Home > 2017 > The Short Shelf-life of Post-Truth

Mainstream, VOL LV No 39 New Delhi September 16, 2017

The Short Shelf-life of Post-Truth

Tuesday 19 September 2017, by Badri Raina

It is extremely rare to hear murmurs of discontent from within the Bharatiya Janata Party. Which of course does not mean that discontent does not ever exist.

A brave BJP Member of Parliament has, if you like, broken the hard ice and let out the best known secret of our times: “Modi does not like being asked questions” (The Indian Express, September 2, 2017) India’s vibrant media outlets have of course long swallowed this fact, reserving all their tired out barbs about lack of inner-party democracy for the Indian National Congress. Remember the adage about kicking the one who is down.

What is more, Mr Modi’s theatrical persona-outreach has over the last three years succeeded in inculcating among his mesmerised adulators in civil society a dour refusal to allow questions about him and the truth-value of the claims routinely made on behalf of the regime he runs. His artful words have stood in place of not just deeds but, as it were, deeds accomplished just as soon the words have left his mouth requiring no scrutiny or skepticism. As happens with any devotional cult figure, you can hear the charmed followers say to the inner ear: “We do not need the truth when we have Modi.” Those that swear by Donald Trump say pretty much the same thing, although more vociferously.

There have been other notable periods of modern history in which the Presence of the great leader has stood for the revealed truth. But, as the French theorist of Culture, Jaques Derrida, was to teach us, such metaphysical Presence is always in fact Absence. Far from being tanta-mount to any transcendant truth, it is usually merely a cunning historical construction, meant to conceal the often unlovely cultural and political package that informs its opportune materialisation.

Sooner or later, the claim that such Presence is larger than fact or reason comes apart as embarrassingly quotidian realities of common experience shame it out of existence.

Often where great debates on the electronic media, especially in India, fail to move the protagonists an inch from their rehearsed briefs, it is the regime of mute numbers that come to speak more eloquently to the cases in point. Not that numbers, faked and packaged, are not routinely bandied about, leaving the carpers to expose their falsity. But when an institution such as the Reserve Bank of India, however reluctantly, finally makes public the truth of numbers the peddlers of post-truth are put to difficulty. After all, the authority of one’s own RBI is not easily drowned out in politic noise. Nor may now grossly disingenuous interpre-tations continue to be made of figures that stand not as phantoms but as flesh and blood entities.

Thus the decision to demonetise eightysix per cent of India’s currency, oracularly announced by the numero uno on November 8 of 2016, has, like it or not, come home to roost.

Not one of the four claims made for it by Mr Modi—remember that India’s Finance Minister was, for the most part, merely a happy adjunct to the great leader—has turned out to be of any truth. Assuming of course that those claims were made in good faith with no ulterior purpose hidden away in mind.

On the first count, of all the currency in circulation, all but one measly per cent came back to the banks. So much for the claim that the decision to demonetise would unravel hoards of unaccounted money. The spin here now is that not all the money that came to the banks may have been legitimate, the idea clearly being to lead us into another wild goose chase so that the hard fact recedes from the popular mind. Time will tell on this too. In fact it may be true, as an erstwhile Finance Minister of India, P. Chidambaram, has said, that the real purpose of the decision was to allow big fat cats to make their unaccounted wealth white and legitimate by finding new cunning routes into bank accounts with help from obliging managers and such like. Many instances of such collusion did find their way into the media for whatever it is worth.

On the second count—that demonetisation would erase fake currency from circulation—well, what do you know: a massive amount of Rs 41 crores out of a total of Rs 15.44 lakh crores in circulation turned out to be fake. Do laugh.

As goal-posts shifted twenty days after the first announcement, we were told that the real purpose was to drive the economy towards cashless transactions. After all the agony, it turns out that, as of the present moment, the levels of cash transactions are back to pre-demoneti-sation levels. Not to speak of the empirical falsity of the assumption that excessively cash-driven economies are ipso facto more corrupt: Many economies in the Western world have similar cash-to-GDP ratios as India and are simultaneously far less corrupt.

