Tata Literature Live 2017: Is India a nanny state? Debate serves some food for thought

This year's edition of The Great Debate at the Tata Literature Live! The Mumbai LitFest featured a prestigious line-up of speakers consisting of Shashi Tharoor, Makarand Paranjpe, Sunil Alagh, and Chandan Mitra. If that wasn't enough to boast about, the motion itself — Are we living in a nanny state — was intriguing, considering the narrative surrounding personal rights and freedoms in the country today.

Before the speakers could make their arguments, the audience was asked to vote for or against the motion through the use of cards, and an overwhelming majority proudly held up the blue card, indicating that they did believe that we live in a controlling nanny state. But that wasn't the real indicator of how this debate would progress.

When Shashi Tharoor, a man known for his way with words, walked onto stage, there was thunderous applause. The crowd was ecstatically cheering in the way that fans may cheer when Rajinikanth or Salman Khan come on screen in a cinema theatre. The odds were never in the opposition's favour.

 Tata Literature Live 2017: Is India a nanny state? Debate serves some food for thought

The Great Debate at the Tata Literature Live Mumbai LitFest 2017

Chandan Mitra and Sunil Alagh presented two different arguments; while Mitra, BJP MP and managing director of The Pioneer, focused on how India does not currently have a nanny state and that such a political system is desirable, Alagh, former director and CEO of Britannia Industries, placed emphasis on how the nature of India's democracy today proves that the state is not coercive or controlling. Mitra waxed eloquent about how nannies are genteel, soft-hearted and even benevolent figures who instill "good manners" into young children. He used this metaphor to explain why India needs such a nanny, in order to discipline its citizenry. He cited two examples — of the ban on smoking in public places in the UK (to which one particular British member of Parliament responded by saying that he felt the government was a nanny state), and of a ban on the sale of raw milk in Carolina (whilst being confused between the cities of California and Carolina) — to show that such setting and enforcing of rules was practised around the world. He said that the kind of state which is problematic is a "granny" one, such as India in the Emergency era under Indira Gandhi, where several freedoms were curtailed.

"We live free, we breathe freely," opined Mitra, adding that in several Scandinavian and European countries, the state takes care of its citizens at what may be considered the cost of their individual freedoms. "India waits for a good nanny," he said in conclusion.

Alagh's perspective rested on the point that the concept of a nanny state had been misunderstood. He explained that it is the imposition of laws that defines such an oppressive government, and that the current Indian state thus disqualifies to be a nanny since it has changed laws for the greater good, as is the case of the Triple Talaq judgment. He added that the government is following a "nudge" rather than "impose" approach, when it comes to policy decisions such as demonetisation and the goods and services tax (GST). "When desire is turned into law, we begin to live in a nanny state," he said. Alagh also said that the perception of India as a nanny state was amplified manifold by the overuse of social media, which had led to heated discussions about this issue which were more than what he deemed necessary. But the audience responded most vehemently to his point about how apart from the beef ban, none of the NDA government's other policies enacted since 2014 were laws.

He mentioned that there can be no policy without politics, adding that if people were unhappy with the current government, they can vote them out. He also emphasised that respecting the decisions taken by the majority or the legislative, in the same way that David Cameron did with Brexit, is essential to the running of a successful democracy. He spent a considerable amount of time talking about how discretion and discipline are necessary to the running of the country, and used the example of the constant clash between modernity and tradition, and the old and new, as being examples of how an excess of either is not fruitful.

Makarand Paranjape, Indian poet and a professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University centered his argument on how the current government had failed to deliver its promise of "less government, more governance" by increasingly interfering in the personal lives of citizens. He cited the example of the British Raj as being a nanny state, especially because of its patronising approach based on the concept of the white man's burden. He spoke about how a poverty-stricken state where people are dependent on handouts is not desirable, and that the current state has diluted the Constitution and led to confusion about identity for many citizens. He spoke about how a social contract, not a totalitarian state, is what we must work towards. He said that while the earlier government was coercive, the current government exercises control in "different ways". He said that economic intervention is not a solution, and that a safety net that ensures the welfare of those who need support must be put into place.

Paranjape emphasised that "coercive capacities are dangerous, despite not being laws". He said that the blame for the creation of a nanny state also falls sqaurely on the shoulders of the public, who have allowed it to function and thrive because of our complicity. "We seem to enjoy watching the state fulfil the demands of the powerful," he said.

Shashi Tharoor's argument, whilst being impressive in style, did not offer anything significantly new in terms of discussion. His definition of a nanny state was one that makes unenforceable and undesirable decisions. He deemed the interference in the personal life of citizens, their very bedrooms and kitchens, as being problematic. He cited the examples of the beef ban, censorship of movies, the unorganised, coercive implementation of demonetisation and GST of indicators of the nature of India's current nanny state. He also raised the issue of Aadhar and the possible dangers of the state possessing so much information about citizens. "We will become sheeple if the state becomes all-powerful," he opined. He added that the state was taking these unfavourable decisions based on what it thought was "good for the people".

The audience asked many pertinent questions, such as at what point does the state's actions begin to infringe upon the rights of citizens (which Tharoor was unable to answer adequately), or whether a scenario where the state's decision to ban beef for reasons of environmental conservation would still be considered a "nanny move", and whether the state's coercive nature was pushing the citizenry to be rebellious.

There were several humourous moments during this debate, such as when Paranjpe claimed that he did not want to turn the debate into a political slugfest and then promptly turned to Shashi Tharoor, and when Mitra was silenced by the crowd, which refused to stop clapping. Whether this is the audience's bias showing through or whether Mitra had alienated them with his extended metaphors of milk, being given milk by a nanny, and raw milk being banned is debatable. But the sheer number of political jibes and play on words that the speakers were indulging in reminded this reader more of the nature that political discourse takes on Twitter. It was hardly surprising that the audience vote at the end of the debate remained largely the same.

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Updated Date: Nov 17, 2017 16:33:19 IST