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Shashi Tharoor, Congress MP Clash of Ideologies: Left, Right or Centre?

MediaInfoline March 18, 2016
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Columnist and one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people of our times, Pratap Bhanu Mehta was in a lively session with ‘Idea of India’ man Sunil Khilnani. Moderated by MP and lively debater himself, Shashi Tharoor, the session started on how for the longest time the country was run on a consensus, be it a socialist, Nehruvian one, with brief sparks in between like the Swatantra Party wanting a change from the collectivist philosophy. Tharoor suggested that it seems to have changed with the latest dispensation in power.

Mehta touched off first on how the Left-Right distinction runs not just through in the political sense but even courses through us– almost making for an ideological schizophrenia. He then went on to elaborate on the nationalism debate, the raging question of ‘Bharat Mata’, calling it the first axis of the argument. Should the country be forcing people to prove their patriotism, is it right to force-feed them the ‘Bharat Mata’ line, he asked, juxtaposing the same with Sahir Ludhianvi’s immortal lines, ‘Jinhe naaz hai Hind par, voh kahan hain’.

The second axis relates to the ideological war that we are faced with now, over truth and propaganda, a style of doing politics, the ‘mediated truth’ as it were taking the dominant position.  The third point he pressed was the prevalence of the politics of privilege, a privilege in every sense of the word, where the marginalised are pushed more and more to the margins.

He then went on to delineate a fourth axis: what is one’s idea of citizenship? Is it a distrust of people who are not on the same page with regard t their beliefs? Is nationalism being replaced by a McCarthyite distrust of citizens, he asked. The fifth limb to this is the force of freedom, and the shackling of it by social orthodoxy, where the moral values of a republic are decided on by the state. The big challenge here is to freedom, coercion being the order of the day. The country has to decide whether it wants a free society or one which believes that a regular dose of coercion is for the greater good. This is, of course, not a new thing, previous governments led by the Congress bequeathed the coercive line, but today it has become imperative that we decide on the issue–right of freedom vs coercion, trust for citizens vs distrust of them, the murder of social justice and generosity.

The conception and practice of citizenship in a democracy is premised on reciprocity or distrust.  The very foundation of freedom depends on citizens experiencing mutual reciprocity. This becomes hard to sustain in an atmosphere of social orthodoxy. A republic does not typically seek to control personal space or choice in the guise of social stability.

Sunil Khilnani started his talk remarking how 50 years ago, the conversation was on whether the end of ideology was near. And how so far from the truth that was. Today, ideology is so intensely debated than at any other time before, so much so that there is a need for ‘detoxifying’ it. Of course, the greatest casualty in this debate is the Truth. The most destructive corruption of the day is the corruption of truth, when the writ is: what is the latest spin on things we can give on things we do not agree with?

In the current scenario of deeply divided groups over ideological stance, we can conclude that there isn’t much truth to it, as of now at least. It does not behove us to dig our heels into our own ideological trenches and refuse to consider the validity of alternative narratives.  The greatest casualty in this case is truth, evidence, data sacrificed at the altar of a single overarching ideology. It sanctions a corruption of the most base sort, worse even than financial corruption, evident in actions as simple as photoshopping to as damning as trivialisation of a reasoned viewpoint.

However hard we try to impose an ideological theory, which in itself is an achievement of sorts, we are doing it a disservice by trying to fit it into a unilinear story. The idea of a neat, regimented march into the future is an ornamental lie. The lead-up to our hallowed story is a rabble of extraordinary individuals who are young and angry, not staid and pious.

There is no single version of what the future might hold. If India were a theological country, we would have a common goal; if it were a totalitarian country, it would have an ideological focus.  By contrast, in a democracy, all we have is history–what we achieved and what we didn’t.  By denying the raucous and varied events of the past, we are corrupting our future. Looking at the past is not an indulgence, a luxury, but a necessity.

Shashi Tharoor

The sharp distinction between Left and Right makes sense in the context of revolutionary and totalitarian regimes. Ideological strains tend to be messier when you move away from these extremes.  Culture and religion essentialise the definition of a nation.  We cannot say we have arrived at a definition of a nation–it is always an arena of contest with no final resolution.  One of the reasons why our economic policies have been more or less set since 1991 is because it is rooted in the concept of swadeshi. So, while the focus on public investment seems like a relic from the socialist Nehruvian era, it is as much a priority for the current government albeit veiled in more modern vocabulary.

QUOTES

Sunil Khilnani quoted Montek Singh Ahluwalia as saying, “We have a strong consensus for weak reforms.”

“We look forward to a Right movement that doesn’t come with cultural baggage.” –Shashi Tharoor 

How people choose to define themselves does not have to be mediated by the compulsion of national identity. That’s just what it should be–a choice. –Sunil Khilnani

“In our own identity, we tend to secede. How can you then rethink a nation on these lines?”Sunil Khilnani

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