Lastly, and most stridently, don’t we know, the claim that demonetisation would demolish terror-funding and nearly eliminate incidences of terror strikes and stone-peltings? Cruelly, it must be noted, not only has such funding not been dented—indeed, the terrorists had access to new fake currency notes even before the government did—militant strikes have expo-nentially increased, as has the loss of life on either side of the imbroglio. Claims made for that famous “surgical strike” inevitably come to mind as well.

It is however not that nothing has been achieved through demonetisation, cash economies in the farming hinterland and the informal retail trade as well as in the labour sector in the small and medium enterprises have been crippled out of business; India’s GDP has been spectacularly brought to a low of 5.7 per cent, underscoring the loss of Rs two to three lakh crores of national wealth, with the concomitant consequences that have for job creation and investment; and, India’s population has been shorn of some one hundred and twentyfive good men, women and children who died waiting in lines before banks for a right to their own hard-earned money. A mass murder which came to be propagated as qurbani towards a great national cause and for which no one may be accountable. Indeed, as the Union Cabinet is being reshuffled to reward the performing and punish the laggard, the question may be asked as to which doorstep the criminal failure of demonetisation belongs to.

Thus far, the general attitude of the supporters of the regime has been one of indifference to the facts and insouciance towards those that speak of them. This class of Indians have been characterised by an all-encompassing “so whatism”. It will remain to be seen whether or not their embarrassed silence in the face of the RBI revelations may transmute, however diffi-dently, into gentle nays. After all, for such ones, in the end, it is the economy, stupid. Such segments of the population may not long be indifferent to the other facts—that contrary to promise, the ratio of jobs created to jobs lost has been like tea-spoons of milk in oceans of dark ink; or that the manufacturing and mining sectors, the construction sector and other domestic investment should all be in the negative growth areas. Because, alas, hot cash flows in the Stock Market never have any mentionable bearing on the lives of some ninety per cent or more of the population.

Some Positive Happenings

For the Preambular citizen—by that I mean the citizen whose allegiance remains steadfast to the vision and stipulations of the Preamble of the Constitution of India rather than to new-fangled constructions of state and polity, although with ancient pedigree—there has been a sweet slew of good news in recent weeks.

Here, the first to be mentioned must be the path-breaking determination by a nine-judge Constitutional Bench of the highest Court in the land that the citizens’ Privacy constitutes a Fundamental Right, deriving from Article 21— namely, the Right to Life with Dignity. After the concerted attempts by state agencies to diminish the citizen through an aggressive surveillance regime, this decision of the Supreme Court is nothing short of a new lease of life for the Republic. Indeed, would it not be wonderful if once and for all our democracy was put on an irreversible footing by legislating our own First Amendment, making the Right to Free Speech absolute rather than merely funda-mental. With the proviso of “reasonable restrictions” restricted, in turn, only to incitement to or actual violence. Let us hope this is truly work-in-progress.

Then, there have been the two cases of the assertion of secular principles of law over criminal and irrational abuse of male authority, both linked to so-called religious practices. In the matter of the striking out of instant triple talaaq as ultra vires of the fundamental rights of citizenship of Muslim women, however devious the motivation of some ruling prota-gonists for the “cause”, a great exposure has been made of the disingenuous claims of some Muslim clergy that striking out this provision, however, obnoxious the practice they conceded, would damage the right to religious freedom. The fact is that this instant practice has never had any sanction in the Koran, only in some schools of Islamic jurisprudence like the Hanafi school, and has been a cunning toll to hold Muslim women in thrall. Thus we say, good riddance to a suffocating and servile patriarchal practice. And a salute to the brave Muslim women who stood up and followed through the secular system, vanquishing obstreperous orthdoxy. One awaits similar action from the Sangh affiliates with respect to, for example, further the cause of temple entry into the sanctum sanctorum of Hindu women of all ages at Sabarimala. Ideally of course men and women from across communities need in the days to come to make conjoint struggles against the remnants of federal/patriarchal cultures which misuse religion to oppress vast sections of our population.

