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Posted at: Jan 8, 2017, 12:41 AM; last updated: Jan 8, 2017, 12:41 AM (IST)
Harish Khare
Harish Khare

Time to sort them out…

Harish Khare
Time to sort them out…
Voters in Punjab would be queuing up on February 4 to decide which set of rulers should lord over them for the next five years. Will they feel comfortable and confident enough to make an honest choice?

From a citizen’s point of view, it is vitally important that Punjab witnesses a clean campaign and a scrupulously fair contest. The onus is on the Election Commission of India. Its officials in Punjab need to ensure that at the local level, the administration stands comprehensively de-Badalfied. For the last ten years, the bureaucracy, civil and police, at the panchayat level and below has been compelled to adjust itself to the Akali Dal’s political priorities and its leaders’ personal whims and needs. It can be argued that the officials did not have much of a choice. Nonetheless, the charge of Punjab having been reduced to a family fiefdom does stick after ten years. 

That should now change, with the model code of conduct kicking in. Fortunately, both the two seniormost officers — Chief Secretary Sarvesh Kaushal and Director-General of Police Suresh Arora — are professionals in the old-fashioned sense of the term. They will be called upon to impress upon their junior colleagues to provide a level playing field for all candidates and political parties. If the officials conduct themselves honourably during this election period, there would not be much need for a witch-hunt later on. 

The Akalis have all the disadvantages of being in the saddle for ten years. Their record, at best, is a mixed bag, but their reputations stand tarnished. Family politics takes its toll everywhere and Punjab is no exception. 

Because Punjab has had no experience of comprehensive industrialisation and its modernising impact on social morals and economic behaviour, its political class has remained largely hostage to old calculations and connections. That has ensured that the politician’s rent-seeking energy gets focused on using or abusing the local level official to reward his supporter or punish his rival. It is an un-elevating saga of a petty politician engaging in petty corruption in village after village. And the village-level corruption is very ugly and very dehumanising because there is no escape from it, either for the victim or the perpetrator. Punjab remains in thrall of feudal loyalties and resentments. These animosities will play themselves out in the electoral choices. 

The Aam Aadmi Party had — at one stage — ignited a massive hope that it would become the harbinger of a new politics, a little more moral, a little bit more ethical than the Akali Dal or the Congress. That hope — and the moment — is gone. The AAP has lost, as the cliché goes, its sheen and shine — though the voters remain enchanted with the idea of change. 

That puts the BJP in a rather piquant spot. In Uttar Pradesh, the Prime Minister has invited the voters to experience the joys of ‘parivartan’, whereas here in Punjab, he can be relied upon to exhort them to count the blessings of status quo and continuity. As the ruling party at the Centre, the BJP and its leadership would want to continue their theme song of the “new normal”, but in Punjab they will be making a pitch for the “old normal.” But again, we will have to rely upon the voter and his sturdy common sense to sort out these leaders and their pretensions and claims.

I am simply amazed that a former Chief of the Indian Army, General JJ Singh (retd), has allowed his name to be floated as a possible Akali Dal candidate against Capt Amarinder Singh in Patiala. 

No one can be sure whether he will finally agree to contest or will be chosen as a candidate from Patiala. Still, somehow this is outlandish. Not because he has a particular political leaning, but because of the total lack of proportion here. A former army chief reducing himself to being a candidate in an assembly constituency! Strange and inexplicable. 

There could have been some saving grace had he agreed to contest for a Lok Sabha spot, but an assembly seat? To what end? It would have perhaps made some sense if he were projected as the chief-ministerial face of a party like AAP, a party that claims to rewrite the rules of governance and politics in Punjab. But to be an assembly candidate for a political party that is out and out a family outfit! Surely, there is no confusion in anyone’s mind that the veteran, Parkash Singh Badal, is the chief ministerial face and after him it would be Sukhbir Badal, the Deputy Chief Minister and designated heir to the Akali gaddi. 

Admittedly, no one had ever accused JJ Singh of being a brilliant general. There is widespread consensus that, at best, he made a good bread-and-butter soldier. But much more than Gen JJ Singh’s calculations are at stake.

Do generals cease to be custodians of the institutional proprieties associated with their hallowed post the moment they step down? Is it necessary for every general to imitate VK Singh who finds himself saddled with an inconsequential job as a very inconsequential minister of state? I am unable to understand the whole mess. And then, we make all virtue of a “chief” and his izzat. 

Sometime in 1923, a few German intellectuals and thinkers came together to set up the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt. Individually, each one of them wanted to understand why Germany failed to undertake the kind of revolution that the Bolsheviks had brought about in Russia in 1919. Collectively, this sturdy band of inquisitive minds came to be known as the famous and extremely influential Frankfurt School. Almost all of them were Jewish and came from affluent families, and most of them found themselves making their escape as Adolf Hitler and his armed militia came to prowl the German streets. They regrouped, first in New York and later in Germany, where new adherents and admirers joined them in their intellectual journey. 

A British journalist, Stuart Jeffries, has produced a collective biography of this intellectual idea. Grand Hotel Abyss — The Lives of the Frankfurt School is not a difficult book, but it is not an easy read either. Persist, and the reader finds himself introduced to theorists Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, Franz Neumann, Erich Fromm and Jurgen Habermas. With all the tricks and tropes that are part of a journalist’s repertoire, Jeffries sucks the reader into the complicated world of very complicated minds.

To begin with, the Frankfurt School-wallahs assiduously refused to man the barricades of revolution. They chose to remain “aloof from party politics and skeptical about political struggle.” Their detractors sniped that the School was “not so good at changing what they critiqued.” Hence, the unflattering sobriquet of the Grand Hotel Abyss — where the resident intellectuals meditated on the masses’ suffering from a safe distance.

All this sniping notwithstanding, the Frankfurt School and its critical theory continued to provide the intellectual inspiration and space for questioning capitalism and its child, the consumerist society. The subtext of the argument was that “monopoly capitalism was as much a form of totalitarianism as National Socialism or Soviet Marxism.” The School forced a rethink about the easy acceptance of anti-Semitism that had scarred much of European history and society. Theodor Adorno’s path-breaking book, The Authoritarian Personality was the first comprehensive attempt to understand how societies come under the sway of a Hitler-like political goon. 

Jeffries concludes, chillingly enough, by reminding us that the Frankfurt School’s direst dissections appear to have come true in today’s age of digital dictatorship. The online culture industry and its czars Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg “develop algorithms the better to chain us to our tastes, and make us desire our own domination.” In these times of “customized culture”, Jeffries reminds us that the Frankfurt School still has much to teach us — “not least about the impossibility and the necessity of thinking differently.” Amen. 

Last Sunday, on New Year’s Day, I had the pleasure of sharing coffee with some of the friends of this column. It was a sunny day, the perfect setting for a stimulating morning, full of friendly banter, informed gossip and joyful reminiscences. And, now we are in for a wet, chilly spell — still a perfect setting for a piping hot coffee. Feel like it?


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