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Sunday, October 19, 2014

In new India, dissent is just a remote button away (Sunday Times of India, October 19, 2014)

By Swapan Dasgupta


Is India becoming less welcoming of dissent? 


This is a question that should strike normal people as being somewhat odd, considering that the country has just witnessed two, characteristically rumbustious, Assembly elections. These polls were marked by generous bouts of verbal artillery fire. No one was spared and certainly not Prime Minister Narendra Modi who was colourfully equated with the perfidious Afzal Khan and charged with plotting to divert Mumbai’s resources to Gujarat. The high turnout confirmed that the high-decibel campaign had motivated citizens to go out on October 15 and vote. In every respect, India’s tamasha-filled democracy is thriving. 


Yet, quite astonishingly, there are Indians who are convinced that the Republic (the needlessly pompous term for the nation) is perched precariously on the brink of democratic disaster. The villain apparently is ‘majoritarianism’. 


The reference is not to wacko conspiracy theories that resonate in the social media. The apparent truncation of the democratic ‘space’ and threats to India’s pluralist heritage are now the themes of the numerous Lit fests. It was the subject of a concluding debate at a convivial festival in Bangalore and is billed as a session for a similar gathering in Mumbai and the big one in Jaipur. The fear of India becoming a less tolerant place was also the theme of a gratuitous editorial this month in, of all places, the New York Times. Clearly, to appropriate a Bob Dylan song, “something is happening and you don’t know what it is…”


If the exit polls forecasting a spectacular Modi surge in Maharashtra and Haryana turn out to be accurate this Sunday morning, it is likely that the fear will become a self-fulfilling prophecy for those who view themselves as the voices of beleaguered enlightenment. For normal people intent on making the best of the drudgery of daily existence, political stability, especially one that holds out the promise of an economic resurgence, is welcome. To those who don’t obsess about noisy and unintelligible debates on news channels, the emergence of a strong leader with popular backing is also a heartening departure from national despondency. 


Yes, there may well be an overdose of Modi on the front pages and prime-time TV. But as long as the remote control is firmly vested in the hands of the viewer, there is the inalienable option of opting out of the political sphere altogether. Contrary to the experiences of our intellectuals, there is no obligation to watch Big Brother or even cheer him. 


Politics becomes repugnant when it is accompanied by the invasion of the private and community sphere. This may be the experience of West Bengal where extortion by political activists is a daily irritant. It may even be an issue in parts of Uttar Pradesh where communities are often encouraged to hate each other. However, in most of India, street politics is the prerogative of the activists. Conservative India shapes its views within the extended family or through kinship ties. 


That India is changing at an amazing pace is a no-brainer. This change is reflected in two big ways. 


First, there is a frenetic desire of individuals and families to better themselves. Having tasted the delights of consumerism, India is anxious to embrace it enthusiastically. In an earlier era this quest for self-improvement manifested itself through a one-way ticket overseas. Today, there is a greater commitment to India and, by implication, India’s nationhood. Nationalist politics stems from rising aspirations.


Secondly, most Indians are exposed to influences that go well beyond the local and even embraces the global. The uninhibited expression of both informed views and uninformed prejudices has become non-negotiable. India, it would seem, would prefer to exercise the right to debunk Wendy Doniger, denounce the film Haider as “anti-national” and applaud Modi’s 56-inch chest. 


What the average Indian truly despises is the debunking of “common decencies” and being patronised by those who see themselves as custodians of taste and aesthetics. 


The so-called emotional truncation of India is, in effect, the intellectuals’ loss of status as trustees of the nation. It symbolises a shift in power equations, not a personality change. Modi has facilitated this downgrade, a reason why he is admired by the many and loathed by a few. (END)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Lit fests = Leftists