Thursday, September 2, 2010


"Opsis", and the Optics of Indian Democracy

Simply put, opsis is the Greek word for the element of ‘spectacle’ in drama. It is that which leads to the denouement, the final resolving of crisis, it is that which enthrals, that which binds the audience, and that which produces awe. But the problem of the word is that it negotiates and skirts the boundary of two meanings. Opsis, quite underwhelmingly, could also mean, “I see”. Stripped off the spectacle and the spectacular element, it reveals the bare reality, and the crudity of it.

Opsis, is elemental, as the Greek historians said, to the writing of history. Perhaps, for the Greek historians, ‘seeing’ was the preferred meaning for opsis, but the dilemma and uneasiness is evident. It is the same dilemma and the same uneasiness that haunts a chronicler of independent and ‘rising’ India. As the country celebrated it’s sixty fourth independence day, the chroniclers of her history find themselves increasingly befuddled by the multiplicity and choice of narratives.

There is indeed a narrative of ‘spectacles’, of Agni III launches, of multi-payload delivering rockets, of Corus takeovers, and of ‘Nano’-micro-macro economics, of FII inflows, and there is a narrative of Dantewadas, Vidarbhas, Nandigrams, etc. The choice is discreet and apparent. As we celebrate India’s sixty fourth independence day in a flurry of SMS’s, mails (not to count spams!), in a rhetoric of hubris, as we have done in all the independence days preceding this, the truth stands us in the face, eye to eye, and yet remains so elusive, so near, yet so far. The truth remains; there is not one, not even two, but multiple Indias, each with her own history, each with her own direction of history, and each existing in relative ignorance of the other. And sadly, this theme too, has been much flaunted, exploited, by people living inside, and by people living outside. Real money has been made by exploiting this theme of the multiplicity of our ‘motherland’. But, today, I am not in any way following, borrowing, hijacking, or plagiarising the theme of Rushdie and company. I write in pain.

However, the Prime Ministerial address, on the eve of Independence Day was not spectacular by any means. Dr. Singh has never been very ‘spectacular’, and of course I mean that in a positive sense, as a compliment. He is of course, where one feels comfortable in an otherwise ‘spectacular’ cabinet. He began citing a host of concerns, Ladakh, price rise (somehow, I am never comfortable with the word “inflation”, it lacks the reality of pain, and as a kid, I used to think that inflation meant ‘to inflate’, i.e. to grow, growth!!). But the cadence of his speech quickly changed texture and eagerly embraced the rhetoric of celebration. He said, “We were also affected by the global economic slowdown. I am happy to say that we have acquitted ourselves well in these difficult circumstances. Despite many problems, the rate of our economic growth has been better than most other countries in the world. This shows the strength of our economy.” I am however, not quite bemused by the word “acquitted”. How have we acquitted, and of what? I read the word “acquitted” betraying a sense of guilt in the speech...a desire to wash off. Barely a month back did the cabinet give the people their 64th Independence Day gift, a decontrolled price regime for petrol, with a further promise of decontrolled diesel, and general rise in price of petro products. I watched the T.V., watched the equity price of PSU OMC’s go up, private OMC’s go down. A few of my friends made money, we met in the evening, had dinner, celebrated. We ‘acquitted’ ourselves.

Perhaps Dr. Singh counts us (and him) ‘acquitted’ on account of the fact that the WPI annual food inflation (oops, price rise!) eased to 10.35% in the week ended Aug 7 from 11.4% a week ago. That is more than a percent, or in the celebratory and convenient vocabulary of economics, a full hundred basis points drop in weekly figures. The figures rose heftily in non food items as fuel prices rose 12.57% from a year ago and mineral prices 45.69% in the week. But the "aam admi" rarely need petrol, and minerals, and we have a reason to count us ‘acquitted’. Even, the monthly headline "price rise" eased to 9.97% in July on ‘statistical base effect’, a fact that is conveniently concealed and distressed. But the dark side of the moon says, that the year on year figure in terms of WPI increased by 10.51%, (July 09-July 10), and I excuse myself from the embarrassment of calculating that in terms of “basis points”.

And yes, the Monthly Economic Report (MER) (July data is given, as August data is yet to be published) of the Ministry of Finance carries a news of terrible disrepute...the IIP numbers has declined to 7.1%, as compared to 8.3% in June 2009. The centrality of the IIP numbers in the MER, as well as the peripherality/marginality of the core inflation numbers betrays the government’s intentions and allegiances. The slightest southward movement of IIP numbers are sure to draw industry pundits, management gurus, and corporate honchos in a concerted criticism of the government. While, the continual gravity defiance of inflation numbers can only produce a cacophony of disconcerted voices, discomforting bandhs, chakka jams.

The only ‘unorganised sector’ in this battle for hegemony is the ‘public’, the 'mob', the multiple ‘Indias’, hence they are carefully set against each other, stripped of the authority to speak for, rendered inexplicable, and finally discounted. The rising "inflation", and prise rise (they are quite different) were explained as international phenomena, and as something resulting from poor monsoons last year. Monsoon, and the absence of it, cannot be easily explained in terms of human responsibility; it is an act of God, and therefore provides the perfect opportunity to liquidate governmental accountability. Also in a globalised economy of money dependency, India cannot decouple from the globe as easily she had ‘recoupled’ with it in 1991, under the tutelage of Dr. Singh, the then finance minister.

The government therefore had to give in, and accept inflation as a ‘given’ condition. But where does the (much clichéd) buck stop? As a matter of fact, US and nearly all the developed economies are witnessing near zero inflation numbers today, and the Fed expects inflation to be subdued for some time now. Therefore whatever be the macro-economic implications of the fact, the ever increasing jobless claimants do not have to face the music of growing prices. Contrasted, we have a declining IIP, combined with shooting inflation; a perfect recipe for disaster. Also, any kid who goes to the local grocer for casual daily shopping knows the difference between WPI and real, retail prices better than our qualified economists. The MER of finance ministry claims that the food inflation numbers came down from last week’s as the government released cheap grains through PDS, an act that ostensibly looks like spontaneous benevolence.

Whose grain is it anyway?

And this happens at a time when the opposition is united against storing of grains in FCI godowns, with much of it even rotting in the rains. Recently news is emerging from the institutionalised propaganda centres of the government that the revenues from increased fuel prices (OMC bonds), as also the huge revenues from 3G auctions will be utilised to implement universal PDS in the country in place of Targeted PDS (TPDS). However, the news is not that recent after all; it made to headlines of newspapers a couple of months back, and today looks like yet another distant dream--a dream that the poor of our land no longer find credible. The first UPA government gave us a dream, of an equitable land; it saw the rudimentary and elementary realisation of that dream in NREGA, (now MGNREGA, with the father of the nation’s name as a prefix!), SJGSY, JNNURM, RTI act. The nation was ready to imagine and continue imagining (the continued desire to imagine reflected in the resounding electoral victory in the General Elections). The UPA II is a rude waking up, a shock.

The nation, we say is a collective imagination, it is an ‘imagined community’. Ernest Renan said that the nation thrives on a daily imagined plebiscite, a continuation of faith in her existence. Today’s Indias are a result of fractured imaginations, one for the poor, one for the rich, one for Maoists, one for the mainstream political parties, and it is no use to go to sleep.

Rajarshi Mitra, an Assistant Professor in English Literature, has profound interest in Indian politics. He may be contacted at

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