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The Ministry of Acronyms, Shlokas and Slogans

By Devangshu Datta
April 19, 2020 18:17 IST
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'This way, you'll maintain our glorious traditional values and get more efficient governance as well,' says Devangshu Datta.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff.com

In the 1980s, a friend entered the diplomatic service. His mother, a middle-aged widow with a titanium spine and a whim of iron, was pleased but apprehensive.

Her unmarried son was going abroad, where he might fall for 'something unsuitable', as she described it.

She deployed all her formidable powers of emotional blackmail to coerce him into an early marriage with some handpicked girl.

My friend proved his diplomatic aptitude by his response. Instead of arguing with his mother, he explained things to the family astrologer. Some money changed hands.

The star-man did his magic, informing the mother that owing to Jupiter being inside Saturn's orbit, or some such, the boy should not marry for some years. Or else unspecified terrible things would happen.

This story is a wonderful example of pragmatically navigating a quintessentially desi dilemma.

Patriotic Indians have superstitious, controlling families, and they understand the need to pay lip-service to dogma and traditional values.

 

It is anti-national to ignore superstition, and laugh at Whatsapp messages that suggest 'good vibrations' from beating thalis at exactly 1700 hours will kill viruses.

Whether you are setting government policy, or planning tomorrow's lunch menu, or getting into a relationship, you need to treat superstition and traditional values with outward respect. These are useful tools for public manipulation.

There is another thing that is part of the desi ethos: The tendency to micromanage.

At an Indian wedding, the father of the bride will not only fork out the cash; he will also insist on organising the pan-wallah, and the pan leaves himself.

Management theorists often refer to startups that had to tackle this tendency to micromanage when they were backed by Vinod Khosla.

Vinod Khosla checked all the boxes as a venture capitalist. He was smart, with a high strike rate, access to funding, connected to everyone who counted.

He also needed to know the colour of the pencils in the office. Startups backed by Khosla worked smoothly only when they designated a vice-president in charge of managing Khosla.

There are similar problems with the Indian political establishment. It's not about the pencils now because we are digital.

But Indian leaders have been known to focus on the task of devising new acronyms, reciting shlokas and composing slogans to the point where they fail to focus on admittedly less important stuff like managing mass unemployment and pandemics.

Using our learnings from these case-studies of fixing the astrologer and managing Khosla, we can think of a few ways to improve our disaster management programmes, while leveraging our traditional values to the hilt.

The first priority is a Ministry of Acronyms, Shlokas and Slogans. Disasters come and go; missions can be elided or forgotten. Acronyms are forever.

Whenever there's corona to be combatted, or banknotes to be withdrawn, this new ministry would come up with the necessary acronyms, and propagate them. The delegation of this vital task would free up mind space for our leaders.

The next time a disaster came along, there would be a fast acronym-generation mechanism already in place.

Astrology is also important. When a new government mission is announced, the logistics need to be streamlined.

The public often refuses to cooperate.

Mobs clog up the ATMs with frantic withdrawals.

They fight each other to get in some panic shopping when they should be social distancing.

How does one prevent the masses from indulging in this chaotic behaviour? Use astrology.

Put a famous astro-consultant, Baba Whatever-Anand up there on TV. Bribe the Baba to rationalise his advice to fit the administration's convenience.

He can, for example, draw up his charts to neatly divide time slots for panic shoppers according to the zodiac.

He can explain that unspecified terrible things will happen if they don't keep their time slots.

The administration can link these time-slots to Aadhaar -- it's simple since Aadhaar has the requisite information!

This way, you'll maintain our glorious traditional values and get more efficient governance as well.

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Devangshu Datta
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