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Conflict, symbols and politics

Conflict, symbols and politics
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First Published: Thu, Aug 13 2009. 01 15 AM IST
Updated: Mon, Aug 31 2009. 06 12 PM IST
After months of being in the news for all the wrong reasons—iron ore scams, traffic snarls, moral policing— Bangalore finally got a break, and had an event that we could actually rejoice over: unveiling of the statue of Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar on the edge of Ulsoor Lake located in the heart of the city.
The operative word in that previous sentence was “unveiling” since the statue was erected 18 years ago, but kept shrouded for close to two decades because of Kannada-Tamil tensions, fed by linguistic chauvinists and fuelled by water disputes. With each passing year, the simple act of removing a canvas cover became increasingly difficult, burdened by the stakes of those on both sides of the debate. The shroud became a symbol of the stand-off, like a stalemate between two Sumo wrestlers, with an enormous amount of energy being expended in maintaining the semblance of stillness.
Until finally, on 8 August, one side won. The stalemate was broken. How does an equilibrium condition change? Basic Newton’s laws of motion applied to a public issue: every body remains in its state of rest or uniform motion unless acted upon by an external force. Here, the external force was the political capital of the chief minister of Karnataka, B.S. Yeddyurappa. He chose to tackle the issue head-on.
What also matters is the manner in which he went about it. He held an all-party meeting of senior political leaders. He demanded—and got—a consensus in support of the unveiling. He sought to influence public opinion by presenting his case—advertisements were released in major newspapers, providing supportive quotations from respected Kannada poets and litterateurs for the unveiling. He used the law and order machinery of the state to ensure that there would be no disruption of the proceedings. He invited his counterpart from Tamil Nadu, M. Karunanidhi, who had years ago pledged to come to Bangalore only when the statue was unveiled. Opponents threatened to make a scene, but the decibel levels dropped dramatically as Sunday approached.
And the event passed peacefully. Bangaloreans went about their business and leisure, lives undisturbed by a well-attended function with both chief ministers and thousands of supporters.
The unveiling of the Thiruvalluvar statue holds many lessons:
First, that conflicts are normal in a complex society: There are many issues that we will disagree on, with each side having passionate views. In many—not necessarily all—such situations, there are no right or wrong positions, just genuine differences of opinion.
This particular conflict was about language, but throw a stone and one is likely to hit a conflict in India—about industrialization and land; globalization and Indian values; Hindus, Muslims and the uniform civil code; poverty and the means to end it—the list is endless.
We need to acknowledge these conflicts as a positive attribute of being a complex society, not seek to trivialize them or a superficial peace, where the pretext of a fragile calm can get shattered by the slightest provocation. We must ask ourselves, “What is the real price we pay for a phony harmony?”
A second lesson is that symbols matter. Eighteen years, and a small shrouded statue became the lightning rod for the clash between two opposing groups of ideologues. That canvas cloth became the emblem of the tension, and a mnemonic for harnessing the energies of those who were determined to succeed. Indians shouldn’t need reminders on the value of symbols, with our legacy of Gandhi’s acts.
Third, the resolution of our social conflicts can only happen through political processes. Politics is, therefore, not a bad word, but a term that we need to embrace more and more, as we begin to talk more openly about our conflicts, and seek their resolution. The Thiruvalluvar statue issue was not one that could have been resolved informally by two groups of people sitting and having tea and samosas—the underlying emotions ran deep, the conflicts had a genuine core which were exacerbated by other factors. The other examples I listed earlier also fall into the same category.
A final takeaway is that our politicians have what it takes to be statesmen —when they put their mind to it. Karnataka has seen eight chief ministers from the time the statue was first built in 1991. It took—surprisingly, many would say—a BJP chief minister to take the bull by the horns and force an outcome. He did this by rising above the lure of transitory gains, and seeking the political high ground. He also invested in getting agreement among all political parties, created a consensus, and used the power of his position to make the final outcome possible. Notes for Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and Mamata Banerjee?
All in all, a good week for politics in Karnataka. And a better one for Yeddyurappa. Now, if he could do an encore with the moral police issue in Mangalore—the ingredients are the same: conflict, symbols, politics and the opportunity for statesmanship.
Ramesh Ramanathan is co-founder, Janaagraha. Möbius Strip, much like its mathematical origins, blurs boundaries. It is about the continuum between the state, market and our society. We welcome your comments at mobiusstrip@livemint.com
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First Published: Thu, Aug 13 2009. 01 15 AM IST