The Rites of Action
Every time I read about criminals graduating onto become MLAs and ministers across Indian polities, I am struck by how easily we gloss over this detail as an ineluctable fact of our political reality. For example, per newspaper reports, in the recent UP elections, out of the 4,853 candidates, 859 (18%) had criminal cases of which 704 had “serious” charges such as rape, kidnapping, and even murder itself. After elections, the proportionality of ‘criminals’ has only increased. One-fourth of the elected assembly has a serious charge leveled against them. Yet ironically, on occasion when there is a free and fair electoral contest between a conscientious citizen and a criminal-politician, often enough the electorate overwhelmingly prefers to vote in the latter. What inevitably follows on our oped pages is pious commentary about criminals in politics and the absence of honest citizens. Little noted amidst these displays of civic high-mindedness is that the Indian electorate often has a radically different understanding of what is the end goals of politics than our intellectual class.
In a recent study about how criminal-politicians in north India are perceived, the anthropologists Anastasia Piliavsky and Tommaso Sbriccoli document that these figures are often seen as ‘doers’ of action. In fact, they are not necessarily even seen as ‘criminals’ but as ‘toughs’ who protect society and as providers of public goods who step in when the State machinery creaks to a halt. In a way, this motif of a local hero who steps out of convention to cater to immediate social needs reminds one of localized divinities who abound across India. These ‘small’ Gods — from Aiyyanaar in Tamil Nadu, Jhunjharji Maharaj in Rajasthan, Kail Bisht in Uttaranchal, Jasma Odan in Gujarat and so on — who are often removed from the ‘high’ philosophical traditions also accrue their worth in the social imagination as prolific performers of fantastical actions. They do the needful to defend the social order. These localized divinities stand at the margins and in contrast to the larger, homogenizing, and transcendental categories of belief that the State calls ‘religion’.
What follows from such two fold valencies of belief — the local and the transcendental — is that individuals see little conflict in relying on two different ethical frameworks to choose for their lives. They evaluate the exigencies of social living in terms of efficacy, purpose, and performance while on the other, they think of their private beliefs in terms of the transcendental questions: what is duty, what is good, what is moral and so on. This compartmentalization of ethical frameworks is neither uniquely Indian nor modern. Machiavelli, for instance, was dismissive of early medieval Christian theologians who demanded politics be reducible to the personal. Instead he argued that, in contrast to private moralities, the leaders of societies ought to demonstrate ‘virtu’, a complex assemblage of potentialities which he described as spirit, force, ruthlessness, cunning, and an intent to get things done. The key metric in his calculus was efficacy of action. Machiavelli’s hero was a doer who doesn’t flag in energies, who bestrides the political scene not as a balm for our grievances but as a transformative presence. In contrast to this view, the great contemporary philosopher of ethics Alasdair Macintyre has often argued that politics is a means to arrive at what he calls ‘goods of excellence’ — goods that are positive for all and values in of themselves. This is in contrast to politics that maximizes ‘goods of effectiveness’, such as money, prestige, power — goods whose possession allows for greater efficacy of action but are arguably not ends in of themselves. Framed thus, Machiavelli sees the purpose of politics as maximizing 'goods of effectiveness' that aid in providing stability, while Macintyre, much like Mahatma Gandhi, sees politics as a means for internal excellence. These two views have different loci of concerns: society and man.
When our oped pages reconcile heavy heartedly to fiery presences like Yogi Adityanath and declare that his appointment as chief minister is a defeat of India, what we see is a familiar clash of conceptual end goals. Our intellectual class views politics as a collective practice to produce citizens who value goods of internal excellence. Meanwhile, for much of India’s voters, still struggling after decades of mis-governance, democracy remains a means to identify leaders with ‘virtu’ who will produce goods of effectiveness. Their locus of evaluation is not the individual in a society but a maintenance of social infrastructure within which individuals can thrive. This is an analytical framework that exalts ‘action’ and produces a mentality that seeks protectors of that infrastructure. Our tolerance for goondas in politics, in a way, is directly tied to our collective imaginary that thinks efficacy of action — of getting things done — is a virtue in of itself. The real puzzle of modern Indian history then is how did democracy allow us to sidestep, not deny or demolish, Gandhian claims that saw politics as a site of moral refinement and turn to a more ancient intuition that sees compartmentalization of ethical frameworks as a natural way to be.
This column was originally published in The Hindu on March 25th, 2017 under a different title. I can't remember who the photographer was of the photo accompanying this piece but I think I found it in Outlook many years ago.