During the months leading up to the 2014 general elections, I was vocally participative in opinion battles on social media. Most of my stances were about the political marketing of the BJP. The campaign was carrying out the tactical pejoration of constitutional values and hence of the democratic character of the constitution, along with simultaneous amelioration of subpar ‘nationalistic’ politics (concealing the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of its flagbearers) in the minds of people.
What made me more upset, was the fact that out of the many individuals in media, academia, corporate and the civil society who, for me, constituted the liberal intelligentsia, a significant section was repeatedly slacking when it came to speaking up and decoding the bluff for the larger public.
These were people who felt the same as me (and many others in the electorate), people who knew what was happening and that most likely than not, much worse was in store. The winning party’s campaign narrative packaged as being that of ‘development’, was not so much about the specifics of the promised development and what good they would do once in power, as it was about jointly widening the majority-minority schism by stoking the majority’s minority complex. They furthered their cause by tapping into middle-class resentment first and then with the popular buy-in, step-by-step discrediting and denunciating any policy prerogative that would come in the way of advancing the interests of a majoritarian regime or the lack of which could be responsible for substandard governance.
Thanks to the wave or more appropriately the tsunami, that the campaign was, Mani Shankar Aiyar’s snobbish “chai wallah” remark perhaps became the Achilles heel for the Congress, as the next campaign move became the glorification of the ‘humble origins’ of the Prime Ministerial candidate. This was, as is known, a masterstroke.
While it struck a chord with the lower and middle-class voters, this glorification was a sham that nobody dared to acknowledge. It was a massive disservice that the lower and lower middle class could not, and the upper and upper middle class refused to see through. The world has seen leaders who came from humble backgrounds, but who worked their way up the ladder of merit and public service, were intellectuals who brought about or contributed to revolutions and not just party servants waiting to rise through the ranks of power whose campaign for obvious reasons would then have to rely solely on heavy showmanship.
While the highly marketed candidature encored the idea of anybody being able to become the Prime Minister of one of the biggest democracies of the world, which was also precisely the campaign message that the common man fell for, it dangerously derided the factor of the suitability of a candidate in terms of stature and statesmanship.
Many would begin contesting this view quoting the two termed Chief Ministership of an Indian state which was also perhaps one of the most questionable Chief Ministerial track records in Indian political history. Here, I would want to re-emphasize on how it was not a question of eligibility, but rather lack of suitability and stature for being handed down the top job in the country.
The public was cheated when such a candidature was put forward first and then further by its glorification. The then government, the Indian National Congress (INC) and the liberal intelligentsia aided its success by not offering the required resistance. The campaign’s attack on the government went beyond criticising it on policies and ideology to damaging the reputation of leaders in ways we had never seen before. It was full of jibes and below the belt comments. Here, I am not saying that other parties were saintly, but I am pointing it out because the ruling party’s whataboutery always plays down the incidence of its sins. Much to my surprise, the popular buy-in was the key to a significant fat sanction to all of that.
The mass media, which had been experiencing both a transformation in spirit, to becoming more right-leaning as well as in ownership, as the winning party’s campaign sponsors (the deep-pocketed conglomerates) kept buying more and more controlling stakes through pre-election years, well into 2017, chose to not highlight and ignored, all campaign misdoings. They weren’t even unbiased in the election coverage, be it in reporting or newsroom debates.
Again, most of the liberal intelligentsia knew all this and could easily foresee what was going to happen, but took that passive seat which they were not supposed to take. This has cost us as much as the UPA government’s scams and the INC’s recklessness.
With the results out and the conversion of one person’s dream of becoming the Prime Minister, into the nightmarish reality of a country of 1.3 billion having taken place, I saw no hope and decided to stop speaking my mind. What could I do?
The pejoration of meritocratic, democratic and constitutional values and rights had been successfully done. Many more like me, took the same decision in those times of post-win muscle flexing of supporters on social media, which was becoming an increasingly dangerous place for dissenters.
