There is a folktale image that most of us carry in our collective imagination. It’s about a king disguised as a commoner going out to listen to what his citizens talk about in the dark of the night. There are no kings anymore, nor do they need to disguise themselves. Every five years, we elect candidates of political parties, the leader of the party with maximum victorious candidates gets to form the government on the basis of its political philosophy and, hopefully in sync with the need of the hour, makes policies and offers a budget on how the economy will run, how much to tax, how the finances will be monitored and spent.
The leader in this new world has no need to go anywhere to listen — there’s the always-on buzz of social media, the citizenry chattering, arguing, debating, trolling, posting, reposting, tweeting, retweeting, shredding and sharing views and opinions ceaselessly round the clock. The leader too is on the same platform, in an egalitarian touch, sharing his thoughts and actions directly with the digizens. It’s a remarkable change, come to think of it, and not a silent one. The chattering behemoth has a gargantuan appetite for information-sharing — cooked, baked, half-baked and spiced up recipes get churned out by the minute. Feedback no longer has to be sought from agents on the ground, or sourced in disguise — it’s live, ticking and out in the open. Why, even before the Finance Minister’s budget speech was over, the demand for a partial rollback kicked off. The public at large took to Twitter to let it be known that they are in no way pleased by the proposal to tax their retirement corpus.
The pressure groups came in later. Budget 2016, thus, was in many ways a different ball game. In content, it stands out in stark contrast to most of those presented since 1991 — but that was no accident, the change was forced on it by a change in the very grammar of things. The yardstick was different, the focus was different and the evaluators were different too. No waiting for the expert to analyse — it’s instant coffee. That’s one of the reasons why, after two-and-a-half decades, the chatter was not about what has been liberalised or how much we have reformed, but what has been given out. Not to the states, but to various sectors of the citizenry, without too much profligacy. The industry and the analyst had to be satisfied by the fiscal promises, while the farmer and the rural economy walked away with the headlines. Public spending, and not opening up of the economy for private enterprises, was suddenly all the focus. The politics of economics is determining this makeover, it was said. Politics in a democracy is and ought to be fashioned in response to the people’s opinion. But the grammar of that conversation has been altered. With a hyperactive social media, there’s no hiding from that opinion — expressed as much in appreciation as in anger and instant recrimination.
The angry young man/woman is the new phenomenon of this politics. They are coming almost in waves, articulate and unabashed, often bristling with subaltern anger, making a Rahul Gandhi and Arvind Kejriwal look jaded and middle-aged. Young boys and girls coming out of the wombs of a society that was previously unseen on the campuses, hitherto voiceless and faceless. They are virtually taking over the political discourse, challenging the established orders and setting the agenda of the day. And, it’s happening at two levels, throwing up a dichotomy, a clash of ideas. Whether it’s the questions of nationalism or freedom (of speech), two sides of the student community are taking each other on and forcing the established leaderships to adjust their politics to their debate.
Both are newly empowered groups. They are not the usual well-heeled products of the old order, with their shibboleths. Take an ABVP activist speaking on the JNU-JU row. She asserted: “Till now, we did not have a government and therefore could not speak out as forcefully as we wanted to — now we are saying it, what is happening is against our national interest, unpatriotic and unacceptable. We will fight it out, from campus to campus.”
Regardless of party affiliation, this is no ticket-seeking politician, but a young person who has got passionately attached to the idea of territorial nationalism, and is ready to defend it any which way. And yes, is genuinely angry. The other side — the deemed ‘anti-national’ one — is no less angry. They too are a newly empowered lot, first generation learners coming out of distressed homes, depressed backgrounds, not what passed for the ‘mainstream’ — from backward communities, Dalits, minorities, children of single mothers, Kashmiris, Northeasterners. Naturally prone to coin new definitions of nation, one that places primacy on the real people of India and not necessarily just the land, where their own life-struggles are recognised and included in the power-resource structure, and demanding that the tenets of the Constitution be followed in letter and spirit.
It’s a stereotype-breaking youth taking leadership roles, articulating a politics based on life-experiences. And they are creating their own momentum and force-field, creating their own unique voice, picking up following, forcing even the State to hearken. The effect of this popular surge, this ensemble of voices from below, is being felt on the old order. What is being squeezed out here is perhaps the space traditionally inhabited by the opposition. It’s a political and psychological space: the figure of the opposition leader carries its own charm and vigour, as the ventriloquist of popular dissent, the embodiment of people’s causes.
But, quite suddenly, that intermediary role of the opposition is getting obliterated, the conversation is now direct — if Twitter and Facebook were not enough, there’s always YouTube and WhatsApp, a whole ecology of memes. No wonder Rahul Gandhi has to rush to Hyderabad University twice. No wonder Kejriwal is campus-hopping in Punjab, assuring the youth of a corruption-free, drug-free future. They have no option, to stay relevant they have to join the chorus.
It’s in this changed and surcharged atmosphere of new politics that the government and the leader of the day — the Prime Minister — operates. He and his ministers can no longer depend on quid pro quo politics. The reason why a passage of GST sounds almost irrelevant is because that’s not something the irreverent youth is interested in. It has not caught their fancy on social media, there are no heated Facebook debates on the ideal percentage of tax on goods and services. The direct communication tool can thus be double-edged. It can swamp and sweep everything in its way, unless heeded. Like the budgeting had to be different, the politics too has to change.
The author is Political Editor, TNIE.