Symbolic versus Substantive Actions – the politics of subjugation

By: Soonya Naidu

Now that the elections are announced we will see lot of symbolic gestures from all parties to garner support for themselves so that they can grab power.

Unfortunately many of us fall for symbolisms.

Empty symbolisms do not mean a thing.

Let us examine how political classes employ symbolisms to fool the public at large.

While I do acknowledge the importance of symbolisms which may offer dignity to people who have been undignified, offer solace to those who are powerless. Symbols do rally people and give them hope.

An Ambedkar as a symbol offers dignity and hope to Dalits to rally around an idea ,a thought symbolized by him.

But empty symbolisms do not add to substantive gains to the under-privileged.

We do hear CBN saying that he would make a BC the CM in Telangana. While it is an acknowledgement from the political class of the aspirations of the BCs seeking more space in the political firmament, the moot question is will that do anything good for the lives of BCs?

We have seen CMs hailing from Rayalaseema and their value add or lack of it to the region.

Here is where I do appreciate the work of Center for Dalit Studies and the work of Mallepalli Laxmaiah and others who fought to ensure that a bill is passed on Special Component Plan so that funds meant for the development of Dalits are not diverted than the purpose they are intended for.

That is a first gain in getting a foothold in the nuanced world of power. But again an act is as good as its implementation in real life.

While we all welcomed the Nirbhaya Act, did atrocities against women recede?

What does it take to make our society a safe place for our women and girls? How do the implementation agencies execute the intent of the act? Have the attitudes of SHO’s in police stations changed? Can a woman go to a police station in the night and complain without putting herself at risk of either abuse or indignity? Has India become a safer place for women overnight after the enactment of the new law?

Obviously the answers are not so simple.

Politicians understand how to manage the rage and anger of public against discrimination or a perceived problem. They simply enact a law and wash their hands off. Now for some it may sound like a pessimistic view. Far from it.

People lose steam arising from the righteous anger against social ills when the political class enacts a law and make us believe as if that is enough to solve the real problems of the real world. Or they resort to promises of making a BC, an SC or a Muslim a CM!

The questions that arise in my mind when some of our BC leaders demand that a BC or an SC be made a CM or ask for number of seats in our legislatures do they comprehend the games the political classes can play while giving in to the demand? Does it mean better allocation of resources? Does it mean betterment of lives of BCs? What the real problems of BCs? What institutional and other mechanisms are put in place to solve the real problems? What oversight is provided by the political and administrative leadership? What mechanisms are there for BCs to ensure that the mechanisms work? Do the BC representatives have the bandwidth to ensure that the mechanisms work and understand them? Where does one to or what can one do if the mechanisms do not work or fail? Without answering these we may as well have allowed ourselves to be fooled by the political classes.

I believe seeking symbolic gestures is oversimplifying a challenge.

Would a BC CM being installed to the highest office in a state automatically solve the problems that BCs face? Would a Muslim being made a CM similarly solve the challenges the community faces?

Even if there are enough number of BCs or SCs in the legislature would that turn into some benefits for the communities affected?

I’d rather hold the political class to scrutiny to evaluate their intent in terms of building institutional mechanisms to enable real empowerment and betterment of the lives of the affected classes. And a depth of understanding in the leadership representing these classes to hold the political and administrative classes to scrutiny.

I’d like the public hold them accountable in the harsh light of reality and substantive changes in the lives of the affected. Changes that must be defined in objective terms.

Symbolic affirmative action or steps are only the first step of change. It is just an acknowledgement by the ruling classes of the aspirations and demands of those affected. In itself it is a necessary but not sufficient condition for amelioration of the challenges that a community faces in REAL life. Not more, not less.

We have seen how the Congress conceded Telangana with so many conditions and tied down the freedoms of the new born state in so many institutional knots, it is not funny any more.

It was only Asaduddin Owaisi with his 60+ amendments sought for the T –Bill who seems to have some grasp of the nuanced knots that the Seemandhra Lobby was successful in tying the T state in.

We must also seriously evaluate the role of BJP in the game. How two Naidus together tied the new state down.

I am not undermining the wonderful achievement of getting the T state. But to rest and believe the war is won is to lull ourselves into slumber-like state.

We have only won a battle. The war is yet to be won.

Similarly we must look through the symbolic offerings from political parties and demand that they offer more substantive solutions than mere symbolisms.

Like George Carlin the famous political commentator and stand-up comedian said, symbols are for simble people. We ought not to become ‘Symble’ people.

We may have to resort to the games children play to harass their parents, and ask so what? And again so what? And once again so what? And also add – so how? So how does a symbolic gesture go beyond and deliver and solve the challenges that we face.

When our leadership has such ability and ability to understand how institutions work, and know how to make them work for the people, then we are sure that we are on the path of real democracy and real freedom.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *