It's the bullshit season of Indian politics: Words are divorced from meanings and irrationality is fostered from above

It was nearly midnight at a small public ground at Aminabad in Lucknow where an enthusiastic crowd was waiting for VP Singh. This was in 1988, just after the Bofors scandal had blown up in Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's face. A rebellious VP Singh had emerged as the beacon of hope for people yearning for a clean-up and change.

Singh arrived on the scene with the élan of a crusader, took to podium and began his speech by saying that he knew all who received kickbacks from the Bofors gun deal. Like a consummate conjurer, he pulled out a piece of paper from his pocket and declared, “All the names are listed here.” The crowd applauded and the erstwhile Raja of Manda walked away with glory. Singh eventually became the prime minister but those names forever remained in his pocket. The Bofors payoff recipients remains trace-less even after three decades.

Instead of the Singh incident, one could have even begun this story with something which happened in the 1970s, when Indira Gandhi coined the slogan of ‘garibi hatao’ (eradicate poverty). In the post-Nehru phase of Indian politics, rhetoric and demagogy became an essential recipe of national politics. Since then, politicians have tended to play to the gallery. This political culture, light years away from the (Mahatma) Gandhi-Nehru mould of politics of truth and morality has produced remarkable and gifted speakers.

Recall as example the flutter caused by Piloo Modi when he walked into Parliament with a poster proclaiming himself to be a CIA agent (a fitting reposte to Indira who would constantly blame the 'foreign hand' for all of India's ills). Recall also the manner in which George Fernandes defended the Morarji Desai government in the no-confidence motion in 1979 and a short while later — when Morarji's government fell and his challenger Chaudhary Charan Singh sought a confidence vote — argued equally and vehemently in favour of Singh.

Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi in Parliament during the trust vote. PTI

Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi in Parliament during the trust vote. PTI

There are countless such examples of politicians twisting facts and logic to suit their immediate purpose. The belief that they (politicians) can get away with working up the lather rather than substance is widespread and goes far back into our political history. But the debate on the no-confidence motion in July 2018 against the Narendra Modi government marks a radical change in this political culture. It seemed to have kicked off the bullshit season of public debate that threatens to last till at least till the 2019 Lok Sabha elections conclude.

Before readers take offence to the word ‘bullshit’, let me clarify that it is not used loosely as in its colloquial connotations. As argued in this article – it is being referred to the term as defined academically by 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 phoney". Unlike lies that are contrived with great ingenuity to conceal truth, bullshitting is 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's speech in Parliament on the no-confidence motion fits into the category of bluffing, quite unconcerned about truth. It was more focused on its dramatic style of delivery than facts as he bluffed his way through the debate.

In doing so — from his talk of forgiving to the hug — Rahul largely borrowed from the theatrics of Bollywood’s famous Munna Bhai (from the Lage Raho Munnai Bhai fame) who, in his rather obtuse understanding of truth, non-violence and Gandhism seeks to live up to these values in a lumpenised manner. Rahul wanted to be seen hugging to promote love and shed hatred. But in the no-confidence motion debate, he also issued an open threat to the incumbent prime minister on the floor of the house saying Narendra Modi and Amit Shah are afraid of the "processes that would follow" if they do not get the mandate in 2019. Quite like Munna Bhai who uses Gandhian tactics as per convenience, never hesitating to rolling up of sleeves frequently. Rahul Gandhi’s interpretation of “love thy enemy” is ridiculous if not outright absurd. He came across as neither sagacious nor clownish in his attempt to take the high moral ground.

Nothing illustrates the irony of the times as starkly as the conduct of the president of a political party which once represented the very idea of India.

The obvious question that arises is why has the situation come to such a pass in a country which prides itself on the legacy of the Argumentative Indian? India’s social and religious discourse is replete with instances of conducting meaningful discussions in order to evolve 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, grants three boons to Nachiketa, the young boy prefers to pose questions and seek answers to the riddle of afterlife. Truth was always considered multifaceted and needed 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 in a young chief minister of Tripura, Biplab Deb, making outlandish claims about the existence of internet and satellite communication in the age of the (mythical) Mahabharata. There are ministers in the Modi government who are historian, scientist, sociologist and alchemist all rolled into one. They have readymade answers to the 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 political discourse in India has essentially entered an age of irrationality fostered from above. Politics with the rigour of ideas and intellectualism is seen as a failed enterprise. There is no peoples' issue other than sentimentalism — either on communal/caste lines or regional lines — to reap benefit from because it appeals to the lowest common denominator, the baser instincts of the masses.

This appeal to emotion, rather than reason, is what is fuelling the most prominent trend – and debate – worldwide, which goes under a variety of labels ranging from ‘populism’ to ‘death of democracy’. Consider the rise of populist majoritarian strongmen like Donald Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – not to mention what happened in and after the Brexit referendum. Broadly, it is 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, victimhood – and resulting anti-intellectualism. Fueling this trend is the confluence of several factors: economic insecurity, terrorism and the costs of globalisation.

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 to overwhelm adversaries. Fernandes’s eloquence in defending Morarji Desai and later in supporting Charan Singh was outstanding in both the stances though with contradictory content. But the same cannot be held true for today’s context where bullshit has become the chief content of political discourse with social media becoming a rapid purveyor of these phoney debates. With the 2019 elections around the corner, it seems like the bullshit season will have a long life.

This oped has appeared Governance Now


Updated Date: Jul 30, 2018 16:00 PM

Also See