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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 18 New Delhi April 20, 2019

Democracy Dumbed Down

Tuesday 23 April 2019


by L.K. Sharma

India is a parliamentary democracy though those covering the current election campaign may think that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the presidential candidate. Modi has run a somewhat presidential form of government with a symbolic presence of his Cabinet colleagues. His office has concentrated all power. And neither his party nor its mentor organisation utters a word even when Modi goes against any of their principles or policies.

What are Indian voters discussing? A sane or rational public discourse is not possible in an atmosphere surcharged with religion and nationalism and when millions believe that Modi can do no wrong. The ruling party President hears them chanting “Modi! Modi!” The song Ghar Ghar Modi (Modi in every Home) was a great hit before the 2014 parliamentary elections. Five years of Modi-centric politics followed. Modi’s physical and virtual presence dominates the poll-campaign again. Modi attracts more online followers than Donald Trump! But for the fear of the White Supremacists, the Hollywood Hindus would have invited Modi to be the President of the USA!

Modi sees India as Vishwa Guru (Teacher of the World) and he became Bharat Guru by launching an acronym that taught Indians two words Sarab and Sharab. SARAB is the acronym Modi made by joining the first letters of the names of three Opposition parties. And since the first letter of the Samajwadi Party begins with ‘S’ not ‘Sh’, he turned Sharab (liquor) into Sarab.

Modi thundered in an election campaign meeting: Would you vote for the three-party coalition that means the dangerous liquor Sarab? The voters roared: “No”. The most histrionic Prime Minister of India smiled. The audience clapped. The embedded media lauded the “spirited” speech. Modi’s critics called it a weapon of mass distraction.

Accuracy was sacrificed for making up the acronym. Liquor is called Sharab not Sarab which means mirage. Modi presumed his verbal dissimulation will not get noticed in an atmosphere rife with alternative facts, false promises, fake news and magical mantras. The dissenters questioned Modi’s educational qualifications.

The poll campaign turned into a war of acronyms when the anti-Modi elements uploaded the image of a liquor bottle with the title NASHA—formed by joining the first two letters of the Prime Minister’s name and the first two letters of the name of the President of his party. SARAB and NASHA will continue to flood social media till the polling day.

Modi’s latest acronym increased the sales of the Hindi-Urdu dictionaries. A TV anchor, Ravish Kumar, appeared on the screen armed with chapter and verse meditating on the words Sarab and Sharab! He displayed dictionary pages and even a poem by Faiz to explain the difference between the two words.

Since Bollywood teaches Indians more than all the books, he recited the first two lines of an old filmy love song. An illiterate hero’s flawed pronunciation of Shor (noise) as Sor makes the educated heroine correct him repeatedly. She asks him to say Shor not Sor! Perhaps by saying ‘S’ instead of ‘Sh’, Modi wanted to identify himself with the illiterate masses.

The two Hindi-Urdu words are set to enter the Oxford English Dictionary that expropriates words from the languages of the former colonies. As soon as OUP announces its decision, India’s Finance Minister will hold yet another press conference on Modi’s unprecedented achieve-ments.

The visiting British reporters are fascinated by the wordy duel since their readers cherish language and admire Prof. Higgins as a hero. One word—‘embonpoint’—once sparked a national debate in Britain. It filled the Letters-to-Editor columns for days. The word, borrowed from French, was used by a cultured columnist to describe delicately the part of female anatomy used to sell the tabloids.

Another election-eve debate rages over the identity of Modi. Is he a chowkidar (watchman) as he claims or is he a chor (thief) as the Opposition leader alleges? What else do you expect in a nation in which a starlet’s wink launches a million tweets. Where a minister describes the Indian Army as Modi Sena! Where a Military action is politicised blatantly. Where the Prime Minister attacks the Opposition leader for fighting election from a constituency where the Hindu majority is in a minority! Some commentators keep writing about the lowest-ever level of political discourse.

Indians fainting in the serpentine bank queues to get their money were asked not to complain because Indian soldiers are patrolling the inhospitable mountains! It is like the British woman in a certain position being asked to think of the nation. The semi-literate but tech-savvy Indians, in a fit of ultra-nationalism, hide their cowardice by posting ****Pak messages on social media from the safety of their homes. They fling the four-letter word at the critics of Modi, calling the Opposition leaders friends of Pakistan.

The British reporters can’t understand why the Opposition leader is called anti-national for asking questions on national defence. In Britain, the Opposition leaders criticising nuclear armament and “soldiers and scientists” were heard with respect. They ask why a ruling party leader insulting a minority goes unpunished. In their Britain, a Tory leader who spoke against the immigrants was thrown out of the party. Noting that political speeches in India lack logic and some statements border on nonsense, a British reporter recalls Churchill’s view that a wrong kind of people would rule an independent India!

Democracy is great fun in India, notwith-standing its tragic dimension. Dance of Democracy is a catch-line that appears daily in a newspaper. In Hindu mythology there is the dance of destruction! The spectacle is worth witnessing. A little violence can occur at times.

