Monday, November 26

Bapa Rao channels George Orwell to study the link between truly awful political prose and awful government

Time was, Americans worried that the death of the Republic would be violent and sudden, in the manner of the Weimar Republic waking up one morning and finding itself the Third Reich. These days we know better; the death is a slow bleed from a thousand small cuts delivered not by goons but by educated sleight-of-hand artists who are paid to conjure a plausible explanation for anything at the expense of the inherent logic of language.  So one troubling aspect of Bapa Rao's August 3 writing for Outlook India magazine is that Americans don't need to know Indian politics to understand his observations.

He notes that in India politicians rarely write for the public. But that's because Indian politicians rarely have to field a challenge from the public about the massive corruption that afflicts government there. Now that a sustained challenge has been mounted Indians are set to experience what's happened in America since the 2009 Tea Party rebellion, which has been government officials fighting each other for space in editorial pages in order to defend the indefensible in the most confusing arguments they can think up.

Yet even Americans can gain insights from Bapa Rao's analysis of the labyrinthian arguments of the Oxford-educated Salman Khurshid, who was serving as Minister of Law and Justice at the time of the writing and was appointed Minister of External Affairs on October 28 by the ruling Congress Party.

Another development since August is that Khurshid became upset last month about a public accusation that he and his wife had embezzled from a trust their family set up to aid the physically handicapped. The BBC reported on October 17:
India's Law Minister Salman Khurshid has warned anti-corruption activist Arvind Kejriwal against visiting his constituency.

"He can come to Farrukhabad but should keep in mind that he has to return too," he was filmed telling a meeting.

Mr Khurshid said as the law minister, he had to "work with the pen. But I will also work with blood," he added.
Work with the pen he does, as you will see shortly. And considering he will also have to work with the U.S. Department of State in the course of his new duties he was hastily given an image makeover after his outburst.

Before turning over the floor to Bapa Rao, I'll thank him and Outlook India for giving me permission to republish his essay. I added a few additional links; this for readers who don't know about Anna Hazare ("Anna" is a Marathi word for father or elder) and the anti-corruption protests that coalesced around him in 2011.

For readers who want more information on the protests, which by 2012 had spread nationwide, I think this BBC profile of Arvind Kejriwal is helpful. Although Hazare is by no means a mere figurehead it's actually Kejriwal who organized the protests and kept them on track. Recently, in a surprising move, he struck off on his own to form a new political party. The name of the party is Aam Aadmi ("common man"); this usurps the motto of the dynastic Congress party, which has as much concern about the common man as did the court of Louis the 16th.

The new party, which has rooting corruption from government as the central platform, was launched just today -- November 26.  Readers who think the platform sounds hopelessly naive should read the Wikipedia article about Kejriwal, and do so before it gets updated again by another prankster in India's political establishment; even during the past couple days sentences have been lost to 'editing' notations regarding footnotes. Although the article writer's first language is obviously not English he or she provides enough data to indicate that Kejriwal knows exactly what he's doing, and knows where all the bodies are buried, as befits someone who worked for India's version of the U.S. Internal Revenue Service for more than a decade.

As to how India's political establishment and the one in the USA have been viewing Kejriwal's progress -- take a wild guess. I think a more interesting question is how the new party will be watched by anti-corruption activists in the USA and other countries, such as China. But now it's time to turn back the clock to early August, to a time before Aam Aadmi launched, before Salman Khurshid found himself publicly accused of corruption, and before the American documentary District of Corruption was released in the USA.

Unscrambling The Politician’s Prose
by K.V. Bapa Rao
Outlook India
August 3, 2012

Salman Khurshid's article Dunk Us All Into Liquid Oxygen doesn't quite manage to conceal that the ongoing events at Jantar Mantar reflect the anger of a great many Indians at the extent and scale of the culture of corruption in India’s political class.

