We are in the middle of a grand image-spectacle. The extravaganza is worth over four-and-a-half thousand crores of public money. The display is well crafted within the cascades of illusive ‘bright days ahead’ – ‘achhe din’ – that will eventually embrace all of us. We are made to believe that all sections of society will immensely benefit from this all-invasive and all-inclusive development-dosage (or its image management).
Such is the unprecedented historical juncture that defines our current state of being. Critiquing this propaganda, or believing it to be too-good-to-be-true does not arise – as the image of ‘progress’ is omnipresent and indisputable.
For instance, if you visit a petrol pump, you may have seen something unusually larger-than-life staring at you. No, I am not referring to the nasty stare of the fuel-bill that prints ever-increasing prices. I am rather hinting at the grand image of the benefactor, who is constantly trying to remind the beneficiaries – ‘who’ the ultimate provider is. An omnipresent mask of compassion and a charitable portrait greets you wherever you go. It follows you relentlessly like that Vodafone pug. So strong is the desire to constantly communicate the ‘concern for the poor’ and the ‘cause of the nation’, that every policy is now an ‘image’ on the bill-board to be seen, to be remembered and to be consumed.
These images are everywhere: in the first page of the newsprint; in the airport – before you take off and after you land; in a bus terminus; wrapped around the body of a public transport or elsewhere. Every possible site of visibility is the new residence of an image-dominated idea of governance. Governance is all about visibility through relentless publicity. In a political ambience where manifesto has become irrelevant and ideology is dead, the vacuum is filled by fluid images of self-propaganda.
Simply put: much of the governance is now an advertising deal.
It is a visual strategy with taxpayer’s money.
It is an unabashed viral-hype.
It is an uneasy persuasion to drill an image that ‘all-is-well’.
It is a publicised list of uncontested deliverables.
It is a narcissist narrative witnessed by the masses suffering from amnesia.
It is an act of strategic reminders to the amnestic masses about the aids and endowments.
Consumer-citizens consuming policy as an image
Visual strategies are symptomatic of an image-driven and image dependent culture of unapologetic consumption that we have imported since the 1990s. It is not just the Lee-Levis’ and Louis Vuittons that require ‘images’ to communicate, but so does the state. And when that happens, citizens become consumer-citizens.
Like typical consumers, window-shopping in a consumption-space, we get used to a range of image-options and an abundance of image camp(aigns) to choose from: making in India, cleaning India, irrigating every field, (en)lightning every household, saving the girl child, saving the cow, building the temple, etc. The sacrosanct rule of the game is: blind faith in the truth-claims of these images. No other proof (read data) is allowed to remain in the public domain, anyway.
Enough of generalising; now let us arrive at a particular example to conduct a fact-check. Let us return to the petrol pump. The larger-than-life image in petrol pumps claim that over six crore have benefited from a scheme that has delivered free LPG connections to the poor households – i.e., families living below the poverty line (BPL). Let us now make an attempt to investigate the shoot beneath the surface of ujwala.
The curious case of denied subsidy and lack of affordability
In fact, what has been projected as a freebie is actually a loan worth Rs 1,500 (which is apparently the price of a new cylinder). This loan is recovered in successive instalments by denying the subsidy per refill (worth Rs 200 approx.) for the first seven refills. Most villagers were initially under the impression that they would get future refills for free as well. But to their surprise, the subsidy is denied till the investment of Rs 1,500 is recovered.
Villagers appear even more baffled, when the dealers try to convey that from eighth refill onwards, the subsidy will be automatically credited to their Aadhaar-linked bank accounts. The underlining fact is: most of the BPL families do not have sufficient incomes to afford refilling the cylinders. For a BPL family, which is unable to afford a second refill, waiting for the eighth one must be a utopia.
Meanwhile, if s/he manages to find resources for successive refills, the scheme earns back its investment, dealers enhance their customer base and consumer-citizens live with the belief that they have received an oven for free, at least.
Convenience vs cost
Most of the villages in India still have free access to wood or crop residues, which are often used for cooking purposes. Why would anyone spend close to Rs 1,000 when there is no dearth of traditional sources of fuel for cooking for free?
Also, given the large size of most rural households, the process of cooking for a big family is quicker when traditional methods with higher flame are put to use. That also requires big vessels and cooking in bulk, which is not suitable in a regular oven that is being offered along with the cylinder. Boiling fodder for cattle and boiling water during the winter also requires bigger vessels and intense heating, thus making the beneficiaries heavily dependent on wood or coal.
Image vs actual
So, even after getting access to clean fuel, and irrespective of their ability to refill, almost all beneficiaries have retained their traditional chulhas. Now the question is:
Out of the six crore beneficiaries, how many have actually benefitted?
How many are using what they have received as a part of the scheme?
How many can afford a refill and how often are they using LPG?
How many have used it only once, or used it occasionally/sparingly?
How many out of the claimed six crore cannot even afford the second refill, unless other policies ensure an increase in income generation and newer sources of employment in rural India?
The bright image of ujwala that claims to have relieved six crore families from the unbearable tar of wood and coal, does not bother to take the beholder into these relatively dark zones of enquiry. There is no data on how many have benefitted on papers versus how many have the financial resources to keep benefiting from the scheme.
Skilful propaganda machinery in the name of irradiating smoke actually gives birth to a smokehouse of make-belief, where the truth lies buried and hidden beneath layers of advertised surfaces that curate an image of well-being. As a policy, ujwala (and many others of a similar breed) merely aims to increase the number of consumer-citizens amongst the lowest income levels. The idea is to meet numbers and targets so that the image of a benevolent state is successfully fashioned.
Will we keep believing in these image-campaigns and participate in the next voting ritual hoping for an elusive ‘achhe din’ that is perennially forthcoming? Or will we make a sincere attempt to verify the claims made in these images? Hypnotised by the image, will the consumer-citizen continue to live in a simulated political ambience, where the deliverables are nothing but the tyranny of images? Can a democracy function on blind faith devoid of introspection, enquiry and dissent?
It is high time that images and their claims are put to the test – unless, of course, we have already lost the ability to do so.
Sreedeep is Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Affairs and Critical Theory, SNU.
All images by Sreedeep.