Dissent in the Age of Demagoguery
The Great Indian Tamasha is finally done and dusted. Over the past couple of months, we have been held hostage by news of the Indian general elections on all mediums, be it on television, print or on our smartphones. Exit polls are out and the results are just a matter of time, but the future increasingly appears to be coloured in shades of saffron.
But why was this election important? Was this indeed a battle to save “the soul of India”, as the forces in the Opposition claimed? Or was this a referendum on the populist ‘outsider’ who had dared to dismantle the age-old dominance of the Lutyens elite? A quick retrospective would not be out of place.
Five years ago, Narendra Modi’s BJP came to power on the back of Anna Hazare’s popular ‘India Against Corruption’ movement, which had captured the public imagination and had laid bare the common man’s exasperation at the ineffectiveness of the Congress-led government. In the months leading up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the three-time Gujarat Chief Minister seemed to broadly shift the poll agenda from identity-based politics onto inclusive development with the “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikaas” catchphrase.
When Modi triumphantly claimed in his victory speech that even his opponents had managed to criticize him only on the ‘Gujarat model’ of governance, it seemed to herald a new beginning in terms of constructing the national electoral debate. So much that even Modi’s detractors (who professed to be liberals) began to show signs of cautious optimism. Hindu Rashtra seemed down and out, Achhe Din was in.
First came Uri in 2016.
On September 29, the term ‘surgical strike’ entered the lexicon of the Indian public as paratroopers crossed the Line of Control and attacked militant camps in Pakistan-administered Kashmir as part of its counterterrorism operations. Most deemed it to be swift retribution for the Uri incident when four heavily-armed militants attacked an Indian Army brigade a mere 10 days ago and killed 19 soldiers. While it was later reported that covert operations of this nature were by no means unprecedented, the public acknowledgment of the surgical strike marked a significant departure from India’s usual approach towards cross-border terrorism and its ‘Pakistan policy’ at large.
Post Uri, it did not take long for individuals from both ends of the political spectrum to try and gain maximum mileage from the surgical strike. The novelty factor of the strike meant that barring a handful of journalists, a large section of the Indian mainstream news media espoused a more-than-adulatory tone towards the government. And thus were lost the countless questions that needed to be asked about the intelligence failure that had led to the terrorist attack in the first place.
It is often said that history tends to repeat itself. Fast forward two and a half years, it was Pulwama’s turn.
For those who have closely observed the disturbing trend of hyper-nationalism seeping into the political discourse, the events in the aftermath of the Balakot air strikes were not surprising. Right from the time of the student protests at Jawaharlal Nehru University back in February 2016, there have been attempts by certain political elements to invoke the Armed Forces in order to draw false binaries and exploit underlying fault lines by polarizing different sections of our society. This only gained more traction in the run-up to the election campaign for the Lok Sabha polls, where anyone who questioned the government’s claims regarding the air strikes was accused of ‘following the Pakistan narrative’ which would ‘weaken the morale of the Armed Forces’.
Consider the irony of the so-called ‘Pakistan narrative’. Those who propound this argument presume that since Pakistan does not have a free press, questions aren’t asked of the government in power by either the news media or the people and so everyone tends to believe whatever their government says. As such, anyone who agrees with facts that do not support the Indian government’s version of events is branded as being someone who is ‘anti-India’ or has an ‘anti-national agenda’.
Even if one were to discount that both India and Pakistan are laggards on an equal footing on the 2018 World Press Freedom Index (138th and 139th respectively out of 180 countries), the existence of a free press in India means that it does have the right to ask questions on various issues, be it as sensitive as matters of national security. However, by claiming such questions were against Indian interests, these supposed flag-bearers of nationalism have only tried to ensure that India slowly becomes a country where no one dares to question the government’s stand.
We have witnessed a serious degradation in our political discourse where the emphasis has shifted to jingoism, blatant politicization of the Armed Forces and vicious personal attacks in the form of name-calling and ridiculous acronyms, while real issues such as record-high unemployment rates, agrarian distress and hate crimes against minorities have taken a back seat. Questions have been constantly raised about the freedom of expression of university students, the veracity of statistics released by government agencies as well as the independence of institutions such as the Reserve Bank of India, the Election Commission, and even the Supreme Court.
In this age of demagoguery, a free press is vital to the essence of democracy so as to ensure that the actions of those in power do not go unchecked. There is a pressing need for fresh voices in the news media who possess the courage to speak truth to power. We are eventually arriving at a turning point where there will be a paradigm shift in the public discourse — where these new voices will play a critical role in framing a constructive national debate that brings back the focus of our political leadership on the everyday issues of the people.
Regardless of where one stands on the political spectrum, we have come a long way in the past five years. Awareness has never been higher, thanks to the wide dissemination of information and it is critical that we put this to good use by exercising our fundamental right of questioning the ruling disposition.
After all, dissent is not anti-national. It is high time we reclaimed it as the badge of honour that every citizen must be proud to wear upon one’s sleeve.