Backstory: Post Polls, Press the Pause Button

A fortnightly column from The Wire’s public editor.


So, finally, they came home, the Gujarat ke ladke, wreathed in marigold garlands and rose petals after stomping the ‘UP ke ladke’ out of existence, notching famous victories in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, and snatching victory from the jaws of defeat in the state assemblies of Manipur and Goa in a manner that marked a new high in political immorality.

In many ways this was another chapter of a story that had begun with the 2014 general election and it needed the prime minister to underline, in his victory speech, what had changed (‘BJP Govt Belongs to All, No Discrimination Against Those Who Didn’t Vote, Says Modi,’ March 13): “A government is made with ‘bahumat’ (majority) but it runs through ‘sarvamat’ (unanimity).” He added, “Ours is a government for all.” But there can be no getting away from M-word: majoritarianism. An opposition-mukt polity would make for a rare unanimity.

It is at junctures such as these that journalists, otherwise so caught up with breaking the story, should legitimately press the pause button, absorb the implications of such turning points and provide understanding on how they impact lives, communities and the county at large.

News portals can afford greater deliberation. Lighter on their feet, they don’t need to adopt the tactics of corporate television channels that parse over the blatant stealing of support in the Goa and Manipur assemblies even as they keep flogging, night after night, the Rahul Gandhi horse long after it has been rendered comatose.

The Wire’s post-election conversations, including reader responses, reflected the Argumentative Indian and, of course, the Polarised Indian. Let’s look at a few of these. The commentary, ‘UP Voters Endorse Modi’s ‘Moral Cleansing’ Project, Warts and All’ (March 12), sought to understand the manner in which Narendra Modi successfully acquired the attributes of a “moral cleanser” through his demonetisation exercise – something that seemed to have escaped “most domestic political economy observers”. It went on to wonder whether “a rational analytical framework” can “capture the deeper moral/cultural elements driving voter behaviour.”

One mouthful-of-a-response the piece received seemed to indicate that the art of engaging with arguments is fast being replaced by vituperation: “So all that frothing from the mouth and bleeding from the heart facade that you and your ilk have adopted since the day Modi became Indias PM is well seen through and your angst and disbelief at the results turning out the way they have despite all your gratuitous opposition and diabolical machinations including the dastardly whipping up of frenzied anti government opposition in educational institutions under the garb of student politics are all acknowledged and noted.”

But there were many responses that joined in the exploration of ideas. One on the piece ‘Assembly Poll Results Are Further Proof That Modi Is Currently in a Political League of His Own’ (March 11), which also looked at the forthcoming Gujarat election and its unequal playing field, pointed out that it is not catchy slogans that is important but “emotional connect”, and noted that if the future is difficult for the opposition, it is also not easy for Modi, who will be “severely tested as aam aadmi expectations have skyrocketed with the passage of time, doles and sops are not enough.” Not many had dwelt on this aspect amidst the hoopla of the grand sweep.

Two pieces, in particular – ‘The BJP Now Has Absolute Power in UP. Brace Yourself for the Aftershocks’ (March 11) and ‘BJP’s Hegemonic Power Poses a Challenge to Indian Democracy’ (March 15) – appeared to have touched a raw nerve going by the flood of feedback.

The first piece was a clinical dissection of the factors that powered the Modi win. The broad critique of those who wrote in response was that the writer was on the “wrong side of history”. But it was the conclusion of that analysis, calling upon the media to act as the “opposition” and hold the government to account in a situation where political parties had failed, that drew the most attention from both sides of the political divide. While some commended the sentiment, one writer dismissed it outright: “If you are aware of the rapidly growing inequality or the loss
of life and property of minorities, then I’m confounded how you think this is about accountability of any sort. Either your priorities are misplaced or you think somehow BJP will stop all this violence if somehow there is vigilance. This stems from a fundamentally misdirected reasoning. You have drawn all the wrong conclusions and it connotes a limited political vision, including a typical overestimation of the role of the media. The BJP’s rise to power in UP is not caused by some abstract communal agenda pulled out of thin air only during elections. Neither is it some sort of vague anti-incumbency of SP or flawed electoral strategies of Cong-SP or BSP. These are the consequences not causes. Over 2009-11, there was a big shift in the allegiances of big capital. This is what drives the well oiled machinery of the BJP”. The writer ends with a damning verdict: “I do believe the gravity of the times calls for more stringent and severe analysis. Mainstream media is by and large already part of the problem. Online independent platforms like yours really ought to do a better job. You don’t face formal censorship – only the censorship of your own political horizon.”

