Politicians can learn about change from grandma
by M J Akbar
If you want to know where India is heading, check out the grandmothers. A chance flick of my television remote, perennially restless with boredom, took me to one of those imitative dance competitions that apparently keep millions transfixed in the name of talent. My reaction was a mere fix, rather than a heavy transfix, but that glimpse was sufficient to reveal the contours, literally, of a rising phenomenon. Preteeners, inbetweeners (that aggressive demographic segment between child and adolescent) and nubile fantasists were gyrating with enough sexual innuendo to embarrass a Bollywood choreographer.
That, however, was not the story. We are all aware that celebrity is the new morality and many young people will do whatever it takes to reach within camera-distance of glamour. Popping eyeballs in countless homes are, for the fetishists, a reason for celebration, not reticence.
The story was in the front row of the seated audience watching this televised show, where steely mothers and intoxicated grandmothers cheered every pseudo-sexual pirouette with increasing hysteria. The intoxication was not from something as pedestrian as alcohol, but from the prospect of stardom and its attendant wealth. These were not cosmopolitan-liberated women. They were from small towns, and had trained their children in the arts of public seduction to help them break into the glamour palaces of Mumbai. These mothers were not born in 1980; many looked four decades older. Their parents would have blushed if two flowers got too close on the cinema screen. They have abandoned this soggy morality, including its notions of dutiful sex, in their thrust for the material and sensual gratifications of an evolving multinational world. Do not sneeze at the upwardly senile; they are having fun.
A social revolution in values is visible across India, in public and private entertainment; in the lifestyle of campuses and the elasticity of leisure. Politics was and is economics. That is the core. But politics is also a cultural fact.
Culture, in its traditional and respectable manifestation, has been heavily influenced by religion, or religiosity, and the ethical codes it demanded. The grip of religion over identity has loosened, particularly among the majority communities that together constitute the Hindu population.
Religion remains a vital existentialist force among minorities because it defines the difference. And so, the use of the headscarf, or even the burqa, is rising among young Muslim women while young Hindu women are celebrating the fusion of western sauce with Indian fashion.
There is an internal logic, even if you may not consider it a justification, in the fact that the mosque, gurdwara and church continue to play a far greater role in minority politics than the temple does in majority thinking. This is why the BJP’s promise to build a worthy temple on the site of the Babri mosque now provokes a yawn instead of a war cry. Jawaharlal Nehru once called dams and steel mills the temples of modern India. The temples of post-modern India are malls, television studios, dance halls and stock exchanges. This new culture is edging towards a new politics, even as it tests the endurance of established virtue in the process. This is not to suggest that the establishment is dead. You can see its vigorous rearguard action against the liberalization of homosexuality laws.
A political party must, of course, spread its attention span beyond a single section of the electorate, but parties that become so embedded in their past that they cannot come to terms with a new and growing influence in public life, pay a heavy price in elections.The practical way of dealing with change is pragmatism. The BJP and the Communists are mired in post-electoral ideological confusion for a very good reason: they have an ideology. Ideology gets brittle when it remains locked in the fetters of its birth. Flexibility is always a difficult call for believers, and every debate about the exact degree of dilution necessary is an invitation to acrimony.
The Congress is comfortable because it replaced ideology with pragmatism in 1991. It can adapt its cultural and economic stresses according to circumstances, sometimes even at the same moment. It can represent the liberal face of the Delhi High Court judgment on Section 377 even while it conducts a placatory dialogue with the church on how far to go. Pragmatism gives it the leeway to shift its stresses from one problem area to another in its budgets. Pranab Mukherjee can switch the gear from urban to rural seamlessly and without internal dissent because there is no dictum in the party’s prayer book.
Matthew Arnold is a name that might, or might not, stir the memory of a student of English literature; he was not top of the class even among the great range of Victorian poets. Even fewer will have heard of his "Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse", written in 1855. But forgettable poets can leave behind unforgettable lines. This couplet seems eminently suited to India 2009:
Wandering between two worlds, one dead,The other powerless to be born.
Appeared in Times of India - July 13, 2009