The Indian people are pretty well hardened to the ineptitude and corruption of their politicians. But, as the recent power grid crash shows -- in a week that gave us a burning train, communal riots, highway deaths, attacks on women and another grid crash -- the politicians are always a step ahead of the people’s ability to take things in their stride. They see to it that we never lose our sense of wonder: what sort of minds, what thinking process, what value system, could possibly drive such a single-minded commitment to failure and disaster?

It’s all very well to say that they are venal and stupid; but that really isn’t any kind of answer. Consistent and massive failure in all imaginable fields is never the result of mere individuals acting out of ill intent; it needs organization. And an organization requires a guiding value system that drives a rationale for comprehensive failure and corruption. It is this value system and shared mental process that is revealed when a politician writes the rare article for public consumption.

Back in 1946 George Orwell wrote a short but insightful essay, Politics and the English Language, to explain the connection between badly-written prose and slimy political lies. The creator of the fictional Ministry of Truth (actually a factory of lies) made a lifetime study of the lies of public figures and the language they use for telling those lies. Orwell has this to say about politicians’ words:
In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. [Atrocious and morally unjustifiable things] can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.
Orwell’s insight was that when politicians write badly, the rotten prose is no accident but a direct result and symptom of the rotten values and rationale that the writers are trying to conceal. No one can write without revealing their brain at work; when you write to lie and deceive, it is hard for the brain to reconcile what it believes to be true with the deception which it is being asked to perpetrate in logical and clear prose. As a result, the writing ends up failing on both fronts: the prose comes out unclear and barely coherent, while the truth peeks out from the covers, and can be extracted, with some effort by the reader. This extracted truth is the “brutal argument” that Orwell is talking about.

Indian  politicians usually keep their brains well out of public view; they carefully avoiding putting words down for people to read and criticize. So Khurshid’s recent article in Outlook affords a rare opportunity to apply Orwell’s methods to probe an Indian politician’s mind and piece together the brutal argument that he is not giving us, but is not quite able to conceal either.

The title of the article, Dunk Us All Into Liquid Oxygen, is a wry allusion to a popular quotation attributed to the late Hindi film actor Ajit, known for his roles as clownish villains spouting quirky dialogue. Torment by “liquid oxygen” at the hands of Ajit’s henchmen would leave the victim in a painful state of being simultaneously not-alive (due to the liquid) and not-dead (due to the oxygen).

The piece is evidently intended as a plaint against the India Against Corruption (IAC) organization that is currently involved in a national agitation (against political corruption) and hunger strike at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi. Khurshid professes “caring” for Anna Hazare -- a prominent activist who has been on the hunger strike -- but insinuates that Hazare, while himself a good person, is, sadly, a lousy judge of character who keeps company with some very bad persons whom Khurshid ostentatiously refrains from naming. Khurshid expends a great many words on the dangers that these unnamed persons pose to the delicate fabric of society, in a darkly conspiratorial tone reminiscent of entrenched old-school demagogues inveighing against “outside agitators” out to pollute, and destroy, our precious political system.

Khurshid leaves no doubts at all about the sheer intense wickedness of these nameless enemies of the people. He signs off with a famous verse from the famous poem, The Second Coming by the famous poet W.B. Yeats:
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
It seems that Khurshid is actually quite angry with critics who have been giving his colleagues in the political class a hard time about corruption over the past year or so. In the article, he lays the blame squarely on these critics (who are “the worst”) for a deepening cynicism in the public about politics and the political system, and by conscious omission, holds the political class blameless and unjustly maligned. It is another thing that, to the public, it appears as though the political animals have been laying into the public weal like so many drunken monkeys unleashed on a banana boat. And just as those monkeys might, politicians become very cross indeed when someone has the nerve to try to thwart their orgy.

The gorging monkey analogy is rather unkind perhaps, but still apt. If the political class is driven by visions of loaves and fishes of office dancing in their eyes, they are hardly likely to take an interest in raising their standards of service to the public above simian levels, so to speak. Colossal power failures, trains lacking safety systems that were standard elsewhere in the 20th century, deadly roadways, subsistence levels of potable water, grinning indifference to enemy attacks on the nation’s cities, unspeakable sanitation, a disgraceful health care systems, a dodgy education system -- these and the rest of the dysfunctions besetting India all make sense now; they are built and maintained by the political equivalent of partying monkeys, when they can spare the time, that is.

