50 shades of grey
In my thirteen years in Indian politics, I have had to become accustomed to being misunderstood. This comes, perhaps, from not having been schooled in the take-no-prisoners world of our politics, where allegiances are entrenched and admit no compromise, and having spent 29 years at the United Nations, where the search for common ground, even between implacable adversaries, is an article of faith.
The latest episode to have hit the newspapers relates to two incidents in which I was deemed to have been too indulgent, for a Congressman, of Kerala's CPM Chief Minister, Pinarayi Vijayan. First, the absence of my signature on a recent letter to the Railway Minister, co-signed by my fellow UDF parliamentary colleagues from Kerala, led to frenzied speculation. This got compounded by my remarks at the inauguration of Kerala's largest mall, the Lulu Mall in my constituency of Thiruvananthapuram, endorsing the CM's welcome to private sector investors in the State.
Let me set the record straight. I didn't sign the letter (whose text had not, in any case, been shown to me) because I felt I needed additional time to look into the issue of the Thiruvananthapuram-Kasargod Semi High-Speed Rail (SilverLine) Project further, especially considering its widespread ramifications, so that I could arrive at a more informed decision on a matter of significant importance to the people of the state. To be clear, by not signing the joint memorandum I was not endorsing the project, rather trying to seek time to study the matter further before declaring a conclusion.
As my fellow UDF MPs have made abundantly clear, there are significant questions about the K-Rail project that must be answered. What would be its social impact, especially relating to the displacement of local communities to permit its construction? What are the environmental implications of the project in a state whose ecological vulnerability we have all repeatedly seen in recent years? Will there be a clearer study on its environmental impact, especially in ecologically sensitive areas? How viable is the project? financially, given its mammoth cost implications, and how will the government address people's economic concerns, especially on matters relating to project financing, its economic burden on Kerala's taxpayers and the cost to the commuters?
These are substantive matters which require comprehensive consultation.
One mechanism to do so, which I urged the state government to consider, is to establish a forum wherein government representatives, technical and administrative project heads of K-Rail, elected representatives as well as local stakeholders, can all come together and address each of these concerns and questions in an open and deliberative fashion.
Such a process would be in the best interests of the people of the state and would allow all of us to arrive at an informed conclusion on a complex and potentially transformative development project. I might well end up being unconvinced by the government's responses, but I felt that to reject the government's stand without hearing what they had to say would be premature and unprofessional, even undemocratic.
I expected some ideological disagreement with my point of view, though the audience applause was generous when I finished. What I wasn't prepared for was the slew of 'Tharoor praises CM again' headlines that promptly followed my remarks, and the conflation of my speech with the earlier issue of K-Rail in reports implying I had endorsed that project in my speech, whereas in fact I had not mentioned K-Rail at all.
Inevitably, the issue became another 'controversy'. Some of my party colleagues, not for the first time, denounced me for giving aid and comfort to the enemy. CPI(M) spokesmen slyly congratulated me for supporting development, forgetting that I had consistently supported development by opposing many of the CPI(M) government's retrograde policies, such as on Trivandrum Airport, where I had opposed the CM's stand. Ironically, in that matter, my UDF colleagues were in support of the government. For both sides, the issue was not the position of principle that I had taken; my pellucid arguments were reduced rather crudely to one conclusion, that I had publicly supported the CM.
The reason for this reductio ad absurdum is clear: our politics is not supposed to be nuanced. Our media sees every debate in the binary terms made famous by George W. Bush: 'Are you with us or against us?' (It is said, apocryphally, that when asked this question by former US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, Nehru replied: 'Yes'. In other words, I am with you when I agree with you, against you when I disagree; it depends on the issue.) Our media analysis admits of no other possibilities: one must be either for the CM, or against the CM. Seeing some issues worth endorsing, some issues worth criticizing and some neither-good-nor-bad in his statements and policies, is too complicated for our political analysts to digest.
This view of our politics, reinforced daily by the reports in our media, vitiates our political discourse. It reduces democracy to a zero-sum game where everything done by one side is automatically bad and unacceptable to the other. It explains the destructive Opposition politics of recent years, when the BJP ferociously opposed even policies it had itself worked for, merely because they were being implemented by the UPA, and UDF reflexively attacks any stand taken by the LDF.
It precludes the possibility of fair-minded debate and prevents the public from seeing our politicians as well-rounded human beings with minds of their own. Instead, everyone is reduced to a stock caricature, defined in absolute terms by their party affiliation alone. 'Party discipline' is invoked to stop people from thinking for themselves.
This is a disservice to our democracy-which, as the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen has pointed out, is supposed to be a process of deliberative reasoning, resulting in the best outcomes for the nation as a whole. Democracy is supposed to be an on-going process, one in which there must be give-and-take, dialogue and compromise among differing interests. Let us not reduce it to a game of action-reaction. Politicians in democracies are not meant to be Pavlov's dogs.
About the Author
Dr Shashi Tharoor, a third-term Member of Parliament for Thiruvananthapuram, chairs Parliament’s Standing Committee on Information Technology.