Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Comfort of Conspiracies

Arun Shourie
"Why do you keep doing this?", I keep asking. Another press conference has been held, another statement reprimanding Government has been issued, another "massive demonstration" protesting against the Government's "failure to extricate India from the clutches of the WTO" has been announced. The person I have in mind are activists -- like others, they have made a bit of a mark denouncing WTO, the patents Bill, the decision on insurance etc. The difference is that in the public eye the organizations for which they speak, issue statements, announce morchas and the rest, are part of the same parivar as the Government.

"But we must occupy the opposition-space," they say. "The economy is already in great difficulties. It is going to be in an even greater mess soon. If we don't claim this space, the Communists will."

Strange -- at least at first sight. Here, after years of striving and waiting, their parivar has got to form the Government, and they are worried, not about what their actions will do to the prospects of their group continuing to occupy the "Government space", but about its losing the "opposition-space"! People become accustomed to exile! Having spent almost one's entire working life in opposition, that is the only role one knows: hectoring, scolding -- and leaving the doing to others. The group is not comfortable when, suddenly, it has to account for everything that goes wrong. Its members, therefore, gravitate to a behaviour-pattern which will get them back to the role to which they had got accustomed.

Not just exile, failure is as likely as anything else to become a habit! Indeed, in India failure is proof of fidelity! That a person has not succeeded, is taken as proof of his having stuck to principles! If Chance and circumstance propel his group to success, he must work for the second-best: ensure that the group does not say there long!

Definitions somersault. Words acquire the contrary meaning. To you and me, that the activist would have destroyed the Government, would seem a colossal failure. But in his reckoning, he would have succeeded in destroying it! But it is not all principle. There is prudence also. "No Government can do much about India's problems, so intractable are they by now," the reasoning goes, "In any case, not a Government constituted as this one is. What we have to ensure is that it goes out on an issue of its choice, at a time of its choice." That no issue can salvage a group which has shown incapacity to govern -- governance being the basic back of Government - does not seem to register on these theoreticians.

Their sights encompass more than mere Governments. "You are worried about the 'opposition-space", I say. "What you are doing only ensure that the Government loses its credibility further." "The Government's credibility is gone in any case," they reason, "What we have to ensure is that the credibility of the other organizations does not go with it."

Strange again: who will put faith in organizations that break the very instrument by which they could have realised the goals they profess? But the logic of the "failure-proves-fidelity" school is the exact opposite. In their calculus, that they are prepared to bring down their own Government proves to the activists that they are more committed to those goals than to "mere office"! That the people could conclude something else -- that the activists are just bull-headed -- doesn't cross their minds. Governments come and go, they declare loftily, we are working for a vichar-dhara...

Sometimes I feel it is just plain naivete -- they do not really believe that the injury they are inflicting on their own Government will be fatal: and you can't reason with them -- the last thing that evidence can convince us of is what we do not want to believe. At other times, it seems the old ailment itself, the belief so common in our public life, the belief in one's cleverness -- in this case, that one can steer through by talking from both sides of one's mouth: the belief that as Government is continuing to press ahead with liberalization, the industrialists will think well of it; and that as the activists are continuing to agitate against globalization, those who are liable to get hurt by the opening up will rush to the larger family... "You mean we should just dump the massive support our programme has gathered among the people?," an enthusiast demanded recently. I felt that he had been carried away by the space that his pronouncements had been getting in the newspapers. The moments the Government is ousted, the news-value of what persons like him are saying will be next to zero. That seems obvious to me, but I get nowhere with the enthusiasts.

And for a special reason: there is a distortion in vision peculiar to the activist. To go on toiling away in the face of so many odds, the activist has to believe that, though they may not be visible, vast numbers are behind what he is doing. At times it is a necessary delusion -- but for such self-hypnosis one would give up. The trouble is that it is not always warranted, it takes a diviner as subtle as Gandhi to know when, in spite of being absent, the people are in secret sympathy, and when they are absent because they really don't care.

There is also the snare of consistency. "If we dilute our programme now that we are the ruling party," the reasoning goes, "people will say that the issue we raised was just an artifice, that we are not sincere about it." In part, the impulse is genuine faith: activists are like other believers -- to them heresy is worse than kufr. In part, it is a compound: of an excessive concern with image, on the one hand -- "What will people say of me?"; the anxiety here is not heresy, per se, but that others should not think of one as having lapsed -- and, on the other, an exaggerated view of one's importance -- the feeling that others have little to do except keep looking at what one is doing.

"It is all a conspiracy. Their economies are collapsing. They need our markets. We are committed to national strength, our Government exploded the atomic bomb. They do not want any Government to survive which is for a strong, independent India. International forces and their domestic agents have joined hands..."

