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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 48 New Delhi November 19, 2016

Politics as a Confidence Trick

Monday 21 November 2016, by Badri Raina

The great English romantic poet of old, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, once described the power of imaginative poetry in terms of its ability to cause a “suspension of disbelief” for the moment in favour of poetic truth.

This now seems rather cannily applicable to India’s contemporary political life.

Remember that little problem in Kashmir? We were told on poetic authority that it was all the doing of Pakistan, the Satan of the times. And that not dialogue or any namby-pamby suchlike but something more forceful was the way to “sort out” the issue. Ergo the “surgical strike” leading to a chorus of triumphalism rather reminiscent of Old Casper singing the refrain “but it was a great victory” in reference to the Battle of Blenheim of the Crimean War. Well, the Kashmir issue was thus in a sense resolved, in being made to disappear from public discourse and governmental attention, as the victory song continued to hog the waves. Since that famous “strike”, soldiers and civilians have been dying on either side of the Line of Control in considerable numbers, fields adjacent to the Line ripe with harvest have had to be deserted, whole households to be shifted out to transit camps, children kept from going to school, but please believe that the problem has been “sorted out”. And such is the magic of current day imaginative political truth that many are willing to suspend disbelief and “feel good” about the times.

Take the economy: the government’s own statistics admit to a drop in manufacturing activity; that “make-in-India”, “Start-up-India”, come on India and other such uplifting captions notwithstanding, job creation is nothing more than a trickle, if that; that exports remain down in the dumps now for a whole year or so; that agricultural activity remains affected by a plethora of disabilities, crippling rural purchasing power; that companies continue to invest much more in other countries than here in the motherland. And yet we are to believe that a magical sleight of hand has caused our GDP to grow at an unbelievable seven per cent or more; never mind that many economists worldwide contest that claim, pitching it at 15 per cent or so. But such is now our confidence in poetic utterance that many of us, especially those with high degrees, are more than willing to suspend disbelief and sing the victory song.

The ousting of the high denomination notes now takes the cake. It is admitted that some eightyseven per cent of Indian currency in circulaltion has comprised such notes, which must mean that the poorest of the poor have had to deal in them in their daily lives, but aren’t we more than willing to suspend disbelief and say aye? Or to swallow the fake argument that the bulk of inappropriate wealth is stacked in currency notes? Why? Because so we are told in speeches laced with poetic gesticulation and emotional high drama. Thus it shuts out the reality that such ugly and unaccounted wealth resides primarily in real estate deals, in gold transanctions, in mysterious “participatory notes” in the stock market, in hawala tran-sactions, the flourishing industry of over- and under-invoicing of imports and exports, and, most of all, the moneys that are spent by the powers-that-be come hustings time. Not idly has the question been asked as to where the many thousand crores came from in the 2014 election campaign which saw a change of government at the Centre.

Nor does it seem to matter that some sixtyfive per cent of the country’s population conduct their operations perfectly legally only in cash transanctions, since agricultural activity remains legally outside the ambit of taxable income. Or that, victory songs to the contrary, close to forty per cent of the population still have neither aadhar cards nor bank accounts, or that those that have in the hinterland need still travel miles on foot to a bank or an ATM, or that close to a hundred per cent of those standing in lines, at the risk of collapsing—some ten or twelve have already thus lost their lives, and a suicide has been reported from the Capital—are Indians who have had no truck with “black money”.

The call of the hour is to suspend disbelief, repose faith in the confidence trick, and do the needful in the forthcoming elections.

And just as those who question the option taken by the government to “sort out” the Kashmir and Pakistan issues are ipso facto dubbed “anti-national” and partial to Pakistan, so now those who interrogate the dramatic demoneti-sation gimmick are dubbed as, ipso facto, in favour of corruption. And this deadly recourse to simplistic binaries eases the public mind, causes suspension of disbelief, and makes a pariah of rational forms of discourse and national life.

Thus it is that our politics now induces a high doze of religious potency into the public mind: whatever god does he does for the good, never mind how many suffer in how many ways in how many places without recourse.

And what, pray, more potent than religious belief. When such mesmerisation can occur within the aegis of a secular dispensation, the spell indeed must be a supernatural one—such as can represent a dystopia as a Utopia.

The interesting thing will be to see how the current zeitgeist pans out through the forth-coming elections to State Assemblies. Never indeed, one might say, will elections have been of greater consequence to the healthy sustenance of the Republic.

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 latest book, The Underside of Things—India and the World: A Citizen’s Miscellany, 2006-2011, came out in August 2012.

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