Any hopes that politics in 2017 was going to shed its performative skin has been snuffed out by the continued drama over demonetisation (reaffirmed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech to the nation as 2016 drew to a close), and the continuance of familial love – hate theatrics in Samajwadi Party.
While Modi ended 2016 with his stock-in-trade note of ‘national sacrifice’, the bizarre twists and turns in the Samajwadi Party suggest that Indian politics is not going to disappoint those among us nurturing a natural predilection for political drama. The cast of characters in the ongoing Samajwadi play – starting with the ailing but doggedly fighting party supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav, his for–the–moment–triumphant son Akhilesh Yadav, his scheming uncle Shivpal Yadav, and the manipulative ‘outsider’ Amar Singh, conveys that dramatic elements in Indian politics are in the process of becoming heightened and not diminished as we enter the new year.
This year’s high–voltage Uttar Pradesh assembly elections ensure there will be no let-up in this political theatre. Like the year just gone by, 2017, too, is all set to be another 360 days of unadulterated histrionics.
Even as we apparently seem to disparage political theatrics, we are unable to resist the charm of a demagogue like Narendra Modi, who appeals to our emotional and not intellectual or factual sensibilities. Consider for instance how large chunks of people (If government–sponsored surveys are to be believed) seem to perceive themselves – even if reluctantly – as agents of a national black–money cleansing project. Prosaic economic analysis is often tossed aside in the interest of vacuous but emotionally appealing rhetoric.
The disconcerting truth that we have to contend with, even this year, is that the entire political discourse in India – like elsewhere – has been supplanted by emotional rhetoric; rhetoric that is not based on substance, and only geared to invoke immediate sentiment.
A day after the Prime Minister Modi’s address to the nation on Doordarshan on 31 December, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, with a matching reputation for theatrics, retorted: “PM has become a subject of ridicule internationally. Big economists of the world are talking ill about the whole exercise. Manmohan Singh commanded respect internationally but Modi has destroyed the reputation of PM’s office.” Kejriwal said the Prime Minister’s speech, which did not address the gains and losses of the sudden currency change, was “hollow”. An accusation echoed by many independent commentators as well.
But the question is when hollow speeches become the norm and theatricality a substitute for substance in political, where is the hope of recovering the ‘real’ discourse?
Given the speedy back-and-forth developments within the Samajawadi Party in recent days, the Yadav family seems to be occupying the centre-stage of political theatrics– at least for the moment. More drama is expected to unravel in the coming days in this electorally crucial state. But the list of heavyweight politicians with more than a touch of performative skill ends neither at 7, Race Course Road, nor at the seat of power in Lucknow. Delhi’s Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, surely, is on par with the irrepressible Mamata Banerjee, his Bengal counterpart.
In fact, it may be safe to predict that 2017 will spawn more actor-politicians than ever before. And that political theatrics will continue to dominate the year ahead.