Para ninda, Para charcha

The chat-behind-the-back has emerged as a 'political right' of the ordinary people, a way to defy authority and try and keep it in check.

[Note: With this issue, we begin an irregular series on writings from the 'la nga uge' journals of Southasia. This first instalment is from the Bangla journal Ekak Matra, published in its edition Vol.4, No.4, January-February, 2004. Translation by the writer.]

If the prevalent notion of democracy, notwithstanding its refractions and ambiguities in practice, ultimately boils down to the rule by the elected representatives of the people, it cannot but be an exercise in communication. To be precise, it is supposed to rest on a two way-process of exchange of messages and ideas, both substantive and symbolic, between the rulers and the ruled. Both sides are supposed to benefit from the communicative exercise. The rulers benefit because through this process they not only keep in touch with the people whom they would periodically face in the elections but also because, by being informed of various demands and. grievances of the people, they find a sense of direction in governance. On the other hand, through the same exercise the ruled come to realise that they do have a role in governance, at least an indirect part in determining the policies being formulated and implemented. The process also enables the ordinary people to get rid of the 'illusion of omnipotence' about the rulers — the idea that that the rulers have the unlimited capacity to provide them with whatever they want. However, the question is do the rulers of the third world (including as it should Southasia) care to treat democracy as a communicative exercise? If not, what option is left to the ordinary people in terms of their political communication — of communicating about the polity and politicians in general and the rulers in particular?

My concern here is to defend and justify a specific kind of practice — chat-behind-the-back — of the ordinary people, by which the ruled make critical evaluation of the leaders. In Bangla, this practice is known as para ninda, para charcha, with a widely-used acronym PNPC. We shall subsequently point out that the chat-behind-the-back is different from gossip. But before we mention its characteristics let us explain why it earns the status of 'unofficial' political right of the ordinary people.

Communication: rulers' zone of silence

There is hardly any doubt that a yawning gap exists between the privileged and powerful rulers and the ordinary people. This is not only true in the cases of authoritarian and dictatorial rulers but also in the cases of those who swear by democracy. Take the case of India, the world's largest democracy. Have the Indian rulers taken a pause and thought of making democracy a communicative exercise? The 'communication' which they generally indulge in tends to be of two kinds. The first, mostly on the eve of elections, rests on slogans and rhetoric relating to achievements, backed up by impossible-to-fulfil promises of after being elected. The second is seen in 'normal times': top-down information dissemination — from the rulers to the ruled — with little scope for feedback from those down below.

To take a specific example, ordinary Indians today are being subject to an extraordinary publicity-blitz of the 'India Shining' campaign, apparently by the Government of India, but in effect, by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA). The advertisements and commercials that are part of the 1NR 500 crore-campaign (Over USD 110 million) are full of distortions, myths, false claims and clever manipulation of facts about India's march towards development. What does it signify? This publicity-blitz, coinciding with the coming of the parliamentary elections starting in April, reveals a government-in-hurry to let people know what it has done so far. That only proves that regular rulers-to-ruled communication has been missing. It is important to note that the tendency to put ordinary people in detention incommunicado is true of the rulers of all shapes and sizes — irrespective of their ideological affiliations. Thus, when the Congress Party criticises those in power for "misleading people by the false feel-good mood" through this campaign it tends to forget a piece of recent history. When in power it was responsible for dealing the severest blow to the Indian democracy — by imposing the Emergency in the 1970s. During the Emergency one of the most favourite slogans of then Indian government was "work more, talk less". It was a classic case of the rulers becoming the guardians of 'juvenile' citizens and telling them to keep their mouth shut on issues of governance. The obvious toll: democracy as communicative exercise!

