Siddhartha Chatterjee
The Rhetorical Swiss-knives – Part 1
This article originally appeared in CRI content has now been subsumed in The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors of

It was in 2001, I was watching some kind of talk show in Doordarshan. There were three intellectuals invited, all of them were introduced as secular liberals who are doing their level best to fight the oppression by the “powerful” and promoting the voice of the poor and weak. At that very moment, they were promoting a very different idea: that entire Kargil war was a conspiracy by a certain communal party to hold on to power. The logic went something like this: in post depression Germany, Hitler went to war with others to mis-direct attention of Germans and so did Atal Bihari Vajpayee. At that point, I was reading a book about German history and promoters definitely got their history incorrect. Sri Vajpayee made some errors during his administration but going to war with other countries was not among them and there were no accounts of war to doubt such. I wondered if these assorted liars were being called liberals, what would John Stuart Mill call himself?

The realization did leave a lasting impression on me, because since then, I began to doubt everything that is served up by the media and learned to cross-check various news on which I was interested. Internet helped. Over last 10-11 years, I experienced various arguments “liberals” use to forward explicit and implicit agendas. I found that there is certain kind of re-usability of their various rhetorical frameworks that are used by various worthies to promote their arguments. In a series of posts, I intend to present few of these rhetorical Swiss-knives. Please feel free to add yours.

Government: If left’s collective world-view can be compared with Harry Potter’s magic world, then government is the magic wand. Left strongly believes that once they get control of this wand, they will make sure that every problem can be solved using it. However, if they dont and “evil men” get hold of it, Gandhians with guns are needed to correct that “problem” because, you see, administration of people is too important to be left to the choice of the people. In recent past, when National Advisory Committee headed by Sonia Gandhi was formed for the first time, left felt they got the magic wand in their hand. So they started the bizarre sequence of activism oriented governance. MGNREGA is touted to be a great success initially. What happened to it since then? A report in wall street journal shows:

He says the government should offer training in new skills which could help him get a better-paying job. And he’s angered at corruption in the program, which he claims has led to village elders giving jobs to family and friends, not to all those who demand work, including himself. “The common man is not getting work easily. There is too much corruption,” Mr. Meena said.

Mr. Jean Dreze, a former member of NAC, was one of the drivers of this scheme. Five years later, this is what this man had to say:

First the NREGS is not in place in its perfect shape as is desired

Why, Mr. Dreze? We were told that this would solve all the problems together and the magic wand will lift poor people out of poverty. What went wrong? Srimati Aruna Roy, another “architect” of the program, came up with reasons:

Despite all the criticism with respect to corruption and leakages, the NREGA has actually drawn attention to the weaknesses of the delivery mechanism.

Huh, really? Before 2004, entire India knew that delivery mechanism was alright? It was exactly this faulty delivery mechanism that led Sri Rajiv Gandhi to conclude that for every rupee spent by government only 17 paisa (depending on various reports, the amount is somewhere between 10-17 paisa) reach the poor. But that is precisely the point. In operations research, there is something known as evidence-based policy. In simpler terms, it requires the policy makers to consider the results of earlier similar policies and determine the impact of the policy to be implemented. What lesson did the “garibi hatao” scheme offer? Corruption is a big problem but corruption is not the only one. Leakage itself is a bigger problem. It is a problem with every government scheme. Larger is the government, more leakage it creates. Based on the leakage generated by a big government, a vested bureaucrat-politician-industrialist nexus gets created which will forever stop any amendment of the existing policy. This is a form of corruption which creates a vicious feedback loop whose long term impact is far greater than the petty corruptions that merely puts public funds into private hands. Noting this problem, the great Friedman said:

Nothing is so permanent as a temporary government program

But it is not just MGNREGA. Take a look at Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act of 2005. The problem with domestic violence was not due to lack of law but it was the lack of order (i.e. capability of administration in implementing the laws). It was also due to a cultural problem where women are taught they are supposed to be meek submissive and men are taught that they can get away with anything. Left’s solution was to enactmore laws. Oh no, there was something else too. It puts the Indian Police officers in the role of mediators. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the same police force that was created by colonialists to teach the natives their place. The same police force who are so well behaved that no woman can hope to get to a police station without a male company, even in broad daylight. The same police force that is known to have abducted girls right out of the road. One can see how a meek submissive lady can afford the the phenomenal law-and-order advantages that sympathetic left designs for them. I am even leaving the other criticism about the abuse of the laws against husbands.

Yet it has to be understood that NAC is hardly alone in this mis-adevnture of the magic wand. This has been going on for quiet some time. Another example is the grand reservation schemes. There has been caste discrimination in the past in various corners of the country. There are pockets where caste discrimination still goes on. We were told that reservation is a great way to solve the past injustices. Regardless of a valid debate of how far should we go back in correcting the past injustices, let us buy the point. We were also told that reservation in private sector jobs are necessary as the “hateful” upper castes are discriminating in giving jobs to lower castes. The solution? Reservation. Who is supposed to execute those rules? Why? It would be the same “hateful” upper caste officers who were alleged to be the root cause to begin with. If there was discrimination, why can not people approach the court system? Well, no, because court system does not work and there is no glamor in fixing the law-and-order system, seemingly there is no poor people in the court-room, you see. Further, instead of eliminating it, this would reinforce caste-divide. Therefore, in Tamilnadu, some form of reservation is there for more than 100 years and still no-one knows how many years of reservation it would take to eliminate discrimination.

It would be wrong to think that left’s use of this magic wand is limited to a single dimension of do-good-ism. Lefty intellectuals were historically very efficient at legitimizing violence when doing so makes sense for their… “cause”. Maoism? Islamic terrorism? Riot? Separatist tension in the north-east funded by a foreign power? Left is there to teach us about the sole reason of these incidents: oppression ! Who is unleashing the oppression? Why, it is the government. Be it Gandhians with guns or Gandhians with Quran, they were all justified because they felt oppressed by the government. What happens to “struggles” where they are taking arms against a lefty government. In that case, they are merely hand-maidens of “fascist” power or probably paid agents of CIA (check out the fate of Anandamargis in west Bengal or massacre of Marichjhapi).

Wands work well in the magic world, I would leave it to my readers to decide how well it works in the real world. In a future post, I would like to expand on various conspiracy theories that dominate media discussion.