This is what I saw at an Indian airport yesterday. A group of construction workers were going through security. They were led by a sub-contractor shouting instructions and they were clearly flying to some local destination where they would work as manual labor. Never having flown before, they were unsure what to do at the security check area. One of them took the initiative and, as the BSF police looked on bewildered, tried to put himself through the security machine. When stopped, he threw a tantrum asking why he couldn’t do that.
What interested me, what not so much the general hilarity of the situation (the upper middle classes looked on and giggled as this man hoisted himself on the conveyor belt and went through the x ray scan), but the conversation among the group prior.
One said, “When FDI comes, the MLA is saying, foreigners will go house to house and shoot small shopkeepers”. “That’s not fair”, said another. “That’s what the government has allowed”, said a third.
In a country as diverse in education and ideas as ours, the term “populist” gets thrown around a lot. Any idea which is socially or economically complicated to explain to an average person, and whose immediate benefits aren’t tangible, is opposed. And the media says a political party has turned to populist appeal. What they really mean by populist is illiterate.
The 80’s TV show, Yes Prime Minister had a great explanation of education in a democracy. “Yes education is fine”, said Sir Humphrey, who plays a bureaucrat, “but with limits. We shouldn’t go crazy and allow the people to think for themselves”.
“There is an assumption that a vast swath of this country, that’s not urban, without access to worldly ideas, must be fools”, a political commentator explained. “That’s why if you watch any speech in the villages during election years, there is very little explanation on how to improve civic infrastructure, schools, healthcare. Most of it is mimicry of the rival candidate. People laugh. Politician leaves in his/her helicopter, thinking they’ve done a stellar job.”
The assumption here clearly is that if difficult ideas are explained to the poor and illiterate, they wouldn’t understand. So easiest to go for the lowest common denominator, play to the illiteracy rather than away from it.
“You see it in Bollywood stories all the time”, explained a screenwriter. “They say, oh, the people won’t understand, so let’s do the dumbest thing possible. Just make the character slap someone or do farting noises or show cleavage. That’s what India wants”.
The result in all this therefore, is people going around saying Ikea are basically Swedes with machine guns, auto drivers (that dangerous lot) from a certain state are responsible for all of Mumbai’s woes, and if you are at a domestic airport security check, not only should you scan yourself, but encourage others to join you.
“Stupidity is a vicious cycle”, said a professor friend, “but it’s easiest.” “These people are bad”, is a much simpler selling point than, “this policy is a mixed bag, judge for yourself”.
What’s lovely about this is that it not only keeps ignorance steady, it also allows urban educated people to feel superior. “The great advantage of urban thought leaders, politicians, or anyone, preaching what passes for populism, is that it allows them to say, you don’t know, I know, let me decide for you”, explained a friend who works with an NGO, adding, “the superior attitude of the middle and upper classes and everyone else, doesn’t come from money, which you would think, but from assuming that the lower middle classes know nothing.”
And once in a while, when one sees someone trying to go through a scanning machine or thrusting shirtless to a Katrina Kaif song, the urban opinion makers say, “see I told you so”.
When I overheard the FDI conversation, I thought, right, I am an urban educated person, time for me to enlighten these construction workers about security etiquette and the pros and cons of foreign direct investment in multi-brand retail (of which, I knew nothing. Except to have walked past a protest against Wal-Mart once, in, as irony would have it, New York).
Just as I was about to interrupt them, to launch into a lesson in basic economics and aviation, another construction worker said to his friends in Hindi, “You’re talking nonsense. Everywhere in the world, they’ve had big chains for almost a century and small shops not only thrived but multiplied. Plus with competition, the ultimate consumer benefits because of the range of choices. Competition increases efficiency, millions of new jobs are created, technology improves food transport and storage, middle-men are cut out, farmers get fair prices, tones of food doesn’t rot, maybe all of India will get to eat. And get off the conveyor belt, you’re embarrassing us!”
I crept away, sheepish.
I didn’t know whether he was right or wrong but it sounded convincing.
Perhaps the illiterates are us.
Anuvab Pal is a playwright and screenwriter. His next novel, Chaos Theory, based on his play, hits the bookstores nationwide this November.
Image Source: [http://www.flickr.com/photos/austins_only_paper/505037950/]