If communication remains the blind spot of the rulers, its source lies in their ingrained attitude of treating power in terms of a zero-sum game. Thus, in their perception, power is something they should possess in totality; otherwise, they consider themselves powerless. Whatever may be the specificities of the polity of, say for instance, the Southasian countries — in terms of Nepal's experiment with cohabitation of monarchy and democracy, Bangladesh's rotation with military rule and party rule, Pakistan's 'mix' of democracy and military rule, and Sri Lanka's contention with the presidential and the parliamentary systems — the rulers display a splendid, if dangerous, commonality in defying the status of democracy as a communicative exercise. Interestingly, if this is the scenario in countries which have adopted democracy in one way or other, one can well imagine what the scenario is in countries like Bhutan, or for that matter in Burma or Malaysia. In Malaysia, the leading figure of the opposition has been thrown into jail and beaten black and blue — in the name of protecting "Asian Values". Dissent is a dirty word for the ruling class in such countries. And the best formula identified by such rulers to stall, stunt and uproot dissent is to resort to, at best, one-way information flow, and at worst, silence.

Weapon of the ruled

The fact, however, remains that despite the rulers' hostility to communication, the supposedly inactive and indifferent ordinary citizens continue to communicate. Indeed, the chat-behind-the-back is part of the everyday life communication of the ordinary people. It is important to differentiate this 'subversive' practice from what is generally known as gossip. The chat-behind-the-back (PNPC) is of a different genre even if on certain occasions it can come close to gossip. Gossip involves much more trivia than chat-behind-the-back which has greater depth and spread. To indulge in PNPC, one needs to possess some facts and data. There may be some degree of exaggeration, distortion and simplification and even speculation in it but it has greater degree of critical insights than what gossip, which relies overwhelmingly on imagined situation and free-floating speculation, could muster. Last but not the least, chat-behind-the-back is, generally speaking, more oriented to the public conduct of the rulers and less on their private conduct while in the case of gossip the reverse is true. What is most interesting is that while chat-behind-the-back relies more on issues of public concern, it remains a 'private' practice or act.

Chat-behind-the-back can vary in terms of intensity and focus of criticism. Thus, when one argues that a particular leader is useless there is sharp focus on him/her, and the intensity of the criticism is greater. But when one argues that the leader has not been able to do much because his /her party has been the main constraint, the focus is more diffused and the intensity of criticism is relatively less. Even if the fact remains that one cannot take into consideration the innumerable instances of PNPC in countries of Southasia, one can hazard a guess to point out that in most cases they are of the first category. The reason is the sense of insecurity and the feeling of frustration of ordinary people, which make the rulers aliens in their own land. The leaders, notwithstanding their occasional visibility through a cavalcade of cars and army of security personnel, remain so hidden from us that we have little scope to vent our feelings directly. The countries we live in are far different from those of Scandinavia in which the top-rung leaders could be found mingling with ordinary mortals in shopping malls, cinema and opera houses. Nor do we have a Hyde Park-like space where we can publicly criticise our leaders in little gatherings. In the absence of so many opportunities, the only option left is chat-behind-the-back. It also remains the people's answer to the reluctance of our rulers to grant the third-generation human rights — the Right to Information and the Right to Communicate.

Purifying politics

There are some sceptical pundits who raise doubts about the relevance of the rights to information and communication. Their logic runs something like this: because the ordinary people are not conscious enough of the political and democratic rights they have little need for them. But one can raise a counter-question: on how many occasions have the rulers cared to provide these rights to the people to come to the conclusion that the people themselves are absolutely unable to appreciate them? On the contrary, on various occasions in these countries it is the people at large who have shown their political acumen and respect for civil and political rights. Thus, it was the ordinary Indians who were instrumental in throwing out the government which promulgated the Emergency, through the parliamentary elections of 1977. True, such occasions do not come frequently. It is also true that, what should be the ways in which the ordinary people would express their opinions in adverse political situations is a question that defies easy, simplistic answers.