Khurshid devotes a considerable portion of his article to fretting about what is to become of India’s pluralistic political system in the face of the debilitating demands of the dark forces, that is to say, the anti-corruption activists. On the face of it, this is nonsense -- corruption, or its impact, is the most pluralistic thing there is, sparing no one of whatever persuasion. Khurshid’s article is rather incoherent but not altogether useless. If we apply Orwell’s ideas and carefully read past, and into, the vaguely-worded but relatively well-written peroration, we can expose the “brutal argument.” Here are Khurshid’s concluding words:
The role of democratic politics is to find a workable arrangement between competing claims, ensuring, in the process, the stability of society. Where this breaks down, we are left exposed to the forces of unwholesome upheaval, even violence. The strength of Indian democracy is our unity in diversity. If the accommodation of legitimate interests is questioned every time, politics will not be a place for angels and idealistic young men and women. Young India will no longer dream, but will suffer the agony of unending nightmares. With the death of innocence in our times, what then will we tell our children? Who will join politics or become a judge? Will we bequeath to generations to come the lost years, because courage failed the good?
Khurshid evidently means to say that stability is paramount, and trumps all other concerns. Agitating against defalcations by the political class, harshly criticizing politicians, reacting to their bad-faith pretence at responsiveness with anger and refusing to back down -- all these things are the forces of unwholesome upheaval, and lead to bad consequences like the reluctance of young people to dream about becoming politicians, to be welcomed, nurtured and mentored as Khurshid himself was by his Congress Party.

But the conditions in which the majority of Indians are forced to live -- dangerous, deprived and unsanitary conditions engineered by Khurshid’s own political class -- are hardly a reasonable interpretation of stability or security, except by the inhumanly low standards that were imposed on the Indian people by persons like Khurshid, persons he evidently respects and admires. And if the Indian people don’t tear each other apart in despair and rage, it is no thanks to the politicians but due to the civilisational value system that Indians carry in their collective DNA.

So, what, then, is this stability that would be threatened when politicians are criticized? Well, the political class endeavoured, quite successfully, to insulate itself from the worst of the crippling consequences of its own corruption and comprehensive ineptitude, and the insulation has held steady. Anger directed at the political class could conceivably lead to a loss of this insulation, and politicians may have to actually put up with the consequences of their actions. With this in mind, we can now translate Khurshid’s words into plain English prose as follows, which would help us understand why he took the time to write his article:

Public corruption is not important. More precisely, it is far less important than political stability, which is to be maintained by a system of sharing the spoils of office with all political actors who can make enough trouble, thus pacifying them. When people actually confront corruption, but won’t settle for a cut of the action, it disrupts this political order. In the politicians’ eyes, this is the worst possible thing that can happen to India. Ergo, those that engage in such confrontation are the worst possible persons and therefore deserve the harshest possible treatment.

It is serious business, but the operative phrase above is “harshest possible.” Sometimes, harsh is less possible than at other times. After some experience, the politicians have learned to treat Anna Hazare with kid gloves. Less charismatic but still somewhat powerful colleagues of Hazare can be set apart from Hazare and blamed for destroying the country, but it is better to maintain a veneer of plausible deniability and avoid naming them, since they might possibly come around to be co-opted at some time.

Then there are powerless citizens like the hapless Gurgaon housewife Rajbala (no doubt one of the dark forces that worry Khurshid so) whom it was entirely possible to beat to death when she irritated the politicians by protesting against corruption. In the meantime, it is only prudent that the enabling machinery of protest and confrontation be crippled by effectively criminalizing, by default, all use of the internet.

