Extremely disruptive issues tend to overshadow the essential. The Delhi riots, coinciding with the protests, shifted the focus from the apparently innocuous, but insidiously communal piece of legislation and riveted the discourse to the communal faultlines lying dormant within us. The global spread of coronavirus in the form of COVID-19, however, did show that epidemics are no respecter of geography and they attack people of all faiths.
When it struck India, the discourse, therefore, shifted to the need for solidarity in tackling the global affliction. The issues of public health are such that even forces of rabid Hindutva had to scale down the communal pitch. But in the welter of issues engulfing us and with a process of deep ‘globalization’ looming large on the horizon, the government tended to highlight only ideological issues on its agenda, indeed issues that matter little to most Indians over substantive problems such as unemployment, farmer distress and economic recession.
When existing issues related to bread and butter bother the government of the day. they take the help of the paid spin doctors. The spin doctor’s act ~ if we draw upon the famous dictum ascribed to Friedrich Nietzsche that “there are no facts, only interpretations” ~ is essentially a strategy to ward off blame and to interpret embarrassing “facts” in a positive light.
When grandiose plans are drawn up to capture our attention around issues that appear to be of great consequence (but which are actually inconsequential), popular attention is so fixed that people are barely able to look up and question the government on issues that matter. In an ideal democracy, it should be job of the political opposition and the media to steer the focus and train the spotlight where it is rightfully due.
Unfortunately, the nationwide protests over CAA-NPRNRC, for the last few months, took a disproportionate share of popular attention as red herrings at the cost of more pressing issues that not only crave consideration but sometimes, surgical intervention. One wonders if that is happening exactly according to the script written by the spin doctors who expect us to think that there is nothing more pressing and expedient than inane discourses of citizenship for us to worry about.
We are obsessed with a raft of issues constantly bombarding us. News items over the past few months and weeks ~ let’s take a random pick such as Donald Trump being gifted statues of three wise monkeys, Narendra Modi crying when a woman from Dehradun conferred godhood on him in a moment of grateful exuberance ~ occupying our attention alongside gruesome tales of Delhi burning, a certain bank collapsing, and coronavirus surging ~ what actually registers depends on how much you can take.
This just boggle one’s mind. The cacophony of news, information and commentaries occupying our mindscape, instead of enabling us to have a deeper understanding of the issues at hand serve to divert our attention away from them. Encapsulated bits of information, be they tweets or peeks, video clips (deep fake or real) or social media posts, create a confused mass that bewilder us by irrelevancies or distractions.
People tend to make rough and ready judgments about matters on which they have little grasp, who are barely able to move beyond the news feeds and soundbytes and are often left with little appetite for complex matters. Is there any proof on the ground to suggest that the duopoly that rules us cannot always fool us? A faction-ridden and emasculated Congress offers no hope. The political opposition is too dysfunctional in India to act with sufficient strength as a bulwark against the Modi-Shah juggernaut.
The victory of AAP over the BJP in Delhi, where the winning party fought the Assembly elections over issues, battling against non-issues is cited as the only saving grace. This, according to a WhatsApp entry, is a victory of substantive issues related to school, hospital, water, economy, roads, development and ecology over airy and toxic bubbles like Hindu-Muslim divide, rants against Pakistan, Shaheen Bagh protests against CAA, the goli maaro agitpropism, or religious/communal angst. Does the persistence of issues that do not make impressive headlines bore us?
Are we focused, almost fixated on malfeasance of the regime to betray our negative bias? But, strategies to deflect the blame are an age-old tool for spin. Union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman earlier blamed the slowing of GDP growth on the adverse effect of the so-called twin balance sheet crisis ~ stress on banks due to non-performing assets or bad loans on the one hand and heavily indebted corporates on the other which, according to her, was an outcome of the Congress- led UPA government’s policies.
In light of the Yes Bank crisis, she questioned the Congress party’s track record in managing India’s banking system. “Those saying negative things in India always talk about unemployment,” the Union Home Minister Amit Shah said, dropping broad hints as to who he was alluding to, while speaking at a foundation stone laying function for the Indian Institute of Skills (IIS) .
He said: “You have ruled this country for 50-60 years, what measures did you take for this country’s unemployment problem?” Incidentally, according to India Today Group- Karvy Insights Mood of the Nation (MOTN) survey 2020, conducted in December 2019, unemployment is India’s biggest concern, followed by farmers’ distress and price rise.
But even the bleaker issues that the BJP ministers would be right loath to admit can be salvaged by what Christopher Fildes, a noted financial journalist, called hedonomics to denote what he claimed to be “a newly identified branch of economics” that sought to put a positive spin on the formerly “dismal science” whereby finance ministers dismiss persistently high inflation as a ‘blip’, talk about ‘green shoots of recovery’ during the deepest of recessions, or more subtly, tweak official statistics to accentuate the positive, for instance by leaving taxes out of official inflation indexes, or by hiding massive failures by statistical jugglery and excel-sheet management.
Another form of spin comes through impassioned calls for ‘sacrifice’ today as future investment. So the anodyne trope ~ “today’s pain, tomorrow’s gain” ~ is an invocation to people and their innate sense of altruism who are asked to suffer inconvenience today for a better tomorrow. All the disruptive policy interventions ~ demonetization, Goods and Services Tax, the decision to scrap Article 370, and finally the CAA-NPR-NRC ~ have been explained as necessary tools for state building that will do people good in future. But as our economy still continues to sputter under the twin onslaught of demonetization and a hastily imposed GST regime without achieving any of the stated objectives they were purported to, none really trusts the government when our PM says abrogation of Article 370 will “usher in a new dawn in the region”, or that CAA-NPR-NRC will rid India of her ‘illegal’ immigrants, which is nothing but an exercise of religious sectarianism.
The ruling dispensation is shrewdly aware of the need for distractions to stave off the glare of critical scrutiny of their monumental follies which, if highlighted by a propaganda blitz, might unseat them. Balakot drowned the critical gaze. The ‘bigger’ or ‘cataclysmic’ issues related to terrorism, nationalism, communalism, national security normally are given precedence over livelihood issues, as a bigger wound makes the people forget the pain of apparently ‘minor’ scratches.
CAA kept people so occupied and so exhausted that issues like rising unemployment will cut no ice with them, issues related to food and shelter will look clichéd, India’s decline in the Democracy Index and its shameful record of undermining civil liberties will hardly snowball into major discontent and will evaporate just as its earlier acts of omissions did. The citizenship issue has shown that if people remain unclothed, they will not bother about food and shelter. But real issues do matter, as vacuous and ideological blabber cannot forever save the day, or as famously said by Abraham Lincoln, fool the people all the time.
(The writer is a Kolkata based commentator on politics, development and cultural issues)