Why the petitionary genre is necessary

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By: Ramesh Kanitkar

The worsening effects of the COVID-19 pandemic seem to have pushed political and popular expressions into a petitionary mode. In such a mode, unlike the legal petition driven by a procedure, a rhetorical performance is at play calling out for the ethical and moral capacity of both the state as well as the people in distress. In such a petitionary genre, the capacity of expression gets mediated by the force of moral appeal that entails the invigoration of the conscience, which, in turn, makes it necessary to put compassion before reason and apology before ideological arrogance. Thus, the state, on priority, needs to be compassionate in mobilising various resources, such as transport, food, and medicine, for the footslogging workers. An appeal as a moral force seeks to compel the state and political actors to shake off complacency and the sense of arrogance that is informed by both ideology and politics.

Apology, thus, comes as a subtext of appeal. There is a wider spectrum on which the word “appeal” seems to be operative. It has almost a paradigmatic range. Put differently, the word currently under reference finds its public expression at different levels with distinct meanings. For example, the appeal made by the spokesperson of the state to the people to observe social distancing or the appeal to migrant workers to stay wherever they are wherever they are addresses this issue at wider levels and is infused with the meaning. Such meaning suggests that the state is not fully equipped to control the situation and is unable to provide adequate help to the workers in distress. On the other side of the spectrum, the workers, farmers and television artists have been appealing to the government to provide the former with immediate help for fulfilling different but dire needs. For example, workers have been making repeated appeals for transportation. The belief and knowledge of these sections that the state has resources to provide immediate help to the former form the basis of their appeal. On yet another end of the spectrum, the industrialists big and small have been appealing to the central government for help. Apparently, such appeal may contain an “altruistic” meaning, which is to say that the interests of the workers are more important than private interests.

An expression of appeal, thus, emerges with co-applicability. The co-applicable expression of such an appeal indicates the helplessness of people against the government’s limits that are unfolding at multiple levels. In a deep moral sense, workers on March and farmers who are destroying their crop for want of a market, both cases involve an element of appeal; an appeal to the state to overcome their limitations. And, yet, the government is not powerful enough to enjoy the status of being benevolent. Because it is aware about the limits of such benevolence. An appeal, however, needs to have the quality of being just. It is just as long as it constitutes within its interrelated elements such as compassion and conscience. An appeal acquires the quality of justness particularly on two counts. First, it defines itself in terms of availability of resources with a person, agency, and the state and the latter’s will to provide such help. Put differently, an appeal is ineffective in regard to a person, agency, or state with regard that has no capacity and lacks the will to help. In the workers’ belief and knowledge, the central as well as the state governments do have the capacity to ferry the workers and hence an appeal made by the latter makes sense. The power of appeal, thus, is contingent on both the material capacity as well as the ethical power of conscience. Second, compassion as a moral resource seeks to aid the “official” reason to not only acquire soundness, but, with such a quality, it seeks to motivate the state or an individual to act promptly so as to bring relief to the distressed people. In the project of removing wide-scale distress, compassion has to come before the official, technical, and procedural reason. Thus, the moral force of appeal tends to generate a compelling impact on the governments that have to account for their action or inaction by giving reasons that will be weak without the support of compassion. In appeal, there is a mechanism of stimuli and response, or asking and giving reason.

However, such an order, which is internal to the concept of appeal, is not followed by some governments. The official reason takes precedence over compassion. While some states may have an official reason to seal the borders for the migrants who, in the perception of the governments, are feared to be the potential carriers of the virus. But such states lack the sense of compassion that would be demanded on the part of the state to minimise the suffering of human beings. The governments in question need to realise that an appeal with justness would help the former keep them in close moral touch with their conscience. INAV

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