The second piece – on the BJP’s hegemonic power – had argued that Modi’s critics were living in denial and “any serious opposition to the BJP must begin by acknowledging this truth” and realising that “the BJP is shaping popular common sense”. It ends by iterating that “counter-hegemony must begin by developing a cultural toolkit to take on the ideological and moral legitimacy of the regime,” which is the “principal political challenge of our times”. A thoughtful rejoinder to the piece, while agreeing with the general analysis of the Modi hegemony, argues that the way to counter and overcome it is by changing “the mind-set of our people from the bottom…by patient working among them to encourage rational thinking, scientific temper, acceptance of socio-cultural divergences (‘unity in diversity’ – the old motto which has been forgotten by our rulers who want to ‘unify’ us by erasing all ‘diversities’). Let’s remember that it is among these people at the bottom – whether in the villages of UP, or Jharkhand in the east – that the Sangh parivar had worked for years by setting up Saraswati Shishu Vidyalayas and charitable organisations, through which it succeeded in moulding the minds of the local people in favour of its communal and divisive ideology. It is this popular space that we have to recapture by detoxicating the distorted psyche of the voters who are sleep-walking into a Modi-led dystopia.”

Resisting the gravitational force of mainstream media analysis when most eyes were fixed on television screens demands a capacity to drop anchor and follow the patterns of small counter currents. The piece, ‘Why the Modi Wave Has Not Drowned the BJP’s Opponents’ (March 14), fell in this category, calculating that “the BJP polled a little over 3.44 crore votes in the assembly elections which was actually just 84,185 votes more than what the party had got in the state in 2014.” The piece received the wry response – “It is too bad absolute number of vote increases don’t win elections” – but it is important nevertheless to have a sense of the exact dimensions of the ‘Modi wave’, given the tendency of some to inflate it into a tsunami.

Another piece that made for compulsive reading was ‘How Dainik Jagran’s Exit Poll Helped the BJP Sweep UP’ (March 16) which argued the exit poll led a “big chunk of floating voters to jump on the BJP bandwagon”. Most of the responses to it dismissed the argument, yet the piece succeeded in calling out a blatant illegality that got conveniently forgotten in the avalanche of BJP-positive reportage.

The Wire Hindi, I notice, is adding depth to portal’s commentary. The article, ‘As Long as Muslims are Addressed Separately from Hindus in Politics, Hindutva Will Remain Alive’ (March 13) unflinchingly suggested that many Muslim leaders are being driven solely by personal, rather than community, agendas. “Why must the whole community pay the price for the ambitions of a few?” it asked. ‘When Social Justice Failed, BJP Offered UP an Alternative’ (March 12), raised a similar argument: Electoral politics divorced from social movements and transformations lead to the wilderness. It reminded us that “Akhilesh was neither born out of a movement, nor has he witnessed any social struggle of Dalits and backward castes”. The writer cites the case of Karpoori Thakur by way of comparison. As Bihar’s chief minister he transformed the state by making education free until matriculation level while simultaneously rendering English as a non-compulsory subject. This helped many from Dalit and backward communities to get jobs, having cleared what came to be known as the “Kapoori Division”. It is this quality of having an ear to the ground and familiarity with local history that seems to elude the English language-wallahs (a category to which I, alas, belong).


Incidentally, The Wire Hindi’s arrival has been greeted with much enthusiasm from readers, not least
by Sathis M R who, as a regular visitor to this portal, believes The Wire would also be a great hit in Tamil!

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