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SAIB BILAVAL | 18 FEBRUARY, 2016

Iconic: Power And Indecisiveness In The Pachauri Saga


NEW DELHI: Like many people, one has been struggling to find an explanation for how credible action still has not been taken on the sexual harassment charges against TERI Chair RK Pachauri.

Like with the VC of Hyderabad Central University Appa Rao in the Rohith Vemula case, the first move was to promote him to a higher position to shield him, and yet the VC went on long-leave as well as was removed as NCRI Chairman, while Pachauri only went on indefinite leave. The chargesheet has been framed against Pachauri as well, after a long delay. The case will, of course, go on trial and only then will we know whether the charges are true. The media (mainstream and social) trial has, however, begun, with aspersions placed on the victim’s character. In the meanwhile, a second complainant has come out, accusing Pachauri of similar crimes.

The first way of looking at it would be to attempt to come to terms with the power of poster-boyism. The recent rape allegations on James Deen and Bill Cosby come to mind. The industries they represent often provide protection to offenders to shield industry profits. Cosby made comedy seem more representative of diversity, indeed a pioneer. The fact that the Oscars did not nominate a single African American is another matter. Deen was the ‘humane’, ‘feminist’ face of the US porn industry, necessary to exaggerate the consensual nature of a ‘liberal’ business. Pachauri was clearly not a profit-maker for a sector.

More striking of all was the extent of the furore. The popular outrage over the matter of Justice Ganguly was far greater. Even the Amit Shah ‘snooping’ scandal received more negative coverage than this case. Ditto for a university VC who allegedly described some women as ‘chhinaal’. Same for Asaram Bapu. Pachauri is neither a politician nor a spiritual leader. And yet invisible forces keep him safe. On his own, he is clearly not too powerful. He is not an IPL boss, or a former minister, or an industrialist. Could it be that some people are too iconic, seem to be working for some worthy causes, and doing away with them would harm these causes and take away the the glamour of NGOism?

Much of this also has to do with the nature of progressive causes. Peoples’ movements such as the Chipko movement, the BKU (Bharatiya Kisan union) and NBA (Narmada Bachao Andolan) have given way to technocratic semi-public committees and panel, and corporate NGOs that lobby government rather than mobilize people, mirroring Western counterparts. The problem, of course is that this is the ‘Third World.’ Trade unions’ top brass is now closer to their parent party leadership than to any union workers. And if activists are employees first and activists later, then the employer should logically become the one they unionize themselves in response to. If the activists were unionized, they would have had to battle him on these charges as a matter of procedure.

Activists are divided over Pachauri. This is not the only time such hesitation occurred. Part of Pachauri’s power comes from the fact that he is an icon, the poster boy for action on climate change. Despite some of the IPCC’s finding turning out to be unscientific, Pachauri, his technocratic reputation and his work are the only trump cards activists have in the face of a government unconcerned with pollution and climate change, where a Reagan-esque obsession with financial accounting as the benchmark for development is dominant. Pachauri is not even considered a radical on climate change, and yet he is crucial as only his work is seen as capable of lobbying the government with. The activists’ dilemma is not unparalleled. There are several examples of icons who were not as strong on the issues as their reputations suggested. And yet their mainstream appeal keeps them in place because activists choose to be pragmatic. Al Gore is hardly the most urgent on climate change, and yet it is impossible in the USA to delink activism on climate change from him. He has a mainstream monopoly on the message. Needless to say, while Gore was Vice President under Bill Clinton, he brokered most of the meetings between the President and the fossil fuel industry lobbyists.

Or for example, the feminist icon from yesteryear, Gloria Steinem. Women’s struggles in the US had by the 1980s left the aims and ideals of Ms. Steinem far behind. Intellectual feminism and the PR machines of feminist organisations – still have not. Ms. Steinem conveniently sidestepped matter of the sexual harassment charges on Bill Clinton, and even joined First Lady Hillary in defaming or discrediting some of the victims. On a visit to India, she referred to sex workers as prostitutes, even hinting at their ‘dirtiness’ in her speeches. More recently, she suggested that young women overwhelmingly supported Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton because ‘all the young boys are with Bernie’, later suggesting that women should vote for the female candidate. There is nothing more regressive or sexist than asking women to vote blindly en masse, not based on individual choice or thinking or the issues, for a female candidate just based on gender.

Caitlyn Jenner, despite all her failings, PR tantrums, and hit-and-run cases, as a high-profile celebrity transgender person has become the face of the queer community in the United States. The point being made is that some people just aren’t taken on – magnifying the consequences of their flaws and failings, forgiving the liabilities.

Amartya Sen occasionally moves to the centre-left at times, but it is surprising how not a single economist has dared to critique him since his Nobel Prize – only Jagdish Bhagwati from the right, zero from the left. Being perhaps the left-most economist to ever receive the prize has given him a certain freedom from attacks from Marxist economists. What should matter is what he ‘wasn’t’ doing for most of the 1990s – critiquing India’s economic policy adequately since 1991.

Similarly, neoconservative economist Paul Krugman, another Nobel recipient, is now masquerading, quite unchallenged,as a ‘progressive’, despite having been an apologist for Wall Street’s financial excesses his entire career. Yet another Nobel Prize winner, Mohammed Yunus, is hailed as one of the most compassionate people on poverty and rural banking. What is often not mentioned is that microfinance institutions routinely charge interest rates at 25% and above.

The problem with icons is the their fellow travellers cling too tightly to them. Even when it comes to past icons. EV Ramaswami Naicker (Periyar), the leader of anti-Brahman Dravidianism, supported the Congress till the mid-1920s, then started the radical Self-Respect movement, and went back to supporting the Congress under Kamaraj by the late 1940s. Periyar died in the 1970s, having supported the Congress for longer than he had opposed it. The ‘father of Indian communism’, MN Roy, spent 20 years as a communist and the remainder against it. Periyar married a girl not even one-third his age.

The point, is to embrace eras, ideas and movements, not individual totalities. Progress is a journey forward, not a memory backwards.

Mr. Pachauri is only one example of the crisis in top-down activism. Real change comes from below. When the causes themselves, and indeed all progress, are iconoclastic in terms of the status-quo, why shield the icons? Climate change is your cause too, not just his. Take it away. An ordinary citizen would never avoid justice.

(The author is a research scholar in Modern and Contemporary History at Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University).

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