The criticism seems to be a classic representation of what the detractors have been saying in different voices – some shrill, some caustic, some personalised and some delusional – all bound to each other in content but may be differing in form.
The latest article by Pratap Bhanu Mehta in the Indian Express on the demonetisation row describes the move as a ‘watershed event’ and a ‘new kind of politics that will redefine the relationship between citizen and state’. Agreeing partly on what Mehta says is a watershed moment for India and disagreeing on this move as being an ‘event’, I propose a humble critique to what he wrote in his latest article.
I choose to do this because his criticism seems to be a classic representation of what the detractors have been saying in different voices – some shrill, some caustic, some personalised and some delusional – all bound to each other in content but may be differing in form. What Mehta has attempted is a value judgment of a public movement that has started off with India Against Corruption in 2012 against corruption at multiple levels – government, media, intellectual space, politics and society.
He rightly analyses the step as a ‘gamble’ which I would prefer calling a risk – a sign of a truly entrepreneurial governance model. The article goes on to critique the step because of its ‘sheer audacity’ and because ‘it threatens to institutionalise a new kind of politics’. The rest of the article essentially builds up on this theory of emergence of a new political order and critiques it on the ground that it is puritanical.
I have multifold problems with this kind of critique, especially because it came from Pratap Bhanu Mehta. Unlike most other intellectuals in the country, Mehta represents a voice of sanity who has been known for his nuanced writings and analyses of questions of public interest. But of late, his intellectual voice has been replaced by an agenda-driven voice, which is quite merciless in its assessment of issues from a point of view, which is definitely not grounded. It would have been still ok, if he cared not to cloak his writings with that sense of puritanical and pretentious wisdom on what the public feels.
In this piece for instance, among the din of opinionated and by and large, non-grounded journalism with respect to demonetisation, one expected Mehta to take a historical recount of things, compare what was written or said or talked about demonetisation historically, make an account of the pros and cons of this economic storm and compel the public to believe in arguments based on analyses. But what did he do?
He invoked a 15th-16th century literary motif in Europe – the Morality Play tradition – to talk about the economic scourge of corruption. It was not just odd but reeked of a genuine intellectual distance Mehta maintained to consolidate his hold within a certain coterie of Anglophile intellectual elites, who would have certainly had the English literary tradition under their finger tips, making himself oblivious and inaccessible to the general mass of readers, who often found in him an intellectual succor.
He did that purposely because the problems of morality and puritanical wisdom that Mehta critiques is a recount that can happen only in a certain class of Indian society. An average Indian is still run and directed by common threads of a moral tradition. We still respect elders and hence you saw instances being shared on social media, where youngsters came forward, stood in long serpentine queues and helped the elderly get cash. We still respect trust and social camaraderie and hence you saw in North East, how various societies easily and without any fuss, transitioned from being cash driven to barter or paper-driven. We still believe in the good versus evil worldview and hence not just celebrate Ravan Dahan each year and keep fast on every Eid, but also see poor women in my village happy that finally there is someone, who will come down on the feudal sarpanchs, notorious for his extravagant lifestyle on black money.
And this is an average Indian that Mehta does not want to talk to. Why just Mehta? There are the likes of Arundhati Roy, in the same vein, who answered me when I asked her why she does not support the India Against Corruption movement and she said because it is a middle class conception. She went on to explain how there are a lot of people at play always when such large scale movements happen. As an impressionable 23-year-old I was confused if such intellectuals really stand for defending democracy or a certain idea of democracy being nursed in selfish coteries of self-aggrandisement that helps maintain their relevance and their self-serving demands, which are hailed as frugal and moral because they are not in public view. What explains this attitude of shying away from public support of issues, which public endorses when all they have uttered and spoken of is about issues of public interest. Why such hatred for public wisdom?
When Mehta says that ‘the audacity of the move is breathtaking’ and that ‘this ability to translate a policy measure into a national project is unprecedented’, he exposes the vulnerability of the intellectual elite, who seem to have been shaken with their turf being taken away from them. It has been assumed for far too long that audacity must flow only from the pens of the rebels. It has been assumed that audacity must make heroism and heroic an ideal that none could achieve, because if it is achieved, the value of appreciation becomes invested in a life-size character replacing the value of their imagination. This hurried writing off of the move as an imminent danger is but a reflection of that threat.
If the problem, as Mehta says, is the mass moral appeal of this initiative, readers like me are confused. Were we to write off Batukeshwar Dutt, whose birth anniversary we ought to be celebrating today, because he along with Bhagat Singh, dropped a bomb in the middle of the courtroom to protest against the colonial rule and was audacious and bold enough? Were we to write off Raja Rammohan Roy because he also made a moral appeal against sati? Were we to write off Dr B R Ambedkar in the case of demonetisation, who openly advocated for change in currency every 10 years on moral and economic grounds?
On the particular issue of demonetisation, there are lapses. Implementation of any policy measure in a country of a billion-plus population is a humongous logistical exercise. But, perhaps, this is where the intellectual class must have stepped in. They must have offered practical solutions, guided a government built on moral support to help it carry forward an agenda, which they themselves call ‘pathbreaking’. They must have called the civil society and academia to step in for shramdan. They must have openly denounced the government for any ill doing but would have at least shown moral support for a movement, which has undoubtedly garnered public approval on all counts. They must have appealed to the media to stop misinformation campaigns and agenda-driven journalism, where either there is a GPS-enabled money bunch that will solve all issues, or there are people dying in the country because of long queues!