In the next two years, it felt pointless to engage with people who had been psychologically trained by then, to interpret every pro-democratic voice as anti-national, dissent as intellectual terrorism, tolerance as a fabricated anti-establishment crusade and secularism as forever to be minority appeasing and majority exploiting.
Simultaneously, however, sections of the society began waking up to the nightmare. The voices, as usual, rose first from amongst the Dalits, the Adivasis, the Muslims and the economically downtrodden, but over the course of three years have resonated and amplified across strata and communities.
The liberal intelligentsia which had hoped for the feared scenario not to be true began to feel the jolts. After all, a majoritarian establishment doesn’t just want to do away with the minorities, but also all forces that could even remotely threaten its fantasy of carving a monochromatic national identity. And so, artistic, creative, intellectual, heck any individual freedom are never those concepts that it can truly grasp and respect, forget protect or encourage.
This is something that many in the liberal intelligentsia knew very well but probably wanted to be proved wrong on. This raises a very important question, as to why?
Why did they want to be proved wrong by a politician whose political ideology and authoritarian style of leadership were pretty well known to the intelligentsia if not the larger public? Were they expecting a majoritarian but non-authoritarian regime? Neither is that theoretically possible nor was it unknown to them and even if hypothetically it was possible, would it have been alright? Does a modern multi-cultural, multi-religious, democratic country need to have an overarching singular identity?
When the country does not belong any less to the minorities than it does to the majority, why would it have been acceptable to the intelligentsia to have a monochromatic national identity with a lesser incidence of oppression or oppression that wouldn’t reach them?
I wish this line of thought is incorrect and that it was the threatening power and influence of the ruling party that instilled fear and suppressed many liberal voices till the time it became clear that the force would have to be resisted. While the long overdue liberal reactivation takes place, adds to the lesser credited but most credit deserving vernacular resistances mushrooming across the country, and we fight the battles ahead, it will be in the best interest of the Indian democracy to look at all the reasons that caused this delay.
All through 2012-13, I had hoped for a liberal blogosphere like that of the United States (HuffPost, Crooks & Liars, Daily Kos and many others) that helped the US citizenry and politicians protect their democratic values from a right-wing assault in 2008. Sadly, all that existed here was the content churned out by the far right sponsored propaganda and troll machinery, that spared no mercy in damaging all political capital, except for the ruling party’s be it that of the national party INC or the other opposing regional parties.
Of course, the INC received the hardest blow. One from which it is struggling to recover even today. However, the Indian liberal blogosphere did not begin taking proper shape or become an influential force until early 2016. While I would put Madhu Trehan’s Newslaundry, which came much earlier, right at the beginning of the timeline of the development of the liberal blogosphere movement, the much-needed traction has come only now with the ‘Alt News’, ‘The Quint’, ‘The Wire’, ‘Scroll’, ‘DailyO’ and many others who are doing a great job of investigating and exhibiting the reality of India under this authoritarian regime, that with its stuntman like leaders lacks the sagacity to govern and nurture a modern democratic country as vibrant and dynamic as ours.
The critical thing to understand is that journalistic activism alone cannot deal with the right-wing vigilantism, the fake news and propaganda machinery, institutional saffronisation and the curbing of dissent and deliberation, especially with the majority of mass media having been bought out or modified.
These are times we owe it to ourselves and to future generations to rise to the occasion with the spirit, to not allow this blatant abuse of power to continue and push for course correction and show them the door if it doesn’t happen. There has to be enough thought activation to stop taking things at face value from this government, stop accepting ‘technical reasons’ as justification to policy blunders, refuse empty platitudes and whataboutery to violence and mark a departure from making our own partisan loyalty a reason to give them anymore benefit of doubt where their apathy towards extraordinary incidence of human and fundamental rights violation has proved that they deserve none.
The previous governments may not have done as well as they should have and may have scams on their record but what they did not do was cause this irreparable economic, political, social and systemic damage (despite whatever you’ve been made to believe; the truth is that this regime has succeeded in systematically projecting all its ills on to all its opponents and previous governments) that a democratic country could find extremely difficult to recover from. A country deemed a rising superpower not so long ago, could lose its hard-earned spot in the international arena due to this government.