Wednesday 21 June 2017

Lessons from the ‘Chatur Bania’: Modi government should learn from Gandhi who never believed he had all the answers

June 21, 2017   | TOI ,

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What’s common between democracy and Hindu philosophy? A constant search for answers, a quest for knowledge, a starting assumption that we don’t know everything.

In a democracy parties compete through their respective perspectives on public welfare, each hoping to convince voters. In Hindu philosophy, the search is as important as the discovery. The seeker sets out to find the truth, encounters many answers, but on the brink of enlightenment is left humbled by the limits of his awareness. Even markets are about a quest for knowledge: prices are determined by supply and demand of the moment and a search for the just price.

Yet today India’s government believes it has all the answers and is the sole repository of knowledge. Self-doubt does not trouble the Narendra Modi-led dispensation, which firmly believes that it (and only it) knows what’s good for the people and, rather like Indira Gandhi’s sterilisation programme, the people have to simply be herded and goaded into obeying the mai-baap sarkar’s wishes. Any questioning or disagreement is either plain wrong or agenda-driven or equivalent to treason.

For example, the Centre’s newly enacted cattle slaughter rules have sparked controversy. They are seen to dangerously increase the use of state power, to limit constitutional liberties in the name of cultural nationalism. Centre may well claim that it’s only following a SC order but the fact is there was hardly any consultation or dialogue before an overnight announcement that has affected livelihoods and eating habits of millions of Indians.

Predictably, opposition ruled states and states with large non-Hindu populations have stormed into protest, but the message is clear: government knows best. Dissenting voices are irrelevant; majoritarianism trumps any other consideration.

On Aadhaar card too, Centre has made an ally of the courts to push its diktat that Aadhaar is a must while filing income tax returns. But was Aadhaar ever meant to be an instrument of fear or a device to dominate citizens’ lives? No, the limited aim of Aadhaar was simply to ensure better delivery for welfare schemes, not to be a regulator or inspector or a vehicle of surrendering private information.

The fact that Aadhaar amendments were pushed through as a money bill to avoid any discussion in Rajya Sabha shows that government had already made up its mind, was in no mood to listen or introspect or if need be change course. Like the religious fanatic who lives by absolute certainties, this government believes its knowledge is absolute.

On triple talaq the PM speaks of the need for a dialogue, yet government has made no attempt at spurring a detailed conversation with stakeholders. Here too government is using the courts to declare executive intention.

In Kashmir any attempt by civil society groups to push for a dialogue has been deemed as anti-national and sympathetic to separatists. When a group headed by BJP leader and former finance minister Yashwant Sinha travelled to the Valley and prepared a report they were effectively snubbed by New Delhi, with the PM refusing to even meet the senior BJP leader.

Recently a group of eminent civil servants signed an open letter expressing their concern about the bludgeoning binary being created between ‘nationalists’ and ‘anti-nationals’ and the bulldozing of debate. Typically their views have been disregarded. Even demonetisation, that epic announcement that changed the life of every Indian, was reportedly decided on by a very small group; no one, not even the chief economic adviser, had the chance to disagree.

BJP president Amit Shah recently called Mahatma Gandhi a ‘chatur bania’ (clever trader). But has the BJP government learnt anything from the father of the nation, has it learnt the true meaning of his chatur-ness?

Gandhi never believed he had all the answers, his was a constant quest. From satyagrahas to non-cooperation to the sheer brilliance of gigantic mass mobilisation over a humble handful of salt, Gandhi endlessly explored, sought knowledge and tried to learn from contrarian views.

Who else but a Mahatma would invite his enemies to the highest positions, asking staunch critic Jinnah to be prime minister of India or suggesting to Nehru that another implacable detractor BR Ambedkar be appointed as head of the Constitution’s drafting committee?

Gandhi realised that the human condition is based on the words, I don’t know, I don’t have complete knowledge but am trying to know and trying to find out. In the same spirit, Hindu scriptures debate endlessly.

None other than the divine Krishna had to explain to Arjuna the need to go into battle through argument and persuasion in the face of Arjuna’s constant questions. Did Krishna simply command Arjuna to do his bidding? Did he issue a diktat and demand it be instantly obeyed? No, in Indian tradition even divinities must dialogue, debate and persuade, and listen to opposing points of view.

When a government believes that it has a monopoly on the truth, that there is no need for any course correction, it inevitably makes every differing point of view illegitimate and intolerable. It also turns its back on the Gandhian inheritance, even as it seeks to appropriate Gandhi’s charkha and spectacles for its various schemes.

Gandhi kept admitting his mistakes and kept searching for what he called the truth. Today when state power bears down on citizens’ lives in an unprecedented way, government must hark to the chatur bania’s quest and ask why exactly Amit Shah has been forced to admit he was so ‘chatur’ (shrewd). That was because Gandhi started with the assumption that he did not have all the answers and instead sought dialogue with as many as he could. It’s a lesson Modi sarkar would do well to imbibe.
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