[Reader-list] FW: Missing Public Intellectual by S Srinivasaraju

lalitha kamath elkamath at yahoo.com
Sat Jun 14 11:24:56 IST 2008


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Web| Jun 11, 2008 

Bangalore Byte

Missing: Public Intellectual 

The simple
fact about the just concluded polls is that there was no big point
made, no big idea discussed. No political leader or party took the risk
of espousing a big cause. We still do not know what ideas we defeated
and what we accepted. 

SUGATA SRINIVASARAJU  The election dust has settled down in Karnataka. The BJP government
is safe, at least for the time being. Even as I recover from the
fatigue of closely watching the polls, I have been asking myself: What
is it that we debated during these elections? Did we vote for a fresh
perspective or was there any perspective at all? 
Surprisingly, the debate that obsessively took place about
money-spent by candidates to buy votes, caste combinations, the various
lobbies at play and the stability factor which, in the final reckoning,
are segmented issues on the fringe. They are lazy stereotypes of any
election season that simply devours newsprint and scatters attention.
Surely, they are not the larger purpose of elections or a democracy. 
The simple fact about the just concluded polls is that there was no
big point made, no big idea discussed. No political leader or party
took the risk of espousing a big cause. With all the statistics and
analyses of results before us we still do not know what ideas we
defeated and what we accepted.

I somehow get a feeling that imagining 'public interest' has itself
been outmoded in recent years. It appears that for political parties
there is no public, there are only caste or class groups; there are
urban elite or rural masses. The latest addition to this are the
various corporate entities vying for attention. A simplistic slotting
of almost everything has taken place.
Each caste, class or corporate entity represents only its interests,
conveniently assuming that the whole is made up of such disparate
interests. But we have often seen that this is not true. The truth is
that the different parts of a whole are not equally sized or similarly
endowed. When such is the case, isn't there a need to reconstruct,
reimagine a whole, a larger public? Are we mistaking the trees for the
woods? Do we need to allow elections to merely become an exercise in
winning or should we ensure that big issues and grand ideas take the
Manifestos that political parties put out are shabby and dull
documents that have no currency beyond the day of their release.
Neither idealism nor ideology governs our political parties anymore.
They are gripped by the bug of pragmatism. With our economic
orientation placing a heavy accent on individual growth the resulting
alteration that has taken place in our social outlook is reflected in
the general attitude of our political parties during elections. The
emphasis within parties is on the 'winnability' of candidates, not on
the winnability of ideas. I am not saying that there was a lot of
idealism in the past and it has now vanished, what I am trying to say
is that there is not even a pretence of it anymore. 

Even as we try to resurrect the dream of a greater common good, a
question that trails us is who should ensure that big issues are raised
and brought to focus? It is here that we feel the absence of public
intellectuals. This is a tribe that has diminished in the recent past.
We are surrounded by academicians, professionals, experts, strategists,
lobbyists, but one rarely comes across a public intellectual these
days. An independent, non-aligned, amateur hell-raiser, dutiful letter
writer and conscience-keeper has gone missing from our midst -- and
hence the steep fall in public discourse. 
To borrow the words of Italian political philosopher Antonio Gramsci
we are only left with "organic intellectuals." By which he means people
who are used by 'classes' or 'enterprises' to organise interests, gain
more power and get more control.Eminent thinker and activist Edward
Said interpreting Gramsci's phrase in his Reith Lectures (on BBC in
1993) says that today's "advertising and public relations expert, who
devises techniques for winning a detergent or airline company a larger
share of the market, would (also) be considered an organic intellectual
by Gramsci, someone who in a democratic society tries to gain the
consent of potential customers, win approval, marshal consumer or voter

In what can be seen as a symbolic decapitation of a public
intellectual, a man who once actively filled up the 'letters to the
editor' column on issues of public concern in Karnataka, Mumtaz Ali
Khan, is now a cabinet minister in the new BJP government. He has
submitted himself to BJP's tokenism of representing a minority person
in the cabinet. This, after BJP did not give a single ticket to a
person from any minority community to contest the elections. Very soon
more intellectuals, irrespective of their professed ideological hues,
will line up outside ministerial chambers in the Vidhana Soudha to
corner positions in the various academies of arts and literature that
are now up for grabs. The scene is such that every thinking man or
woman is waiting for his or her turn to be co-opted by the state. 

Watching television during elections further confirmed my fears of
the missing public intellectual. One heard spokespersons after
spokespersons in different garbs, but nobody who spoke for the common
man and a common good. Spokespersons have taken up the space vacated by
public intellectuals. Similarly so in the print media, if one newspaper
promotes a set of intellectuals 'close' to a party, the rival newspaper
allows intellectuals from another party to cultivate the space. The
game is so entrenched that pontiffs of powerful caste seminaries too
have come to alternatively share space in the op-ed pages of
newspapers. As a result, the space that a public intellectual once
occupied is no longer a non-aligned, neutral space, but is a space that
is cleverly shared by political parties and interest groups. As a
result of all this, where we need to have a multiplicity of views, we
have just two views in the public domain. 

I will conclude by quoting from Edward Said's Reith Lectures again:
"...The intellectual is an individual with a specific public role in
society that cannot be reduced simply to being a faceless professional,
a competent member of a class just going about her/his business. The
central fact for me is, I think, that an intellectual is an individual
endowed with a faculty for representing, embodying, articulating a
message, a view, an attitude, philosophy or opinion to, as well as for,
a public. And this role has an edge to it, and cannot be played without
a sense of being someone whose place it is publically to raise
embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma (rather than
produce them), to be someone who cannot be easily co-opted by
governments or corporations, and whose raison d'etre is to represent
all those people and issues that are routinely forgotten or swept under
the rug..."

So, isn't it time to recover the big idea and rescue the public intellectual?


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