If this is the honest rationale veiled by Khurshid’s opaque prose, then it is no wonder that, when tossing in the obligatory piety about commitment to accountability, debate and so forth, his prose dissolves into incomprehensible and self-contradictory near-gibberish:
Not for a moment should my position be thought to be seeking immunity from accountability. Ipso facto treating it as such would mean reluctance of the adversary to join in an open debate -- the essence of democracy, in whose name many self-opinionated, harsh, even irresponsible positions are being taken.
No one in their right mind would even try to interpret what the “ipso facto …” sentence could possibly mean. Considering the brazen opaqueness of that sentence and the evident impunity with which Khurshid utters it, what follows can only be a cliché-ridden falsehood:
Let me say it with all the emphasis at my command: We stand for the fullest transparency and accountability.
Here is Orwell again, about what lies behind such insults to the language:
The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.
When employed to camouflage a “brutal argument” with platitudes, cant and bombast, the frontal lobe of the brain blows a fuse, prose rebels, twists itself into knots, and turns into a hideous caricature, albeit one which still retains a flavour of the truth.

What Khurshid’s article doesn’t quite manage to conceal is the reality that the ongoing events at Jantar Mantar reflect the anger of a great many Indians at the extent and scale of the culture of corruption in India’s political class. Anger induces rigidity of outlook; mass anger has a way of generating simplistic and ultimately unhelpful, even harmful answers. However, considering the depth, breadth and duration of the politicians’ malfeasance, and their stubborn imperviousness to self-correction, the expressions of anger have been rather mild and the proposed solutions rational, lawful and fairly reasonable, for all their flaws.

Khurshid and his political colleagues are livid that people are angry with them; they simply refuse to admit the fact that the people’s anger is entirely justified, and that it is entirely the politicians’ fault that the people are angry. If today the politicians feel trapped, tormented and hectored on all sides, it is but the proper and deserved consequence of their own actions. Khurshid’s shoddily-written tantrum of an article is a symptom of the continued reliance of the politicians on bluff and bluster in their efforts to divide and neutralize the organizers of the agitation and dissipate the people’s anger.

Khurshid’s concerns about the risks posed by the people’s anger to the stability of society are disingenuous. The agitation has remained peaceful for over a year, a remarkable thing for a grassroots street movement. Khurshid and his fellow politicians have vast, virtually unlimited powers, and they do use them quite ruthlessly to protect their rather sweet little racket. Khurshid’s fear is that, once people feel empowered to scrutinize politicians, they will turn on the politicians with the same fervour that politicians exhibit when thwarted. He worries too much -- unlike the government of which Khurshid is a member, the anti-corruption agitators, for all their anger, haven’t yet beaten anyone to death yet for confronting them, nor have they criminalized the use of the internet.

The minister is right about one thing -- we do need capable young people of good character to enter the political profession, since the people cannot do without hired help to act as their proxies in the exercise of power and in the management and development of shared resources. A key requirement of the job would be the temperament to cheerfully accept intense scrutiny and criticism, even when it is unfair, all the while learning and striving to deliver higher standards of service, and communicating honestly and clearly with the employer.

The apprentice politician might find Khurshid’s article of some use -- as an Orwellian cautionary tale to show that defending the indefensible is morally wrong and rots your prose.


bdoran said...

"concern about the common man as did the court of Louis the 16th"

Read The Ancien Regime and the Revolution. Louis XVI was a Social Revolutionary. Caught in the Bourbon Web. He awakened the very people and they ate him.

Pundita said...

You quoted exactly what I wrote so I am going to assume you understand why I made the distinction of the court.

Madhu said...

This is a wonderful post. I sometimes wonder if the legendary "thin skinnedness" of some Indians living abroad to criticism is really a kind of shame at only being able to provide via remittances. What does that say about the technocratic and governing classes back home? You know, the very class from which certain diaspora arise....

Madhu said...

Also, as you stated, the letter can find its mark in lots of places around the world, not just India.

Pundita said...

Madhu - I'm so glad you liked it! The essay blew me away. When I first read it I showed it to a very smart attorney who's also an author and it blew him away too. It's the best analysis of the corrupt mind I've ever read.

I think so many Indians left India because there was no way to change the system. Now there's a way opening up.