The Price of Positioning Priorities: Recreating Demand for ‘Real Issues’ in Politics
As the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) narrowly scraped through in what has been one of the most closely contested elections in recent memory as far as the Indian political scene is concerned, it seemed for many yet another reaffirmation of the steady shrinkage in the fortunes of the opposition parties, which has been the broader trend over the last few years. Yet, going beyond the salience of seats and victors, a crucial takeaway has been a comforting refocus on socio-economic issues that truly bears the hope of improving the lives of the masses, if carried out by the projecting parties.
In the run-up to elections, or in public discourse in general, the ideologies (or lack thereof ) of political parties play an important role in deciding the issues which gain primacy as well as the nature of the varied views which centre around it. Traditionally, bread and butter issues like jobs, electricity, water supply have exercised a certain degree of prominence in the public domain, even while emotive issues like caste calculations and religious polarisation have held their sway as well. As the last century edged to an end, caste and communal identities and mobilizations grew on an enormous scale, propelled by what was popularly termed as ‘mandir’ and ‘mandal’ politics. However, even as these occupied the public consciousness and found its way into the electoral discourse, issues like unemployment, inflation, health, and education did not get erased from the sphere of public discussion or political priority.
It is in this context that the last few years have seen a steady and dangerous decline of this space, almost pushing it into oblivion. Even before the ongoing pandemic arrived, the economy was in the doldrums, unemployment was soaring high, the Global Hunger Index placed us at a ranking of 102 and several crucial sectors like the automobile were showing worrying signs. It goes without saying that these problems have only heightened with the onset of Covid. Yet, what we have seen, and are seeing, is an increasing dilution of attention to these important issues , thereby resulting in the populace being sucked into a cocktail of high decibel sensationalist bluster. It is facilitated by the spread of unscientific notions and ‘fake news’ on online and offline platforms resulting in hate, reduced empathy and above all, a tendency to ‘otherize’ minorities and exclude them from what we consider as ‘us’ or ‘we’.
As manifestations of the above-mentioned areas which attract public focus, we see a citizenship matrix being passed which seeks to explicitly include a religious test for granting citizenship, a radical alteration of the existing special arrangement for Jammu and Kashmir vis-a-vis the central government without consultation with the elected legislature of the state or its people. All these moves share the common thread of a hasty passage through Parliament, aided by the brute majority the government enjoys. The age-old practice of parliamentary deliberation, even while leaving the space for disagreement, was thrown to the winds. Besides these legislative steps, we have been witness to the active dissemination and promotion of practices with little or no scientific rationale. From vacuous claims regarding the benefits of cow dung to a hysteric banging of plates to purportedly drive out a deadly virus, what until very recently had been the forte of fringe groups have come to occupy the mainstream of public thought and action. Compounding the problem, barring a few exceptions, the media, which is supposed to highlight the shortcomings of the government and speak truth to the powers that be, has been found wanting in its role, largely reduced to a mouthpiece of the government on various issues.
While one may rightly argue that these are a part of the larger ideological project of the ruling party, there's a much broader motive underlying this drive. Amid the complexities of our daily lives, where we have to constantly blend the personal and public to move forward, it is inevitable that some issues will get priority over the others in our limited cognitive capacity. Thus, a person overwhelmingly preoccupied with any or all of the aforementioned matters will obviously fail to give sufficient and active consideration to the pocket pinch resulting from retail inflation or the impact of selling off PSUs on the economy and the country at large. It is this essentially diversionary role, providing a sphere to channelize our attention by tapping into the prejudices and gullibility lurking somewhere inside, which underlines and unifies these.
It is against this backdrop that the Bihar election marked a welcome departure. As the electoral discourse started to coalesce around promises and counter promises of jobs, income, infrastructure, etc; one could sense that the public narrative had finally embraced issues that have a direct impact on our daily lives- areas which are the primary ingredients of having a fruitful existence. In the coming days as well, a bottom-up movement from the people of Bihar is required to bring these issues to the fore and compel the government and the opposition parties to set the agenda on substantial issues. It will go a long way in curing this malady now so deeply entrenched. The onus, thus, lies on us.
By Ritabrata Chakraborty (Guest Writer)
B.A. (Hons.) Political Science, Hindu College
Ritabrata is a first year student of Political Science at Hindu College whose interests juggle between reading books, keeping an eye on contemporary developments or writing something if internally impelled.
1. Global Hunger Index 2019: India ranked lower than Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh