Who’s afraid of Subordinacy?

Dear Sukumar Muralidharan,

I read your article the other day in Frontline magazine. You echoed the standard left-wing line against the GATT accord (popularly called the Dunkel Draft), implying that India should leave the global trading system which has been signed by 126 countries. Your main objections were that (a) GATT represents an unequal trading system where some dominate and others are subordinate; (b) the agenda of GATT is set by the dominators, who then argue that it is good for the subordinates too; (c) such arrangements infringe our sovereignty.

I am sure you wish to practice what you preach. So please take a close look at your own position in Frontline, which in some respects resembles India’s position in GATT. Mr N. Ram, the owner and editor of Frontline, is in a dominant position, and you are his subordinate. This is, of course, highly inequitable. You are as intelligent if not more so than Mr Ram, but he had the luck to be born in the proprietor’s family and you did not, and this historical accident ensures dominance for him and subordination for you.

In the unequal world of Frontline, the agenda of the magazine is set by the dominator, and subordinates like you have to go along with it. As in GATT, subordinates in Frontline may win an argument or two, but the dominator will ultimately dominate. And, of course, the dominator will argue self-righteously that his agenda is for the good of all poor subordinates, just as the US does in GATT.

You denounce this as hypocrisy in GATT, and want India to quit. Should you not quit Frontline for similar reasons? Perhaps you agree broadly with Mr Ram’s agenda. Perhaps you greet him with a daily ‘Ram, Ram.’ But you yourself write that “the Dunkel text has great positive resonances” with Mr Rao’s policies. If despite this commonality of outlook you want India to leave GATT, should you not quit Frontline despite your great positive resonances with Mr Ram?

RHETORIC: My real aim is to talk about GATT, not you, and I have used this open letter simply as rhetorical device to drive home my message. To show I bear you no ill will, I will turn the rhetoric on myself. I fully agree with you that we live in an unequal, unfair world. In the Times group, I am subordinate to my proprietors. Like you, I will remain subordinate no matter how talented I am, because I was born in the wrong place. Unfair and unequal though my position is. I find it advantageous to remain in the Times group rather than quit. My leaving will not make the system any more equal. Besides, despite the many constraints I labour under as a subordinate, the system nevertheless presents me with many opportunities for achieving my personal goals, which I would lose if I quit. You continue in Frontline for the same reason. And for the same reason, India should continue in GATT.

With the rapid growth of the market for journals, and globalisation arising from satellite TV, unprecedented opportunities have arisen for journalists. No longer need they be subordinate to employers— they can get the sovereignty that free- lancers enjoy with no sacrifice in income. Yet you, I and countless other journalists prefer the advantages of subordinacy to those of untramelled sovereignty.

The sovereignly of journalists is eroding in many journals. Recently four journalists left The Times of India, complaining of encroachment by managers on what they saw as the sovereign space of journalists. But the overwhelming majority stay on as subordinates, despite the erosion of what they consider their sovereign space, because they see large advantages in working within the system.

PROPRIETOR: This is even more true of you than me. In the Times group there still remains a lot of territory with editors. But in Frontline the proprietor is the editor, and so controls the territory of both management and journalists. The dominator has donned the robe of the chief subordinate, and so claims to speak for all subordinates. As General Motors might have put it, this is a case of “what is good for Mr Ram is good for you”. Yet you find it worthwhile to work in a magazine bereft of sovereign space for journalists.

Clearly an erosion of sovereignty is not good enough reason for you to quit. Nor for me. Nor, for the same reason, should India quit GATT. Nobody can doubt the determination of China and Vietnam to uphold their sovereignty, yet both are clamouring to enter GATT. As the Chinese Ambassador said the other day. it makes sense to work for your goals within an unequal system rather than remain a pariah outside. Despite inequalities, the global trading system provides opportunities for great improvement: Singapore has in three decades become richer than its erstwhile colonial master. But by quitting the system, you and I will not achieve more or become richer than Mr Ram or Mr Jain.

What do you think?