The Romans had it right.
On the triumphant chariots, bedecked with triumphant generals or emperors and their laurel wreath, they put a slave shadowing the victor, whispering amid the confetti showers, memento mori, roughly translated you are only a man. It was not a new idea to show a man his proper place. The Greeks had a name for the disease of hubris, pleonexia, or the craving for more than one’s share.
The Guardian has referred to pleonexia while talking about Joseph Stiglitz’s new book The Price of Inequality which talks about the defining theme of our disturbed times – why so few gain at the expense of so many?
Pleonexia could be a unique trait of the average Indian politician – the desire to gain much more than your share, often at the expense of others.
Why does this happen and why do people get away with it? We believe in India especially it happens because we have a functional democracy but not an experienced democracy.
The difference is simple: India is a democracy, every five years we vote in whoever we want (at least among the pool contesting) but otherwise our connect with democracy, our sense of daily democracy is missing. This means we rarely know our representative, the one we ostensibly knowingly select or elect, and have little or no interaction with the decision-making that happens on our behalf.
Power in India has always been applied by grandeur and fuelled by pleonexia. It comes from hundreds of years of invasion and rule through which the rulers, always a tiny set, could reign over vast millions by impressing an everlasting stamp of superiority and distance. It is a legacy we carry from Mughal and British rule and it has continued mostly unchallenged till now.
For the first time in India’s independent history, there is a palpable sense that the gap between those who govern in the name of the people, and the people themselves, is thinning.
Why is this happening? There are multiple reasons from rapid urbanisation which brings people closer to pedestals of power and thereby takes away the mystique; the spread of education breaks the infallible myth; mushrooming media shows demolishes powerful people in our living rooms and bedrooms every night and technology brings not just people but also people in power closer and makes them human.
It is fashionable in some circles to laugh at media, and social media, as naiveté of the political imbecile. Ask many an Indian politician today and they will still tell you that elections are won and lost on money, caste and shenanigans, and on little else. That is true – in many cases. But in many more, the tide is turning and anger of the Indian politician, the private bitter and abusive jokes about the media (sometimes well deserved) come from a sense of insecurity that the politician in this country has never felt before.
We believe that one of the greatest boons of much abused technology is that it gives an instantaneous voice to millions – and immediately millions say nonsense – but with time, from the white noise, comes real, steadfast critique which incrementally changes the system.
We believe that the power of technology is not immediate revolution but a relentless barrage that wears, and ultimately, tears off an unjust system.
Technology is not the instant power of an army raised by Subhash Chandra Bose but the wearing effect of Gandhian satyagraha, every drop, every tweet, every post, every phone call, every email, every SMS attacks the unjust and refuses to let them sleep, until, tired and weary, they give up.
Think of a system where every allocation to a bed in a government hospital can be tracked real time – who is it going to, what is the need – is all in one hub that can be accessed at any time. Too big you think? But why? Do we not live in a world where one website caters to the relentless mutterings of reportedly 900 million registered users everyday (Facebook)?
Think of a system where the admission to every government school is online and on the cloud and can be accessed from anywhere, any time. You know who was admitted, from where, how and why.
Think of attendance records of students – and, most critically, teachers – of every government school placed online and on the cloud to be accessed any time, anywhere.
That’s why at Whypoll we are staring with the small things – a platform to complain harassment, an app to reach out to friends and family, a system to ask questions of our MPs and MLAs. Every long journey begins with a question.
At Whypoll, we start at the start, at the why.
So when you dream of change, dream with us of a world where change happens in countless ways everyday, at every moment, and leave the age of the guillotine behind. Because technology today can help you whisper in powerful ears – oh, but you too are only human.
Hindol Sengupta is one of the two founding trustees of the not-for-profit Whypoll Trust, India’s only open government platform. Whypoll works to create technological interfaces between the citizen and government. He is the author of The Liberals, on living through twenty years of Indian economic liberalisation, out by Harper Collins in August, 2012.