Saturday, July 16, 2005

Politics And Toothpaste

It would be the same at the end of the journey,
If you came at night like a broken king,
If you came by day not knowing what you came for,
It would be the same

If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same.
T.S. Eliot

A rich discussion followed our recent post on secular-right politics. The key points were these: that Indian politics remains about identity, that retail persuasion is the only viable means of mass engagement, and that the vanguard elite model we proposed is too simplistic.

We thought we'd respond by constructing an allegory, about toothpaste!

Retail is how toothpaste is sold. It comes in red & white & blue & stripes & peppermint & clove oil & cherry & tube & pouch & bottle & every other aesthetic variation to please & reinforce a multitude of customer identities. But, lets face it, behind the glamour, all toothpaste is the same toothpaste -- a witch's brew forever, and only, changing appearance.

If one wanted to sell yet another version of essentially the same toothpaste, no doubt one'd have to sell it retail. One'd have to find a new twist to appeal to yet another combination of identities. But, we're not here for this -- been there, done that -- activity, are we?

Let's instead imagine a time before toothpaste, when all manner of inherited wisdom & quackery masquerade as dental science. Here, people practice hygiene with small branchlets or abrasive powder or just plain water -- some not doing anything at all. It's not a pretty world, we'd all agree!!

To these deprived folks with yellow teeth, merely presenting, say, Close-Up in-a-tube might blow their minds!

Why is this? Because fresh ideas can sometimes explode in our imaginations, thereby selling themselves. Heck, no one sold us Google retail, or blogging or rock 'n roll or even satyagraha. For ideas whose time has come, all one needs to do is light the fuse. Valid ideas have a momentum of their own; they resonate with everybody no matter what their past belief or identity or expectation or lack thereof. In Eliot's indelible words, the exhilaration would be the same for all at once. That's what we seek; a lesser ambition is a waste of time.

Not all ideas catch fire, obviously -- but that's creative destruction, with which we are entirely comfortable. However, if Indians are fed up of stale formulations -- our insatiable political conversations surely point to this -- it must be true that, given the right ideas, they'll take to them by the millions -- gulping fresh air amidst our charred political breeze.

The genius is in coming up with these fresh ideas, the new mousetraps, the Close-Up even before there is toothpaste.

We happen to think secular-right is one such idea. India may or may not be ready for it. If the former, the idea doesn't need retail selling; if the latter, retail selling is futile. Either way, we'll never know if we don't put it in a tube and place it in the political ether. The American neo-conservatives didn't know they'd win either. But they believed in the validity of their ideas just enough to overcome their self-doubts & intimidation -- particularly about process & party politics. Five years later, they had triumphed.

The vanguard elite model has worked for a diversity of political revolutions. One doesn't have to agree with the purpose of these revolutions to embrace their process. That is our argument. It sure beats sitting around and waiting for the proverbial Godot to show up from among our current -- highly cynical -- political system.

Therefore, we should focus on what we can do -- to develop fresh ideas on stagnant issues, new language to dispel the pervading monotony, credible & mesmerizing voices who speak without fear, and, most of all, a burning contempt for the status-quo to constantly fuel our ambition. If we are correct about the validity of our ideas, India herself will do the rest.

Last season's fruit is eaten
And the fullfed beast shall kick the empty pail.
For last year's words belong to last year's language
And next year's words await another voice. T.S. Eliot


amit varma said...

Good post, PR.

So what do you suggest we do now? In concrete terms?

(And btw, I'd say libertarian is one such idea as much as secular-right, but there is much common ground between them, and both would be much better for our country than status quo, so I won't quibble.)

Gameboys said...

I don't think the neocons are a model that we should try to emulate. In any case, they are in bed with the Christian religious right, which I consider to be an enemy of India and a threat to mankind in general, next only to fundamentalist Islamists.

Nanda Kishore

doubtinggaurav said...

Barista revolutioneries everyone.

Some people !!

Primary Red said...

Get lost, Gaurav.

Come back when you've done something yourself that merits discussion. Otherwise your comments are often amusing, always hollow.

Best regards.

doubtinggaurav said...

Since you take umbrage, let me explain from you toothpaste analogy.Toothpaste, like politics, is a mass product, to change consumer preference, you do not need only a good product (some will say you do not need a product at all), but a brilliant idea to hardsell it, and lots of money to bankroll the idea to the People.
That will explain the need for outragoeus advertising and marketing budget.
That is why people will go for "colourful" toothpaste instead of plain white one, even if white one is better.
Similarly in politics you need to hardsell the idea.

However, unlike for toothpaste, in politics there is a crucial difference, which is that you need a charismatic leader.
People will be more likely to take to ideas put forward by such leaders, even if they are nonsensical, than to ideas, which are much more profound, but dont have a leader.Satyagraha succeded, not becasue of marketing but ,because of Mahatma Gandhi. Indian masses took to this frail man because they saw a reflection of moral integrity and righteousness in that man.In the same way, Indira Gandhi could succeed with her foolish notion of feudal-socialism was because people approved of her, in contrast Swatantra Party failed as right because it was mostly headed by elites and erstwhile royalty.

While I agree with most of your posts, in my view unless ideas in political discussions, good or bad, are sold to masses, are like
white toothpaste.
One reason that reforms, inspite of their advatnages are not a popular issue is that there is no one who is to hardsell it.
I am afraid that while discussions in blogsphere are good in theory usually doesnt take into consideration their marketing.
This marks a certain ideological righteousness in the educated classes.
That and not the disagreement with what you say is the reason behind my "often amusing,always hollow comments".
Regarding doing something, I will do it as soon as I can retire
(which will be as soon as I can open a swiss acount)


Primary Red said...


We are on the same page re. strong leader -- we've simply substituted the vanguard elite for a singular leader.

Re. hardsell, perhaps you are right. We think, however, that you -- in President Bush's memorable words -- misunderestimate the power of ideas alone!

Best regards.

doubtinggaurav said...

If by "vanguard elite" you were referring to people sharing same passion for country and its people and not some sort of "Plutocracy", then I am all for it.

Gaurav said...

In theory I like your idea of top-down reform. The fact that the economic policies of today's BJP and today's Congress are by and large identical shows that in the economic sphere, this is very much possible.

One major hurdle in the way, and something that the Neo-Cons in America never faced, was the Left. A secular right can germinate and prosper much more easily where politics has never veered to the left too much.

In India, the Left has a BIG presence. As much as we hate it, the fact remains that they have 10-15% of the seats in parliament. In a polity as fragmented as ours, that is a huge chunk, allowing them to be the proverbial "kingmakers".

I am not talking about just the Communist parties, but also the folks like RJD, Paswan, Mulayam, who are also strongly left of centre.

As long as the leftist thought holds sway in Indian politics, the top-down-secular-right movement you speak about would be extremely challenging.

Basically, the question of "retail politics" is coming into it time and again because the opponents of secular-right have a formidable hold over it.

It would be a lot easier to implement your ideas in a two-party democracy where the loony fringe can't become king-makers.

phucker said...

Honestly, what we need is perfection.
We need a charsimatic young leader, who talks Left (to get himself elected and popular), and acts Right, with a more-than-two-thirds majority, and a (very) mild authoritarian streak - or maybe just firm resolve.
I volunteer for the post.


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