Gullibility is a matter of profit as well as delight. Cheats are often excellent entertainers. And the human capacity for being willingly fooled is usually underestimated. Shakespeare's age made marvellous use of this. It gave some of its greatest lines in the theatre to pick-pockets, quacks, soothsayers, pimps and rogues, the likes of whom continue to thrive in modern India ' and often with a similar talent for profundity and entertainment. Astrologers, faith-healers, feng shui experts and their spiritual kin are now having a gala time on private television channels. Middle India has its special mix of hypochondria and superstitiousness ' and Middle Bengal, in spite of the communism, is no exception. So the West Bengal government is about to take upon itself the worthy task of protecting TV-watchers from their own gullibility. A Trinamool Congress legislator has recently drawn the chief minister's attention, in the assembly, to how astrologers have hit jackpot with the private channels. They predict futures, treat ailments and provide counsel ' undoubtedly to their own immense profit. The chief minister has agreed that this is, indeed, a serious matter, and has consulted his law minister on the logistics of a ban. An old law has been fished out ' delightfully called the Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements) Act ' that might make such a ban possible.
Banning astrologers from private channels is an absurd proposition. The government should think several times before trivializing itself with such gratuitous acts of interference. (The only other country where such a thing has been done is Italy, where the national media watchdog has banned soothsayers and magicians from daytime TV.) If ordinary people must be protected from cheats, then why zero in suddenly on astrologers, and that too only those who come on TV' By the government's logic, a teeming world of hocus-pocus and humbug ' some of it dangerous and some perfectly harmless ' would have to be taken on. The scale of such a clean-up operation would be far more unmanageable than, say, clearing the pavements of hawkers ' and just as 'anti-people', offending elites and proletarians alike. It is no point getting into legal wrangles about the finer distinctions between 'proper' astrologers and fake ones who dispense charms and remedies. But it is important to see the larger pointlessness of such an exercise, the way it both undermines and oversteps the nature and limits of sensible governance.
In a sense, the chief minister is quite right. It certainly is a crime to cheat vulnerable human beings, and the law must stop this. But suddenly waking up to deception, quackery and superstition, and then acting upon it by solemnly banning astrologers from appearing on TV is to betray a degree of cluelessness about priorities and proportions that is perhaps more ridiculous and dangerous than the quackery itself.