Seeking Superman

Written by Subhomoy Bhattacharjee | Updated: Sep 15 2013, 08:15am hrs
When DC Comics launched Superman in 1938, it was the final acclamation in popular imagination of the concept of a superhero who could rid the world of evil that ordinary folks cannot handle. The naive idea, however, had already a rich history in the various streams of social sciences, beginning from the concept of Ubermensch of Nietzsche, but which rapidly flowered in the early decades of the 20th century.

Was it inevitable that a Superman culture would develop at that period The world had entered the 20th century when, for the first time, there were hardly any ruling as opposed to reigning monarchs in major countries. Yet the population, for millenniums used to a procession of those, was possibly unsure of the new terrain. Democracy at its initial stages can be messy. Was that the reason why oligarchy seemed such an appealing concept to many of the thinkers

Anyway, the pogrom by Hitler left the world quite clear where some of these concepts could lead up to. And so, except in comics, the fascination with Superman was over.

Subsequently, as more countries gravitated to the orbit of the democratic cycle, they have come to realise that this governance is often messy, leaders can be often more weak than anticipated and results take time to deliver. Yet it is still infinitely preferable to the demi-god status that Superman or an oligarchy imposes on the nation. Countries have painfully realised that to move ahead, an ordinary boss often scores better than a charismatic one.

For instance, despite coming through with a support that few presidents in the United States have enjoyed when moving into the White House, Barack Obama has had more failures than success. Even on a dour issue like raising the limit on US public debt, he has faced opposition that is possibly made larger by his persona, that a workmanlike president might not face.

But nearer home, despite such a century of experience, it would seem these thoughts have not vanished altogether. One of the clear residues the UPA governments, both I & II, will leave is to rekindle this demand for a superhero as a way out of the gridlock of inactivity the economy finds itself in.

Rather too many commentators on India are gravitating to a position of calling upon some sort of deux ex machina to solve several economic impasses.

Prof Dipankar Gupta makes a pitch for this line for argument in his Revolution from Above: Indias Future and the Citizen Elite. He carries on the same lines as Gurcharan Das did in India Grows at Night, where he argues for the creation of a political party that will stand apart from the present grubby group of politicians.

Gupta, too, argues that the poor people cannot revolt on their own. So they need a benevolent set of people from above to steer theman elite.

No doubt, the citizen elite will be drawn from the ranks of the established elite, yet they are exceptional individuals in that they can see the big picture. They may be philanthropic, well connected and affluent, but that does not define then entirely. In fact, middle class individuals can also be elite of the kind necessary.

Gupta declares Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru as two examples from India of this signature group.

It is hard to refute any argument that takes Gandhi as its point of departure. But the definition of him as elite, no matter by whichever standards, could make his followers squirm.

Gupta identifies the right problems, like those of sub-national migration or that of urbanisation as issues for which the political class has few solutions to offer. But he feels that just as Gandhi and Nehru were acceptable as elite and so able to succeed in similar difficult terrain, he wants to see the flowering of such a band of men and women at this stage too. He takes Manmohan Singh to task in the same vein and says he has failed as a philosopher king.

This is dangerous territory. It is also not accurate.

Despite the lavish praise Gupta showers on both Gandhi and Nehru, they had a rich history of social compact mobilised by people as diverse as Jyotiba Phule to even later day Baba Saheb Ambedkar to rely upon when they began to measure India. None of these others had the stamp of elite, but were the products of diverse democratic developments that carried aspirations, which, in turn, fueled the nationalist movement.

It is true that often looking into the morass of problems that contemporary India has thrown up, the solutions seem intractable, at times. Yet more than a reasoned analysis from a well-meaning group of thinkers, it is the chaotic frenzy that is often providing solutions.

The spread of telecom did not follow any planned mandate and neither did the rapid spread of education into even villages owe much to a conscious policy. They emerged from the felt needs of the people and the opportunity that these provided to the entrepreneurs to feed on them.

Even the pace of urbanisation and within it the tumultuous voices for security, especially for working women, are challenges that the government was totally unprepared for. The presence of a citizen elite would have hardly helped since it is not in the thick of things.

Gupta raises some very pertinent questions on a wide range of issues, like the position of employers on labour reforms or the stress created by sub-national migration. But while labour reforms tracked by an elite of sorts has made India move towards automation in the manufacturing sector, the rush for Aadhar cards shows migration might not remain a headache for long. Instead, it could spur demand for low-cost housing that will be large enough to attract buyers and make the oversight on education by parents the best antidote to teacher absenteeism.

India, it seems, does have a future, but not through spawning an elite. The democracy has learned to take care of itself, through mistakes and successes.