The activist is more prone to rush to this sort of a belief than others -- so convinced is he of his cause anyone who does not agree with him is in his eyes obviously doing so for some ulterior reason. But this conviction -- that others are conspiring against them -- is not confined to activists. It seems to be common to Governments. "Foreign hand behind the conspiracy," Mrs Gandhi used to say. "A conspiracy of forces out to destabilize the country," Rajiv used to say. "Conspiracy of forces opposed to social justice," the Janata Dal leaders used to say. "A lie, a right-wing conspiracy," said the Clintons. "A conspiracy of communal forces," say Laloo and Mulayam Singh. "A conspiracy of the forces that are opposed to India becoming strong," say the leaders.... Such a comforting conviction -- that what is happening to one is the result of the conspiracies of others.

It enables one to continue in one's habits: as the present situation in which we find ourselves is the result of the conspiracies of others, everything will be all right once the others stop conspiring; we don't have to change our ways.

It exempts one from responsibility, from seeing that we have been brought to the present pass by something we have done or failed to do. Indeed, it exalts one. As one is, by definition, good, one is the object of conspiracies of the evil. If the conspiracies succeed, the case is proved: for in addition to being good, one is proven to be innocence itself.

Comforting, and self-reinforcing. The more we believe that others are conspiring against us, the narrower the circle in which we move. The narrower our circle, the greater will be proportion among those we encounter of persons who will bring us evidence of conspiracies. The more we shout, "Conspiracy, conspiracy," the less the world believes our charge. The less it believes us, the more convinced we get that the conspirators have succeeded in brainwashing and co-opting the rest.

But the more we succeed in convincing others that our adversary is a lowly, evil conspirator, the less he has to lose by conspiring. Nor does anyone seem to see that the crimes to which people have got accustomed, the crimes they expect politicians to routinely commit are so grave that to charge someone with conspiring is to place a flea on a dung heap. Moreover, the more the leadership proclaims that the current plight is the result of the conspiracies of others, the more it weakens itself even within the organization: as that is the case, there is that much less of a ground for taking steps against the ones whose negligence is responsible for bringing the group to that pass. I would, therefore, suggest that before putting their faith in conspiracy theories, leaders should ask a few questions.

To what extent can the current pass be explained by factors other than conspiracies of outsiders? Take for instance, the current image of disarray: can this image not be entirely explained by the doings of allies, of the Government's ministers, of affiliated organizations? Once the doing of these are arrayed, is there anything left which one has to put at the door of conspirators?

Second, it is but the job of parties which are in opposition to seek to replace the party in Government. Coordinating moves with others, opening lines to allies, taking advantage of one's blunders -- these are part of that job. Decrying them as conspiracies carries little conviction. A good test for a party is: if it were confident that the stratagem which the other is using will succeed, would it not have used the stratagem? And, when it did so, would it have regarded the charge of conspiracy as valid?

Third, every party has or has had control over some Government or the other some Central, State or Municipal Government or the other. Is there a single Government among the ones it has controlled which has been sufficiently free from the conspiracies of others that the leaders can point to it and say, "See, that is what we are capable of doing?

Fourth, it should recall the reasons -- always so many, always so detailed -- that it gave before an event -- say, an election, a rally -- why that encounter will go massively in its favour. And the reasons -- even more numerous, even more specific -- that it gives after the event to explain away its having gone the other way. The greater the discrepancy between the first and second sets, the more the result has to do with its own deeds, the less it has to do with the conspiracies of others.

Fifth, to how many persons outside their circle are the members of the group listening? When those outsiders talk of the State in which its movement or group is, do they ascribe it to conspiracies of others, or to what that group and its affiliates are doing?

Finally, is that circle itself getting narrower? Are more and more persons, specially those whom the group had flaunted till yesterday, joining the ranks of the ones it says are conspiring against it? Recall the Bolsheviks: all comrades one day, Trotsky the incomparable commander, Bukharin the theoretician; the next day, Trotsky the archconspirator, Bukharin the saboteur. Recall the Chinese communists: Liu Shao-chi, a founder, his essays and tracts compulsory reading one day, a closet-enemy the next; Lin Piao, the designated successor one day, the diabolic enemy the next... Soon, anyone who does not believe that there is a conspiracy afoot, by the very fact of believing that charge proves that he has crossed over to the enemy, that he has become a part of the conspiracy...

If after answering these questions, there is still ground for believing in a conspiracy, may be there is one. But in that case, surely, the operational conclusion is the exact opposite of the one on which individuals and organizations seem to proceed today. Precisely because there is a conspiracy to, say, bring down your Government, shouldn't you be behaving even more responsibly? Should you be doing things that help the conspirators who do not want to see, say, a strong India?

Daily Excelsior
February 26, 1999

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