How Our Parliamentarians Behave—And Why

There is an excellent article by Professor Dipankar Gupta in yesterday’s Times of India.  An article like this was both timely and necessary.

I hardly watch TV. However, I did watch some part of the debate in parliament on July 22, and was just about wondering whether the kind of worthies that Professor Gupta highlights (the elected members of India’s parliament) should not be crane lifted off the floor of the house and immediately thereafter fully dipped in an adjoining water pool, by way of punishment, if they do not just behave. (Should this fantasy of mine be taken up for implementation, I am willing to be simultaneously both the judge and the crane operator.)

However, despite all the enormously perceptive observations he makes regarding our politicians, I think Professor Gupta fails to hit on the reason that our politicians behave thusly.

For instance, I remember here the n number of “GBM”s we used to have in COEP hostels. “GBM” is the long form of (usually, annually held) General Body Meeting of the student-run hostel mess. At COEP, the student mess consisted of 4 different clubs, each club being run entirely by students themselves. Each club had an elected body of student volunteers to manage all the aspects of running the mess. The clubs would run without any interference from the rectors or wardens. (Remarkable, given that 19 and 20 year old students would run a budget of some Rs. 1.5 lakhs of those times—25 years back—with a rare efficiency.) OK. Enough about the background. The relevant thing here is the GBMs. At GBMs, the meeting agenda mainly used to include presentation of the balance sheet and its approval. Naturally, things such as the appointment of cooks and more importantly, of grocery contractors, the prevailing market rates of vegetables and supplies versus their actual purchase costs, with more than hints of corruption by the mess managers, etc. used to be part and parcel of it all.

Notice, many of these people (the then COEP students) have now come to occupy very responsible positions in our society. They have become, e.g., public sector or government officers, V/Ps and CEOs in MNCs, entrepreneurs, Partners in V/C firms, etc.

Yet, their behavior on the floor of the house during GBMs used to be remarkably different. The entire show used to be very remarkably similar to the usual proceedings in the Indian parliament.

Later on, I came to see something quite similar happen even at the Student Affairs Council (SAC) of IIT Madras. Being watched over a little more closely by the faculty, the proceedings at the SAC were not always as crass as the COEP GBMs, to be sure.

But still, the tendency to be over-emotional in both speech and gestures, with physical posturings of aggression, gesticulations, melodramatics, etc. following every word uttered and every “dialog” rendered, were all present even at the SAC. (For those 1985-86 IIT Madras alumni who now read this, and want to disagree with these observations, please remember the “debate” that had then occurred over whether the house carry out the “censure” motion or not.) At the SAC, the English words being used were, certainly, more sophisticated. The reason is not very difficult to guess either—the words would then be fresh in short term memory, being taken off those GRE verbal guides. Of course, the subtle nuance would not always match, but that precisely is the point under the present discussion. The improper use of the words and the accompaniment of all those emotional dramatics to go with those rather sophisticated words, were very similar to what would happen in Marathi at COEP.

So, not just the largely rural (and Marathi-speaking) population living in COEP hostels, but even the predominantly metro-based student population at the SAC of IIT Madras also displayed a behavior pattern which was very similar to what we just saw last week on the floor of the parliament.

And, whether in parliament, or in the student bodies at COEP or IIT Madras, there always were a few members who preferred to remain plain onlookers. They simply did not get worked up over __any__ thing. And committed to nothing. In principle. And there were few who were influential, but did behave right/properly. And there were some who spoke passionately, and yet, did it just too well. All these kind of people were there too, though they did not define the main behaviour pattern on the floor. Ignoring such people for the time being, however, the question still remains:

Why does the phenomenon of that over-emotional or plain improper kind of behavior seem so wide-spread?

I mean the phenomenon does cut across: (i) age, (ii) educational background, (iii) family background, (iv) IQ, (v) general social sophistication, etc. Not just a third-class-matric-pass half-criminal from the rural areas of one of the BiMaRaU states in his late 50s or 60s, but also the otherwise geeky kind of a bespectacled 20 year old IITian coming from the best English-medium high schools of India also showed remarkably similar behavior pattern—the pattern mentioned above.

Here, Professor Gupta’s explanation does seem to fall short. If so, what is it that can explains this curious phenomenon?

I think the answer could perhaps be found in things like the following: (i) the underlying basic ideas of what a democratic setup constitutes and entails—the mob rule always being a very definite and nearby possibility, in principle; (ii) the subsequent recognition by each “debating” member that it is emotions rather than reason which would truly rule in that kind of a setup (at least to a dominant extent even if not exclusively so); and so (iii) words (i.e concepts, reality) assuming a _subservient_ role to the needs of expressing merely emotionally done up affinities; (iv) the consequent idea that to fail to emotionally over-dramatize is to fail to pull the floor towards one’s own position (whether one’s own position was reasoned one or not being a secondary consideration); and (v) a kind of psychoepistemology that kicks one’s person into everything (action, gestures) which would be required to make “a killing” in that kind of a setup.

