In Today's 'New India', Conversation Is the Key

Why is it that faith in one leader trumps falsehoods peddled by that same leader? To know the answer, we need to engage with those who disagree with us.

An old friend of mine said to me on Facebook, “Let’s celebrate!” We are close friends, but poles apart in terms of our politics. Our friendship, nonetheless, thrives – both in terms of mutual care as well as when the time comes for dissent and disagreement. I told him I will watch from a distance while he celebrates.

This personal anecdote can easily be rubbished as unnecessary. The aggregate of such anecdotes does not transform into macro-level dialogue or actionable points of political engagement. But there is at least one value in sharing it.

This value is in recognising how politics has now dissolved into our everyday. Two things have happened simultaneously: A ‘New India’ has come to the fore, at the rubbles of the simmering discontent with the ‘old India’. At the same time, a new language, grammar and set of reference points have emerged which channelise the older discontent, but lay new ground rules for ‘doing’ politics.

To an extent, it can be emphatically said that everyday political views and the new structural change in doing politics have dissolved into each other. This is best understood by the simple ‘fact’ that it was Modi who was fighting the elections on 542 seats, and it was him who won on 300-plus seats. The local has dissolved into the Central. Candidates have become meaningless. The leader, the techniques of mobilisation, and the mass – these are the only constituents of new politics.

If politics has restructured our everyday lives through 24×7 channels and group message forwards, then we need to understand and question the nature of this new everyday. It is clear that ‘political faith’ has replaced ‘political wisdom’. I am not being dismissive in saying that people have lost wisdom; in fact, I am saying that the dissolution of the ‘voter’ into the ‘leader’ (wearing Modi masks is the best visual and psychological example of this) has turned faith itself into a form of wisdom.

Supporters wearing Prime Minister Narendra Modi masks cheer as they attend a BJP rally near Jammu on April 3. Image: Reuters

The justification of this merger comes from the ways faith in one man is rationalised, ranging from development to nationalism, from toilets to Pakistan, from cylinders to surgical strikes. Suffering has acquired a new meaning – visible from how people’s sacrifices legitimised demonetisation as a necessary cleansing ‘yagya’.

Those who are critical of this merger – people like this author – must find a way to disentangle them again. But those who support the merger of the man and the mass must also question themselves: Are they willing to go to such an extent that they lose their socio-political selfhood and identity? Do they want to cease to exist as an independent entity? Do they forever want to breathe from under the mask? Are they happy to let their faith become the fulcrum of logic and reason?

These are not new questions. But the downpour of opinion pieces in the media in the last few weeks has not adequately addressed them. By and large, the energy and drama are still confined to the ‘cause and effect’ framework, for which the institutional, older forms of analysis are used. For instance, ‘the opposition needed to present a united face’ is an oft-repeated argument. In any analysis, as long as the tug-of-war is simply restricted to Modi and his opposition, we will continue missing the wood for the trees.

It is often said that in electoral battles, the people are the ultimate judge. This election was therefore not just between political parties; it was between Modi and the people. And the people have brought him back. So anyone who is trying to understand his return must put people back at the centre of analysis.

We definitely need to question power; we must keep questioning the leader and the machinery. But we also need to question those who sustained that power. If voters have decided to merge themselves with their leader, then the act of questioning the leader means also questioning those voters.

Also read: Narendra Modi and the Pantheon of Superheroes

There is little point debating why and how the opposition failed over and over again. In not doing so, I am also saying that I refuse to provide fodder to the gloating meme industry of the richest political party in Asia that is demonising, satirising and infantilising the opposition. Not that I have a soft spot for any opposition political party in particular, but I do believe in the idea of an opposition and its role in a democracy.

The story of this election is not the defeat of the opposition, but the victory of the ruling dispensation. The story we need to tell must therefore address this victory. It is, of course, difficult to keep them separate, but it also necessary to move forward and make sense of the changes we are seeing.

For instance, the hair-splitting exercise by opinion-makers and politicised anchors is centred around proving that the opposition had no narrative. Fair enough, let’s accept that for a while. But the question is: Do we need to reduce politics to the creation and dissemination of narratives alone? Are we content with narrativising our politics? Isn’t that exactly what the ruling dispensation said in its attack on the opposition? Should we be complicit in that agenda by raising the same question? The reasons for victory or defeat based upon the ‘strong’ vs ‘weak’ leader narrative should be the first thing to be discarded.

Narratives sustain themselves on tropes and images. These imageries, in turn, are created and circulated by controlling a massive media machinery, paid news, the meme industry, mysterious broadcasting platforms and ‘direct’ communication through scripted interviews. Building this narrative relies on the excessive use of money.

Those who talk of narratives alone must answer if they want the opposition to become the mirror image of the ruling dispensation. The opposition, of course, should create their own narrative, a different one. The question is, through what process? And given that the role of the media, money and marketing in narrative making, do we really need such narratives for good politics?

Good politics is an outcome of sustained processes and deliberate attempts at institution-building. Processes based on legal frameworks of progressive, inclusive and egalitarian values, for instance, promise to bring fundamental social and economic change. Institutions secure the endurance of such processes.

Narratives mask the ability to interrogate processes. The creation of political faith represented in statements such as ‘who is the alternative’ is based on the power of the narrative created around the invincibility or inevitability of one person. People forget to question the control of institutions and subversion of processes.

A simple example would suffice: to what degree has the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has changed the fate of manual scavengers and sweepers across the country? How many schools were set up for the children of these stigmatised workers, so that they can break free from this life?

Also read: What the Winners of the 2019 Lok Sabha Election Lost

Of course, institutions can and do rot. But the way to build new institutions is not by resorting to the construction of narratives. By simply applauding narratives as the answer, we lose sight of the decimation of institutions. The mask-wearing supporters must ask themselves, while securing a victory for their leader, did they not see some of India’s prime institutions losing credibility? Have they completely stopped believing in the institutions meant to preserve fairness and justice? Institutions which they themselves might need in the future?

A lot of people may ask: Is there any point repeating all this when we live in the age of post-truth? Once again, we should not be dismissive of the intellect of the masked supporters. A lot of them know about the existence of various fact-checking websites, they also visit those websites. Some even accept their credibility.

But at the end, the faith in one leader trumps falsehoods peddled by that same leader. Lies are accepted as lies, but their implications are neglected. What is the relevance, then, of calling something fake, when fake itself has become the new real?

The answers to these questions are not yet known, but they are are not non-existent either. The process to find the answers lies in conversations with people we disagree with. They lie not necessarily in agreement, but in presenting structured disagreements. This will create a new language of engagement.

I do not aspire to change my friend. I aspire him to make him acknowledge more concretely, more clearly, why he believes what he does. Conversation is the key – not to change anyone’s view, but to sow the seeds of questioning. Simple questions, continuous probing and direct conversation will create a new narrative, which won’t drown the system of good institutional politics. If politics is now dissolved into the everyday machinery of faith and wisdom, then such conversations have to become a part of our everyday too.

Nitin Sinha is a senior research fellow at ZMO (Centre for Modern Oriental Studies), Berlin.