooner was the Brexit result announced than a host of largely right-wing hyper-nationalist leaders across Europe begin baying for their own version of the referendum. Marie Le Pen, the leader of the National Front in France, made one such demand, as did the Islamophobic, anti-immigration Geert Wilders from the Netherlands. Similar noises also emerged from the Italian Lega Nord or Northern league. In the case of this group, the League would also like to break up the current state of Italy, and there are many in this outfit who would ideally like to get rid of the south of the country, a section that they feel is unduly burdening the more prosperous north of Italy.

While the leadership of the EU suggests that all is under control, one wonders whether this is mere bravado and if Britain has unleashed not merely Actaeon’s hounds but also the dogs of war. Europe was very similarly tied up in a set of international treaties and riven with ethnic tensions on the eve of the Second World War. What was also at stake at the time of this war, and the first, was the future of various empires. In the First World War, it was the future of the Ottoman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In the second, it was that of the Japanese and German Empires. There are some who argue that the EU is in fact a non-coercive imperial formation. What is currently at stake, therefore, is the future of another empire. Given the larger state of the world, which exists in a state of armed conflict and the intervention of third-party states, and the fact that a number of treaties that have kept Europe stable during the past fifty years are now coming undone, one wonders if this is what the beginning of the end of the world order as we know it is going to look like.

(A version of this post was first published in The Goan Everyday on 26 June 2016)

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Electoral Options and a Politics of Alliances

What is undeniable about the current political climate in Goa is that there are a number of people who are desirous of change. Most of them are in fact singularly opposed to the return of the Congress, as well as the BJP. This is already a good start. The problem is that those who are translating desire into political action and setting up political parties are all after the same pie, and hopelessly divided.  It is this division, and the grandstanding in which each party will field its own candidate which, will ensure that the BJP will return to power. The fact that this singular fact has not seemed to percolate into the public rhetoric of the various parties, and that these various apparent opponents of the BJP are jostling each other suggests that we are in for very dark times indeed. Preventing this should be highest on our agenda. 

What are our options if this is the bleak scenario that faces us in the upcoming elections? There are a couple of solutions that I have to offer. These solutions rest on the argument that we abandon the idea that the next elections are going to bring about a sea-change in Goan politics. Despite the tall claims that are being made by all and sundry, there is going to be no utopia following the elections. Such claims fail to recognize the complexity of the electorate and the electoral system. Indeed, I would argue that some of these utopian claims are based on a fundamental disrespect of the electorate and the way in which the marginalized use their vote. Further, some of challengers of the dominant parties fail to recognize that many of the problems we face are not the result of bad people in politics, but a problematic system that is in place. As such, unless one recognizes that it is the system which is the problem, even a good, honest, person usually becomes part of the same old system or is rendered helpless.

The problems as I see them are the following, first, there is a need to ensure that the BJP does not return to power. The second, is that we need to begin restricting the way in which electoral politics in Goa works. We cannot merely do good within the existent system, the entire system itself has to be overhauled. We are thus faced with one immediate agenda, and another more long-term agenda.

The strategies of BJP-opposed electoral parties in Bihar have already shown us the way to address the short-term goal identified above. Through their strategic grand alliance, the Janata Dal (United), the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Congress Party effectively routed the BJP. This is the route that all individuals and political outfits serious about change in Goa must necessarily follow. Take the following scenario for example, where the Goa Vikas Party, the Goa Forward Party, the Goa SuRaj Party, the Communist Party, and the AAP come to an agreement that they will support each other, campaign for each other and field a single individual in every constituency. A combination of this sort seems unlikely now, and even crazy, but it would ensure not only a united front against the BJP and Congress, but would also yield a variety of long-term benefits.

To begin with even if a single party currently opposed to the BJP-Congress were to be able to win all forty seats, this would be bad for democracy. First, a ruling party with no opposition is a bad idea. This idea has already been articulated by Amita Kanekar in a recent op-ed, where she argued that “given the limited choices, what we should aim for is simply a weak government.” Her reasoning, with which I concur, is that even though we are constantly urged to vote for a strong government, such governments invariably ignore criticism and overrule normal procedures. Rather than a strong government therefore “ A weak government, i.e. a minority or coalition government, would serve better, with more assembly discussions and cabinet meetings, rather than dictatorial orders, and where everybody might be too concerned about their survival to do much damage.”

Like Kanekar, I propose that we should look to 2017 elections through a pragmatic lens even as we hold utopian visions. The 2017 elections should be an exercise in cooperative behavior, encouraging newer voices and parties to emerge. It is now more than ever that the dictum “united we stand, divided we fall” holds true. The buildup to the 2017 elections and the period until the next legislative elections should be seen as preparatory time necessary to challenge the system that currently obtains. Even as many new entrants to the political scene have begun campaigning, it would be more realistic to recognize that the swing towards new entrants will be minimal. It makes more sense to prepare for the elections scheduled in 2022. We would do well to recognise that the success of currently dominant parties has been built over such a long period and was never the result of campaigns of a couple of months. As such a politics of alliances makes the most sense.

Of course there will be those who will be horrified by this suggestion. “Make alliances with the corrupt and the cynical?” would be the question of groups like AAP in Goa. The various bahujan groups that are trying to cobble together a response in the upcoming elections will ask if the suggestion is to make alliances with the various Brahmin-dominated parties.  To such positions my response would be yes. Mayawati, the leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party, demonstrated that making alliances with Brahmins is not necessarily out of the question. What is important is not rhetorical grandstanding, or ideological purity, but gaining access to political power so as to begin to change the system. However, since process is also important, how one gets to power is also critical.

The politics of purity, whether ideological or otherwise, is a dangerous politics because it presumes a monopoly on the truth, and an almost divine power to realize it. The strategy of alliances would allow a diverse group of voices to get into the legislature. It would open the possibility for a legislative politics that is about debate and mutual respect. This would engender real political change in Goa. Democratic politics is the politics of compromise. One makes priorities, sees what one can suffer, what one cannot, communicates this to one’s partner/s, and then works towards maintaining the alliance, and hopefully influencing the other. When one realizes that the alliance is not working, one can pull out. As Kanekar has pointed out, it is an alliance-based weak government that we should aim for in the upcoming elections, even as our sights are trained for 2022. 

(This post has been profoundly influenced by the theology of Pope Benedict XVI as contained in his encyclical Spe Salvi. I would encourage readers to engage with this text.

A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo dated 24 June 2016)