Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Shortcut to Vigilantism

We, in India, have been brought up with news of celebrities. Well, celebrities would not be the perfect word, because it is not all positive imagery that is propagandized. Quite a lot of our idols we worship (or hate) to a great extent, have been contributed by the entertainment industry, sports (read cricket), religion and politics to name a handful. Their actions (and inactions) are followed almost religiously, and they are appropriately covered by the media in India. Their good samaritanism is generally lauded widely and propagated to be emulated, and any slight leaning to “the perceived other side” are retorted by means ranging from simple criticism to undignified vandalism.

A recent item in the news created that much furore in the country was the news about the abysmal levels of attendance of Sachin Tendulkar and Rekha in Rajya Sabha, the Upper House of the Parliament of India. This led to lots of debates and statements in the print and electronic media and everyone was suddenly taking the same side, which, in itself, was a rare feat. I too mentally joined the noise and din created by the likes of Mr. Arnab Goswami and his counterparts across the various channels as they dissected the issue from all angles and concluded a very predictable judgment. The print and electronic media in the country unilaterally passed the judgment that Tendulkar and Rekha were on the wrong side, and urged them to respond in a positive way and make themselves more present in the floor of the sanctum sanctorum of the Indian democracy. In the comments posted below the links mentioned above, the public were quite scathing in their condemnation, some of the comments were quite insensitive in my opinion.

All was well, we got an issue, we reacted sharply, a reaction that most of us, including this author, found quite logical and justified. The sun rose again the following day, the media shifted its focus to more contemporary news items which continuously kept emanating. It was more than a week after that I got myself thinking about this piece of news. The more I thought about the more I realized that we had only scratched the surface of the issue. The celebrity-ness of this news item ensured that the problem was mentioned and . But the very same celebrity-ness ensured that the solution proclaimed was skin deep, and none close to sustainable.

There was this article in Dawn, by Mr. Abbas Nasir, a former editor with the daily. All credit to the author who penned down a piece that almost completely mimicked my thought, quoting an incident of Mr. Rahman Malik, a former minister in the Federal Government of Pakistan, being thrown out of a PIA flight by irate passengers. The news item received attention in India as well, with Mr. Arnab Goswami choosing to vent his fury at the VVIP culture, in the wake of this incident. But Mr. Nasir delicately puts forth one very pertinent question in his article, before we passed the judgment, did we care to cross check the facts of the incident? Did any of the news media or the people who reacted to the incident, was able to base their opinion on conclusive proof rather than piecemeal, unsubstantiated versions of the incident? The author in that article, makes an exhortative call for refraining from judgment before verifying the facts from both sides of the involved parties, and not coming to a lopsided verdict based on the past character of the person(s) involved. And that fault, lies as much with media as with the people. Why do I say so?

The public, here, is at fault because of the lack of civic sense. Mr. Nasir makes this very case in a subtle example he references in his piece. I reside in the United States, and I completely understand when he makes a case of an ambulance stuck in a traffic jam. I have seen it here that even when there is hardly any room to wiggle, but people generally tend to make an attempt at shifting their vehicles, whatever little they can, to ensure a smooth passage for an ambulance or an emergency vehicle. Contrast this to the case in India, where I have seen that people, tend to be a lot more reluctant to attempt to do that. In fact, I have seen people use ambulances as shields to make their way through a difficult traffic situation. They tend to tailgate behind ambulances because there is a lot more possibility of an ambulance making way through a traffic jam and they try to use that to their advantage. To add to that example, littering on streets is quite low in the United States even though I do not know of any severe penalties associated with it (even if there were, not every street and junction can be manned by police personnel to effectively enforce it) whereas in India, we take it as our birthright to litter wherever we feel convenient. These are two very simple examples that come to my mind when I contrast the civic sense in societies of India and the United States. And in my opinion, it is an extension of this civic sense (or lack thereof) that seems to cause the original problem I started to address in this article.

