Corruption, he claimed, was a sign of their confidence in handling the system, an ability
to face up to the arrogance of the elite. However it did little to clear the air, with TV
anchor Ashutosh describing Nandy’s statement as “bizarre”. How does one look at such
a controversy which has Orwellian tones of some one being more corrupt than others?
What Nandy defines as agency, as hope, is treated by others as an attribute, or
essentialism about lower castes.
One wished the critics had a hearing aid.
Nandy was claiming that equitable corruption was indicator of the health of the
openness of the system. He was implying that the right to corruption is as critical a
right as the right to property, development or free speech. It was a nuanced argument
probably made in a unnuanced way. A chorus of political correctness cannibalized the
quote without any sense of Nandy’s writings or his politics. Here was a man who had
consistently argued that politics was the most open of systems, more open to new
players and new ideas than the economy or education. A systemic comment was misread
as a personal statement.
There is something about our politics that combines subaltern ideas and populist
statements into a lethal hybrid of political correctness. Dalits and OBCs are treated as
sacred cows. We provide them with an official identity kit while trampling their life chances.
Nandy was trying to break through that hypocrisy, but unfortunately got caught in a fly
trap of populism. Mayawati and Kejriwal both had their field day.
One must emphasize that Nandy as a public Intellectual has always been controversial.
His writings on Sati, or the scientific temper or on Gandhi’s assassination attracted
similar vitriol. Nandy has mellowed but he still remains a ‘street fighter,’ ready to grapple
with the fate of ideas, obsessed with the idea of democracy.
This brings me to the last point, the importance of context for text. Maybe Nandy’s
statement came on a day when official unity walked in uniform. Republic day presents
Indian culture in statist tableaux. Fortunately this sense of order was challenged by the
disorderly order of the Kumbh where a civilization festival provided a context to a parade
of the nation’s state on Republic day.
Bollywood turned out at its official best where patriotism from Manoj Kumar to Lagaan
was the preferred idiom. But Nandy once again proved the joker of conflating levels by
reading corruption by Dalits as part of the new agency of democracy. He played the
gadfly and public intellectual.
The question is, can democracy learn to listen and then respond? A provocation can
be domesticated by an argument. Sadly one heard very few arguments. What one
saw instead, was provocation being met by a vigilantism of political correctness. One
hopes that more playful minds enter the debate. The Nandy controversy is a perfect
fable of our literary and cultural impasse as constructed through politics.
Shiv Visvanathan is a social science nomad.