A flame-tongued knight in shining armour struts valiantly on the stage, threatening enemies! He makes subtle sectarian statements to energise his followers. In the show before the 2014 elections, the hero appeared as the Messenger of Hope in a land devastated by the likes of Nehru after the British left. This time he is seen inculcating fear. The frightened spectators urge him to stay on to protect them. One man in his times plays many parts! All of India is a stage and political performers have their Exits and their Entrances. It is time the drama critics are assigned to cover politics.

Most voters do not seem to mind the barrage of doctored videos, catch-lines, taglines, jumlas, slogans and mental pollution. They enjoy the Sarab vs Sharab national debate. They watch the political drama as an entertaining TV serial. Modi loves popular culture and has admirers in the Indian film and TV industry. He picked a TV serial heroine as one of his Ministers.

Some critics get anxious about ‘infantilisation’ and ‘dumbing down’. TV anchor Ravish Kumar, a kill-joy and not a theatre-lover, dislikes the very sight of a Nero fiddling and runs a one-man campaign against the infantilisation of India. Finding the people obsessed with the Hindu-Muslim issue, he tries to make them focuson the “non-issues” such as unemployment and poverty. Ignoring him, the ruling party leaders keep flooding the airwaves with controversial statements on frivolous issues in order to distract the voters. The Opposition pays back in the same coin. Ravish Kumar also alerts the nation against the embedded TV anchors who shout and scream, fanning sectarian conflict and carrying the viewers from light to darkness.

Infantilisation involves the restriction of a group’s autonomy by the state or by vigilante mobs. In a dumb society, very few have questions to ask and those who ask are forced to shut their mouths. Banishing complex concepts is essential to maintain political stability and social order. The ruling class decides the legitimate culture and religion. It prescribes what to eat and what to wear or which faith to follow.

The Operation Dumbing-Down has serious implications for higher education. The ruling BJP, like the US Republican Party, considers this sector to be the breeding ground of dissent. It is in the America of the forties that the term ‘dumbing down’ originated. Idiocracy, an American science fiction film made in 2005, portrays a greatly dumbed-down society 500 years in future. Much earlier in 1951 came a science fiction short story, The Marching Morons. Of course, Brave New World is quite famous. Those who have given up reading can listen to the songs titled Dumb it Down.

China enforced infantilisation for taking the lands of the rural folk considered too confused and who needed to be forcibly educated for their own good. Infantilisation made it difficult for the rural landowners to resist the usurpation of their lands by officials.

In India, an organised assault on critical thought and trivialisation of politics, language and learning began recently. The infantilisation project has political objectives. It promotes post-truth politics and anti-intellectualism. It makes censorship more acceptable. It denounces dissenters. And it frees a leader from the stigma of being ill-educated. Children, as voters, are easily seduced by fairy tales and lollipops.

Modi and his Ministers know that political legend is a magical field in which any story repeated thrice becomes true! The people see him as a chaiwala (tea boy) even when he appears in a suit embroidered with gold wires. Modi’s personal folklore evades his real life.

Modi’s mass messaging dominates the virtual world. His aggressive rhetoric and gestures would not have worked in Indian politics of an earlier era. His way was paved by the degraded news media, films, pulp fiction and violent video games. Most Indian TV anchors in turn take the cue from the Prime Minister who threatens to “barge into homes” to kill the terrorists. He says he knows everything about everyone in India! The headlines for reports of Modi’s speeches have run out of synonyms for attacks, assails, denounces, castigates, condemns, and slams.

Modi can refine his operation further. He is on hugging terms with foreign business leaders. Rupert Murdoch, media mogul, takes personal interest in elections in many countries. He will be glad to lend his ace tabloid headline writer for the BJP poll campaign. And when Modi wins, he will let a friendly Indian newspaper reprint The Sun headline GOTCHA!

Tagore wrote about the dark side of nationalism but Modi saw its bright side and created a potent mixture of nationalism and religion, giving not hope but fear. His theatrical presentation convinces many voters that the neighbouring enemy nation wants Modi to be defeated in the elections and that the Opposition leaders are Pakistan’s stooges. Hence vote for Modi and defeat Pakistan!

Such election strategy cannot be formulated by someone lacking intelligence. Whatever his formal academic qualifications, Modi learnt more history on the streets of Vadgam than the Guhas and Dalrymples did in the archives. In understanding the uses of India’s social fault-lines, Modi is far ahead of the academics such as Nandy and Mehta.

As a child, Modi surely watched the snake-oil seller performing on the footpath and bewitching his audience. That is a common sight in small towns. Modi is able to protect his credibility even while flipping from one narrative to another or even failing to fulfil his promises. His people always cheer him.

The tabloidisation of the nation could turn Hindustan into Absurdistan. Perhaps a dismal IQ survey influenced Modi’s poll strategy. He has plenty of anecdotal evidence based on his winning the Gujarat State elections by bashing Pakistan. Modi has his own assessment of the intelligence of Indians that will be put to test in the coming elections!

(Courtesy: Open Democracy)

The author is a senior journalist and writer who worked in India and abroad (notably Britain) in several major newspapers. Now retired, he is a freelancer.

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