The lack of civic sense to a great extent, has made us place a great deal of importance to my rights of free speech and opinion over the rights of dignity of others (including celebrities). Celebrities are often convenient targets of our ire and wrath, and we often do not give a second thought to shooting from the hip in those cases. Which might result in two problems – one, we might cause ill-repute to someone who might not even have been guilty at this and two, we might end up overlooking a bigger issue because of the names of people involved. In the case of Sachin Tendulkar and Rekha, by passing a unilateral verdict , albeit the fact that it is correct and substantiated by facts (unlike the PIA incident), we missed out on the second problem I alluded to.

To give an insight into what I refer to here, I went to the website of PRS India, an independent research institute which has a lot of facts about the MPs in India and did a bit of digging. I retrieved some astounding figures from their website. According to their data, Mr. Rahul Gandhi, the Vice President of Congress, asked no questions during his tenure as MP in the 15th Lok Sabha compared to a national average of 300 questions per MP. His attendance in the house was 43%. If you thought that was low, I saw some more mind boggling statistics, there are some inconsistencies because of incomplete data but the pointers are sufficient for this discussion:
  • Mr. M. K. Alagiri, former Union Minister and son of Mr. K. Karunanidhi of DMK, attended less than 10% of parliament sessions after he quit as minister of Union Cabinet under Dr. Manmohan Singh in March 2013. No participation in debates, and no questions asked in the period from March 2013 to February 2014.
  • Mr. K Chandrasekhara Rao, present Chief Minister of the State of Telangana, has an attendance of 13% over the course of 15th Lok Sabha. No questions raised on floor of the house.
  • The late Mr. Baliram Kashyap, who passed away in March 2011, seems to have recorded an abysmal rate of attendance in between May 2009 and March 2011 as evident from the session wise break up of his attendance. No participation in debates and zero questions raised.
  • Ms. Vijaya Shanti, a former movie actress, shows up in the Lok Sabha 14% of the time. No participation in debates and zero questions raised.
  • Mr. Shibu Soren, former Chief Minister of the state of Jharkhand, attended the Lok Sabha 23% of the time. Again, no participation in debates and zero questions raised.

This is, by no means, an exhaustive list. I do not disagree to the spirit espoused by S. Pushpavanam in his article in The Hindu, which claims that members should not be judged by their attendance in Parliament, but even the author in that, must agree to the limited justice you provide to the people who elected you by being present in the House less than one out of five working days. Even if it is low, there is a threshold of attendance beneath which it seems apparent to me that no positive work can be done. I would not expect someone like Sachin Tendulkar or Rekha to champion the cause of people in their constituency to a high degree but I certainly would expect each and every one in the list above (and potentially many more) to attend to their regular duties in Parliament because that is the understanding with which people voted for them. Because for the people I mentioned above (and for a lot of others), politics is a full time occupation.

There was another broader issue which was hidden behind the fa├žade. And this was the historical case of celebrities nominated to the Rajya Sabha. This article in The Times of India gives a lot of insight about  the performance of people of non political eminence in the Rajya Sabha. With a lot of respect to all the people mentioned in the article, it would have been beneficial for our democracy if this incident had indeed triggered a debate of the larger picture of persons of eminence on Rajya Sabha, with facts to back it up one way or the other. The article points out to the fact that the celebrated singer Lata Mangeshkar and legendary filmmaker Mrinal Sen, who were nominated members of Rajya Sabha, had dismal attendance records. It also points out cases where there have been people with impressive attendance records as well. Which naturally triggers the question, does the nomination of people of eminence from multiple sections of civil society, have a constructive or negative effect on the system of legislature in this country? I am not trying to pass a judgment here either for or against the cause, I am trying to make a case for a healthy debate (which never happened) on the sidelines of the original issue that was raised.

In the din and clamor (glamour?) of Sachin Tendulkar and Rekha giving Rajya Sabha sessions a miss big time, we the civic society lost to focus on the big picture, which is how they stack up against some of the full time politicians this country has produced. And the bigger cause of nominating persons of eminence from multiple fields into the high echelons of legislative bodies in India. When the original issue came up, it would have been a good time to look at the two issues mentioned above as well, as lending completeness to the problem at hand, but slogging the celebrities is often an easy solution to a lot of debates. We, the people, missed a chance, and the media too was reluctant to probe much deeper underneath the skin. Shouldn’t we be having a healthy culture of rapping ourselves on our knuckles in such circumstances?

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