Post-truth is passé. We are entering an era where words are divorced from meanings as general elections come closer
Ajay Singh | August 1, 2018 | New Delhi
It was nearly midnight at a small ground in Aminabad of Lucknow, and an enthusiastic crowd was waiting for VP Singh. This was in 1988, after the Bofors scandal had blown up in the face of prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, and a rebellious VP had emerged as a beacon of hope for people yearning for a clean-up and change.
As usual, VP Singh arrived on the scene with the élan of a crusader, took to the dais and began his speech by saying that he knew who all received Bofors cutbacks. Like a consummate conjurer, he ferreted out a piece of paper from his pocket and told people, “All the names are written here.” The crowd applauded and the erstwhile Raja of Manda walked away with glory. VP Singh eventually became the prime minister but those names remained a mystery. Indeed, the Bofors payoff recipients remain traceless even after three decades.
I have begun this comment with an incident I witnessed as a reporter. It could as well have begun with something from the 1970s, when Indira Gandhi coined the slogan of ‘Garibi Hatao’ (remove poverty). In the post-Nehru phase of Indian politics, rhetoric and demagogy became an integral recipe of national politics. Since then, politicians tend to play to the gallery in order to attract people. This new political culture, lightyears away from the Gandhi-Nehru mould of politics that had essentially relied on truth and morality, has produced remarkable and gifted speakers of the time.
Remember the flutter caused by a gifted speaker like Piloo Modi when he walked into parliament with a poster proclaiming himself to be a CIA agent? If that appears too distant a memory, recall then the manner in which George Fernandes defended the Morarji Desai government in the no-confidence motion in 1979 and a short while later defended with even more vehemence Chaudhary Charan Singh who was instrumental in the fall of the Morarji Desai government. Of course, politicians knew too well that logic could be twisted to suit their immediate purposes. And they had reasons to believe that people go more by semantics than by substance. This political culture continued till recently, till the emergence of regional satraps wearing the badge of socialism or Dalitism and Hindutva forces that thrived on creating a sense of insecurity among the majority to consolidate their support base.
But the debate on the no-confidence motion in July 2018 against the Narendra Modi government marks a radical change in the political culture. It seems to be the beginning of a bullshit season that will continue to build up till the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Before readers take offence at the word ‘bullshit’, let me clarify that it is not used loosely as in colloquial connotations – the term has entered the rarefied world of philosophy after eminent philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s essay titled ‘On Bullshit’ (2005). In his description of the term he says, “For the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony.” Unlike the lies that are contrived with greater ingenuity to conceal truth, bullshitting is akin to bluffing that is quite tolerable in society.
In this context, one can say that the rhetoric of VP Singh or George Fernandes was limited to disingenuous lies contrived to suit particular political purposes. In sharp contrast, Rahul Gandhi’s speech in parliament on the no-confidence motion fits into the category of bluffing, quite unconcerned about truth and facts. It was more focused on the dramatic style of delivery than facts, as he bluffed his way through the debate. Look at the manner in which Rahul Gandhi largely borrows his politics from the theatrics of Bollywood’s famous Munna Bhai character, from the talk of forgiving to the jhappi.
In a perverse understanding of truth and nonviolence and Gandhism, Munna Bhai of ‘Lage Raho Munna Bhai’ seeks to live up to these values in a lumpenised manner. Rahul is seen to be hugging to promote love and shed hatred. But in the no-confidence motion debate, he also issues an open threat to the prime minister by saying that should the Congress come to power, the Modi-Shah duo would face the music. Quite like Munna Bhai who uses Gandhian tactics as per convenience, only to resort to the rolling of sleeves, Rahul Gandhi’s interpretation of “love thy enemy” is quite ridiculous if not outright absurd. He is neither sagacious nor clownish in his disposition. Perhaps nothing illustrates the irony of the time as starkly as the conduct of the president of a political party which once represented the very idea of India.
The obvious question thus arises as to why the situation has come to such a pass in a country which prided itself on the legacy of the Argumentative Indian. Of course, India’s social and religious discourse is replete with instances of conducting meaningful discussions in order to evolve a consensus. Exemplifying this tradition is the notion of Yaksh Prashna in which a yaksha, a natural spirit, poses critical questions before a king like Yudhishthir to unravel the mystic of life. When the god of death, Yama, granted three boons to Nachiketa, the young boy preferred to pose questions and seek answers to the riddle of afterlife. Truth was multifaceted and to be discovered through reason and open debate – one of the most memorable one being that between Yajnavalkaya and Gargi, mentioned in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad.
With that context of public reasoning in mind, Amartya Sen, in his celebrated essay titled ‘The Argumentative Indian’ (2005), hopefully noted, “Does the richness of the tradition of argument make much difference to subcontinental lives today? I would argue it does, and in a great many ways. It shapes our social world and the nature of our culture. … It deeply influences Indian politics, and is particularly relevant, I would argue, to the development of democracy in India and the emergence of its secular priorities.”
But in recent decades, politics has taken a radically different course since it came to be dominated by emotional content. This is very well illustrated by the fact that a young chief minister of Tripura makes outlandish claims about the history. Biplab Deb would have liked us to believe that the internet and satellite communication existed in the age of the Mahabharata. There are ministers in the Modi government who are historian, scientist, sociologist and alchemist all rolled into one. They have readymade answers to most complex and challenging problems of any discipline. They are driven more by emotions than reality.
Sociologist Dipankar Gupta advances the argument of ‘revolution from above’, but the Indian discourse has essentially entered an age of irrationality fostered from above. Politics with the rigour of ideas and intellectualism is seen as a failed enterprise which few would undertake. And there is no people’s issue other than sentimentalism, either on communal/caste lines or regional lines, to reap the maximum benefit from. It appeals to the lowest common denominator, the baser instincts of the masses.
This appeal to emotion, rather than reason, is what is fueling the most prominent trend – and debate – worldwide, which goes under a variety of labels ranging from ‘populism’ to ‘death of democracy’. For proof, consider the rise of the populist majoritarian strongmen like Donald Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – not to mention what happened in and after the Brexit referendum. Broadly, it’s called the post-truth moment of politics. But the mere question of facts and veracity does not cover the entire gamut of a toxic mix of emotions – anger, fear, hate, misplaced sense of victimhood – and resulting anti-intellectualism. Fueling this trend is the confluence of several factors: economic insecurity, terrorism and the costs of globalisation. When the world is reduced to a global village, India cannot be immune to the trend.
In the post-Nehru phase when rhetoric and demagoguery dominated politics, the discourse was quite animated on account of gifted orators stretching their ingenuity to the extreme to invent a lie in order overwhelm adversaries. Fernandes’s eloquence in defending Morarji Desai and later in supporting Charan Singh was outstanding in both the stances though with contradictory contents. There are many examples like that. But the same cannot be held true for today’s context where bullshit has become the chief content of political discourse. With the social media becoming the fast purveyor of these phony debates, the atmosphere veritably stinks. With the 2019 elections around the corner, it seems quite likely that the bullshit season will exacerbate the situation.
(The article appears in the August 15, 2018 issue)
Manish Sisodia, Deputy CM, Delhi
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