Sunday, 22 April 2012

Peepli. Politics. Etcetera

I think Peepli [LIVE] is a brilliant movie. It is one of the best satire-political commentaries in recent times; times where our political class has become more and more thin-skinned of late. Often resorting to slander, corruption, political one-up-man-ship, pointless anti-ideology, and so forth, they can't react to criticism without putting someone in jail or staging a parliamentary walkout. Yet, there's more to Indian democracy than it meets the eye. Sure, I've been critical of it in recent posts ('critical' is my attempt at being politically correct. Ironic, no?) but deep down, in spite of all its flaws, I think we would be a whole lot better if we stopped a lot of pretence, and just embraced these flaws. 

The other day, for example, RR Patil was in my hometown. Why? Apparently, it seems, to inaugurate a couple of hospitals. And one of these happened to be very close to my place. So yes, I was expecting a lot of music, boring speeches, a gazillion microphone tests, and annoying firecrackers. But Mr.Patil's convoy just made a humble touch and go—much to the disappointment of the local authorities, who set off the firecrackers anyway.
However, there was a flip side to Mr Patil's visit—the roads were all done up neatly, the sidewalks cleaned, traffic was being managed efficiently—apart from his 40-car convoy (exaggeration, but you know). And I wondered: maybe the visiting-politician is a good thing. I recall the roads being done up nicely when the Thackeray cousins were here recently (not together, of course). Years ago, Sharad Pawar visited town in a helicopter. The roads done up decently then, as well. Now this brings me to the larger issue I intend to deal with in this essay—something I like to call the Peepli [LIVE] effect. Simply put, in India, the culture of politics is like a glorified culture industry of sorts, thriving on public popularity. And there are some reasons for it.

One of the reasons, of course, is that being in politics is the most effective ways of getting noticed. We’re a country obsessed with politics and politicians (this post is a case in point). In a small, humble town like mine, everybody who is anybody does anything to get invited to a rally, opening ceremony and the likes, especially if there’s a big name attached; bureaucrats, municipal chiefs, SHG representatives, housing society presidents, youth club leaders—in short, everyone wants a piece of the proverbial pie (apart from the apolitical observer, like yours truly).
Sure, the largely urban population remains somewhat distant from politicians (if not the political process as a whole). But fact is: we are all intrigued by politics and politicians alike (I wrote this post, and you-hopefully-are reading it. See what I mean?). Today, politics is about being noticed. It's about being at the right place at the right time (or the wrong time, as many netas, like Abhishek Manu Singhvi, have made fashionable). Saying the right thing (or, the wrong thing; fashionable once again) at the right opportunity. If RR Patil makes a controversial remark, it becomes a trending topic on Twitter (sadly, on the day in question, Patil made none).
As I looked at the women in flashy saris, and men dressed pedantically in neatly pressed shirt-trousers, I wondered, rather naively: What are they doing here? More importantly, why are they here? One answer, I suspect is this: as Tarun Tejpal says in The Story of my Assassins, the government will always be the maibaap (mother and father) of the people.

I suppose such is the nature of the postcolonial, post-liberalized Indian nation-state. The Nehruvian ideals of nation building are long gone; politics is not about serving the nation anymore (was it ever so?). It is, in very obtuse terms, a business of the image. With liberalization and the boom in the number of media houses, TV channels and newspapers—many of them run by politicians themselves—it is very easy to get noticed. And, I suspect it is this very allure of getting noticed which makes Indian politics as intriguing as it is. Either in opposition or in bed with it (this is a metaphor and has nothing to do with the Abhishek Manu Singhvi sex tape doing rounds on YouTube).

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