It is difficult to organise referendums in Southasian countries in the Scandinavian style, to hear the people's true voice; even if they are held, as in the case of military-ruled Pakistan, the result is a mere sham. When it comes to elections, all over Southasia, the rulers take exceptional care to put hurdles to prevent voting from being free and fair. This must be the reason why Bangladesh has introduced the system of "caretaker government" in conducting elections. This is also the reason why the Election Commission in India takes so much trouble in supervising the code of conduct for political parties. The same reason induces the visit of foreign observers during the elections in Southasian countries. However, no system is totally secure especially when the ruling class does not want it to be so.

If politics is fundamentally a process of conflict resolution or conflict management, it must encourage deliberations, discussions and debates on various issues of common concern. When it is not encouraged by the powers that be, that signals a possible end of politics. But then 'politics' has an exceptional survival instinct. Even when the establishment plays the game of depoliticisation, politics — in the form of disagreement and dissent — continues to survive in multiple centres and in multiple forms, not necessarily making itself audible and visible. The chat-behind-the-back of rulers might be construed as largely the inaudible and invisible version of politics even if it has a public character, being a process that involves group/s of people.

How is politics purified by PNPC? By reversal of the existing scenario, even if for a short duration. To explain, by this process the 'powerless' ordinary people become the 'shooters' and the leaders become the 'target' of attack. What is even more interesting is that this process 'freezes' the leaders; they cannot react because they are not physically present. This precludes any kind of protest and resistance on their part. Even the leaders prone to using violence to establish their rule meet the same fate in being 'freezed'. As a result, the ordinary people become 'empowered' for the time being; they also become, even unknowingly, the custodians of hidden reflexivity.

Where have the analysts gone?

One major concern is the lack of focus on PNPC by the leading political analysts. It is interesting that even if analyses of political communication have proliferated in recent times, and scholars have been theorising everyday-life interactions such as gossip, the chat-behind-the-back as an important element of political communication has not been given serious thought. It is understandable that it might not be of great interest to the Western scholars who treat it in terms of 'manipulative' or 'distorted' communication. Being guided by the 'ultimate' goal of the expansion of West-centric rationality and application, they believe, based on the reality of their situation, that the freedom of expression has already secured institutional recognition. In their view of things, what is at best needed is to protect this freedom from the onslaught of capital.

For some scholars, as for American sociologist Michael Schudson "conversation is not the soul of democracy", because such "spontaneous" practice has nothing to do with the "refined, formal and purposive" process of problem-solution such as politics. What remains out of the sight of Western scholarship is the 'reality of falsehood' in countries such as ours, in which bureaucrat-ism goes on in the name of people-centrism; centralisation in the name of decentralisation; underdevelopment in the name of development; manipulation of rules in the name of maintaining law and order; regimentation in the name of free flow of ideas. What is particularly surprising is that the scholars from the non-Western world have largely followed the line of their Western counterparts in being indifferent to behind-the-back-ism in politics even if the surrounding lived reality is so different. The reason for this might be found in the fact that most Third World scholars, being educated in the Western mode and methods, find it more convenient and satisfying to blindly follow their Occidental gurus, rather than taking the trouble of exploring more appropriate issues and relevant methods that are truer reflections of their 'own' reality.

The new 'ism'

But while the analysts may remain indifferent to it, chat-behind-the-back goes on undeterred in buses, trains, offices, college and university-campuses and even in friendly gatherings. Not only that, its utility in the life of the people is making PNPC a transnational and global practice in the new millennium. Thanks to the spectacular progress of information technology (IT) chat-behind-the-back about the rulers is having a kind of reach with a pace that was unthinkable even a few years back. Thus, sitting in India one relies on the Internet to carry on chat-behind-the-back with friends from the other countries of Southasia. The result: so many Southasian leaders become the 'freezed' targets of attack. The range of targets gets even broader with even the world strongman, George W Bush, being made the feckless target. All said and done, and despite the neglect of the scholar, chat-behind-the-back has earned the status of a 'political right' by default. In displaying tremendous apathy in granting the designated democratic rights to the ordinary people the rulers have themselves enhanced its significance. This is the paradox, or is it irony?

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Himal Southasian