Then, the gloriously heartening courage of the District Judge, Honourable Jagdeep Singh, in sending away the criminal charlatan, Ram Rahim, to the place he properly belongs to; all of that in the face of the most shameful connivance with him of the Government of Haryana, and the menacing threats and violence unleashed by more than a million charmed followers of the said conman. Mention to be made also of the no-nonsense upbraidings of that complicit government by the Punjab and Haryana High Court, making it impossible to find escape routes of any sort.

In both of these above cases, the secular Constitution of the Republic of India has stood tall at the hands of officials of the Court who have struck far-reaching blows against a ravaging culture on both sides to seek to subvert the constitutional regime by placing custom and sentiment above its imperatives. It is to be hoped that increasingly the right reason of the secular and law-abiding citizen will find greater and greater resonance with our systems of law enforcement and judicial pronouncement, keeping in check the proclivities of an Executive that palpably desires unfettered sway.

In this general pattern of counter-assertion must also be counted two political occurrences—one the defeat of the BJP at Bawana and, no less significantly, in the elections to the Delhi University Teachers Association. Regretaby but unsurprisingly, the latter has found scant space in the media as opposed to previous times A negligence that seems complicit with the general assault on institutions of higher learning, especially where the Humanities and the Social Sciences occupy pride of place. Now, of course, such institutions that produce advanced know-ledge are to be taught lessons in patriotism by rockbands, we are told. How much further may we fall into rank imbecility, one wonders. And such edicts from a regime that used to snigger at the Red Book etc.

As we write, news comes of a Left sweep in the elections to the jnu students’ body; nothing could be a greater affirmation of changing times—after all the vilification and the campaign to discredit the progressive character of this premier university to make space for Right- wing Hindutva politics, this result bears extra-ordinary significance in asserting the relilience of democratic voices that speak for reason and debate in opposition to demands for oppressive conformity.

Altogether, one is encouraged to think that coming events may indeed be casting their shadows; that the fumes of irrational commit-ment may in time yield to the flame of reasoned action, that post-truth may, sooner than later, vacate its impostor dominance and satyameva jayate once again to find its due place in the hearts and minds of state and polity alike, that the Constitution of India may indeed be the holy book Mr Modi called it when he took office, in word and deed. Additionally, that Indian legislators may find it in their will to install an electoral system that be truly representative of the votes cast, that politicians come to see party hopping as more heinous than the private acts of converting from one faith to another, that individual legislators not be bound hand and foot by coercive whips but be free to make known what their real thoughts are on any policy or organisational principle pertaining to their own parties, that elections come to be state-funded in proportion to vote-share, that the investigating agencies of the state be made autonomous and independent of the govern-ments of the day, that police forces be made respectable as employment with all accoutre-ments duly provided, and likewise bestowed the freedom to act per law regardless of any subject in question without fear of political reprisal, although always themselves accountable to the law.

Were all this to happen, and some more for which another time (just as a hint, if we were to cease to be the second most unequal society in the world, with some quarter of the budgets spent on health and education, and women and all ethnic, religious and other minorities free and equal at all times, safe from predatory majoritarian or male vigilantes), would we not be justly proud of Bharat Mata?

The author, who taught English literature at the University of Delhi for over four decades and is now retired, is a prominent writer and poet. A well-known commentator on politics, culture and society, he wrote the much acclaimed Dickens and the Dialectic of Growth. His book, The Underside of Things—India and the World: A Citizen’s Miscellany, 2006-2011, came out in August 2012. Thereafter he wrote two more books, Idea of India Hard to Beat: Republic Resilient and Kashmir: A Noble Tryst in Tatters.

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