I think it is some factors of this kind which could better explain the subject of Professor Gupta.

Of course, the above ideas of mine are not all that well thought out…. I don’t think I really got a good handle on the specific issue.

And yet, I think that what I have jotted above is extremely relevant. I mean, democracy, by itself, only means the rule by the numbers. In such a game, the blind mob rule is a possibility that is never far too behind. That is something which our intellectuals must realize better, i.e., more consistently.

Also, I am sure there is a lot to be said about other subtle ideas too. For instance, the very Indian version of the ideas of altruism in the family and social contexts of the politicians; the very deeply en-rooted and ancient Indian ideas of what metaphysical role can the state (i.e. “Sarkar”—not exactly the government, but the state) have in citizen’s life; etc. I think ideas like such, too play a vital role in creating the “texture” of the kind of discourse we have in our public debates and in parliament. (For instance, just observe the difference of Oprah Winfrey’s Show from, e.g., Barkha Dutt’s “We the People” show, or one of Rajdeep Sardesai’s political debates/shows.)

And still, yes, there are a ton of other points which Professor Gupta so deftly touches on, even in this brief article of his. So, go ahead. Do read it in original if you have not done so already. (And then, perhaps, come back once again here, and read this one once again!!)

Just one passing comment. For quite some time I have tought that Professor Gupta is a curious case. He is a rare “tweed coat” who, despite teaching sociology (of all places, at JNU), manages to remain readable, even reasonable, in a straight-forward kind of way. That’s rare, don’t you agree with me?

I mean, one does not agree with Professor Gupta’s positions many times. But that’s not very important. The important point is: Unlike a whole long queue of socialist academics in the Indian universities, Professor Gupta does often write in a refreshingly observant sort of way. (By way of comparison, pick up virtually any column in “Frontline” e.g., any position on any issue taken by Ms. Jayati Ghosh (or Ghose—I am not sure about the spelling of her name.)) And then, the other side of the typical writers. with globalization and privatization, there has been a new breed of writers who declare themselves to be pro-free-market. But only rarely does their writing acquire depth—the kind of depth which is achieved only with serious thought, the academic rigour (not always a bad thing), a humane kind of concern with the issues being discussed, and an easy kind of “culturedness” (if that’s the word for it). Gupta’s or Swamy’s (of Swaminomics column in ToI) typical writing does show it. Also, sometimes (but far more frequently than is generally acknowledged) the writing and the journalism of Shekhar Gupta does show it. But my concern here is not to create a recommendation list of sorts.

The really important point is this: Today’s India needs such writers—those who can write with depth, but remain readable and understandable by the layman. However, we fall woefully short on the supply of such writers. … Asking IITians to write is not the solution. And neither is asking the IIM graduates to do so.

The job squarely belongs to the humanities professors. … Writing, they have always been doing. The point is, they should begin writing with depth—and with reason.

If the ideas that the humanities department professors keep on advocating begin to be more pro-reason, then, as a matter of a causal law, the society in general and the parliamentarians in particular, will, necessarily, also begin to show a more reasonabe behavior. It’s not all an accident that our best behaved parliamentarians also have been the men who were actually brought up in, or were influenced by, the more pro-reason institutions or universities or cultural backgrounds: Nehru did his university studies at Cambridge; Vajpayee, a university graduate even in his times, spent his early time in newspaper journalism—which is a specifically Western innovation that, by its essential nature, very delicately depends on and facilitates reason; Sharad Pawar was sent right in his university-student days to the UN cultural fora, and is a product of Pune—a city which is distinguished for education (a city which, among other people, had once also produced Namdaar Gokhale, the political Guru of Mahatma Gandhi)…. It also is no accident that our Rajyasabha members are, as a rule of thumb, far better behaved in public and on the floor than are our Loksabha members. In comparative terms (alone), reason has a better chance in Rajyasabha appointments whereas the demos, i.e. the sheer numbers (which, in today’s cultural context, directly translates into blind, emotionalist masses) has a far better chance with Loksabha elections.

Despite what our humanities professors tell us, “democracy,” by itself, means nothing. It requires the cultural context of reason to make its power effective in the direction of social progress. Otherwise, social downfall is the direction in which its powers operate. The behavior shown by the British parliamentarians versus our MPs provides another example of what even an implicit culture context can do on the floor of the house, i.e. if the contrast of our own Rajyasabha vs. Loksabha is not enough.

It’s high time that __a majority of__ our humanities professors began being more pro-reason. Just an exception here and there (especially in the English media alone) won’t do. A majority of them must uplift themselves, completely on their own. There is a social challenge which is growing big __on them__.

(This version: 1.0. I may change the flow of the argument here and there, or change the selection of the words a bit (English _is_ my second language, not first), but the overall arugment here will remain as is.)