it’s time for the bull­shit sea­son

Post-truth is passé. We are en­ter­ing an era where words are di­vorced from mean­ings as gen­eral elec­tions ap­proach

Governance Now - - CONTENTS - Ajay Singh

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 de­bate on the no­con­fi­dence 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.

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 no­con­fi­dence 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

So­ci­ol­o­gist Di­pankar Gupta ad­vances the ar­gu­ment of ‘rev­o­lu­tion from above’, but the In­dian dis­course has en­tered an age of ir­ra­tional­ity fos­tered from above. Pol­i­tics with the rigour of ideas is seen as a failed en­ter­prise which few would un­der­take.

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.

Ashish Asthana

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