Success, we know, has many friends. As the BJP wins the elections in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, we are bound to witness once again the admirers of Narendra Modi celebrating the euphoric moment, and asserting the ‘irresistible’ power of the prime minister to prove that there cannot be any alternative to him. From the members of the ruling party to a set of ‘well-educated’ television anchors, from non-reflexive and obsessively ‘confident’ spokespersons of the establishment to some academic experts with instantaneous answers to everything, the songs of praise will be loud and dramatic.
Yet, intellectual honesty demands the ability to remain contemplative, ask critical questions and not to be carried away by the meticulously-crafted narratives of ‘success story’ bombarded on us every day. It is in this context that I refer to the prevailing environment of cultural pessimism. “A reasonable, smooth, democratic unfreedom,” as wrote Herbert Marcuse in his classic One Dimensional Man, prevails in our times.
True, apparently there is enough freedom with periodic elections, multiple television channels and shopping malls. Yet, as a critical theorist with penetrating insight, he could see how with the seduction of the market-induced culture of consumption and the glitz of technocratic rationality we – particularly in the era of late capitalism – are becoming increasingly ‘one dimensional’ and losing the critical faculty to think, live and feel differently. It seems that this insight of critical theory has become immensely relevant in contemporary India.
Is it that Modi’s hyper-masculine development discourse is making many of us incapable of evolving yet another vision of India? Is it that this aggressive posture of Hindu nationalism is appealing to us, and making us think that ‘effeminate’ Mahatma Gandhi with his love for the Muslims was to be held responsible for the fall of Hindu pride and the likes of Vinayak Savarkar have to be promoted as the champions of a resurgent Hindu nation? The aggression of development, the militancy of cultural nationalism and the loud assertion of ‘shiny’ India with its proposed bullet trains and smart cities, it seems, have become the dominant discourse, and it is becoming extremely difficult to come out of its shadow. As the new middle class – the product of neoliberal India with an utterly instrumental package of mere ‘skill-oriented’ and technical education – become reckless consumers of instant ‘brands’, politics is commodified, development becomes a spectacle and the leader becomes a macho hero for instant consumption.
Another reason for this cultural pessimism is our inability to distinguish the real/authentic from what social psychologist Erving Goffman would have regarded as the ‘impression management’ implicit in ‘dramaturgical performance’. See Modi’s every posture – the way he dresses himself keeping the social and ethnic context in mind, the way he modulates his every speech and brings melodrama in it, the way he shows his marked finger after casting his vote and almost like a Bollywood star faces the camera, and the way even his intimate moments with his mother become photographic moments of public display through the well-organised network of social media. And ironically, a section of the media further promote this ‘heroic’ performance through the play of camera, soundtrack and equally dramatic live commentary. As the image becomes more real than the real in the world of media simulation, we too seem to have lost the ability to filter, and realise what happens at the ‘back stage’– how violence is normalised, the economy is destroyed and social inequality is intensified.
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I saw Emergency but then, I also saw the daring journalists like Nikhil Chakrabarty, Kuldip Nayar, Arun Shourie and S. Nihal Singh; and it was quite assuring that Indira Gandhi’s authoritarianism could not suppress the voices of creative dissent. However, these days when I watch television channels, it pains me. I see the story of intellectual numbness leading to absolute surrender –the pathetic way through which some channels act like a propaganda machine, eliminate the possibility of a nuanced critical dialogue, and noise is prioritised over the art of careful listening. This manipulated ‘public sphere’, as Jurgen Habermas would have said, destroys the culture of democracy and communicative rationality. In a way, these shrinking spaces for a new language of creativity, criticality and reflexivity indicate the environment filled with fear – the fear of terrible consequences of an act of dissent. Today, it seems, we are living with fear. Fear paralyses us, cripples us. Democracy with perpetual surveillance – what irony. From Marcuse to Foucault –we need a new tool of analysis.
Finally, I wish to say that the likes of M.K. Gandhi and M.N. Roy were not entirely wrong in seeing the discontents of this sort of ‘representative’ democracy. Today we realise its discontents. It limits our choices. It is inherently inclined to the might of money and muscle power. It imposes the will of the gigantic parties on people and it forces even the ‘opposition’ to emulate the ruling establishment.
No wonder, we keep asking: Was Rahul Gandhi truly an alternative? Or was the Congress, as the election campaign with its mandir-visit politics indicates, behaving like a halfhearted schizophrenic response to the dominant ideology of Hindutva?
In fact, the shared practice of manipulative politics, the growing cynicism among people, the disappearance of alternative projects and practices – it seems that we are passing through terribly dark times. We can find the ray of light only with the acknowledgement of darkness.
Avijit Pathak is a professor at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, JNU.