The republic of pretences and its democratic rhetoric
Not only the government at the Centre but almost all state governments, regardless of political differences, are increasingly resorting to post-truth pageantry of pretences.
Some amount of pretences and wishful claims are inherent in democratic rhetoric. Without special effort or training, citizens master the art of discounting such optics and sound bites to grasp the truth behind the cleverly orchestrated encore. But that faculty works only up to a point. Once the barrage of words and visuals goes beyond the tipping point, public rationality fails to cope with this assault of untruths and pretences.
Two consequences follow when the general public unquestioningly takes in the unceasing avalanche of pseudo-narratives. One is the loss of the critical evaluation faculty in society. Second is the unchallenged (or feebly challenged) acceptance and entrenchment of falsehoods as truth. Both these consequences are equally harmful and debilitating. By subverting the critical faculty of people, it weakens the sinews of a democratic polity. With the questioning faculty lost, what survives will be a pallid version of democracy.
Our country has been witnessing this spectacle of pretences on an unnatural scale for the past few years. With a hyperactive social media and an admittedly obsequious fourth estate, public space witnesses a continuous free masquerade of untruths and illusory claims of grandeur. Not only the government at the Centre but almost all state governments, regardless of political differences, are increasingly resorting to this post-truth pageantry of pretences.
The most important marker of this malady is the eagerness to convert every activity—if it is normal—into a spectacle with claims of uniqueness.
In fact, the very act of transforming an ordinary event into a spectacle itself is made out as an act of leadership acumen. G20 is the typical instance. Without playing down the importance of India hosting the summit and orchestrating a series of events leading up to it, it is self-evident that the event as such has little value and pay-off in real terms. It is as useful or inert as any global forum. The political capital lies not in the outcome of the summit but in the hype surrounding it. The very act of creating the hype is touted as a significant achievement.
G20 may be one of its kind where some hype could be justified. But the pattern repeats itself in almost every aspect of governance. Every foreign visit of the prime minister is a spectacle. Every announcement of a new scheme is a landmark event. Every announcement about the future economic growth is touted as an occasion to celebrate. As these orchestrated events aim to whip up a frenzy, apparent contradictions are readily overlooked. The chasm between rhetoric and reality is merrily ignored. In one forum, we claim to be guardians of environmental protection, deeply concerned about climate change. We swear by carbon neutrality and clean energy. But the fragile Himalayan ecosystem is brazenly allowed to be exploited by going ahead with the Char Dham highway. The alarming signals repeatedly emitted by Mother Nature are ignored with audacity. Further, the government hurriedly amended the Forest Act and now, security-related infrastructure projects that lie within 100 kilometres of international borders are exempted from forest clearances.
In international forums, we never tire of describing ourselves as the ‘Mother of Democracy’. The truth within the country tells a different story—that of an ailing mother. In the World Press Freedom Index (published by Reporters without Borders), India is ranked 161 among 180 countries. In the Hunger Index, India ranks 107 among 121 countries. In the Human Freedom Index, India ranks 112 out of 165 countries. And no policy initiative is visible to improve these dismal positions.
Holding elections on time, though important, is not the only test of democracy. If the ordinary citizen does not experience fairness, freedom and human dignity in everyday life, it is admittedly an enfeebled democracy. In a republic of pretences, such contradictions are never sought to be reconciled. Rather, anyone who points out the contradiction is frowned upon.
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While any futuristic projection of our economic growth is undoubtedly inspiring, vexing concerns like unemployment, inflation, price rise, poverty and malnutrition are brushed aside amid the disproportionate jubilation of the future. Even such predictions are made to appear as yet another achievement. India claims to be a ‘vishwa guru’, but we allow primitive emotions like mob violence, social exclusion and hate speech to go unbridled while even a small voice of dissent is met with draconian measures.
Even as we try to project a strong and unified nation, the fires in Manipur are still burning and the powers that be are silent. How can a society that increasingly undervalues forgiveness, tolerance and diversity claim moral legitimacy? But shrill claims of moral superiority continue to rend the air.
Several state governments are also competing in peddling their grander vision. In splashy advertisements of schemes that may or may not deliver social justice or economic benefits, tall claims are made to convey the impression that the scheme is a foregone success. In a moral dystopia, what is presented and promised is more important than what is actually delivered.
Claims without content, visions without validation and contradictions without qualms are possible only when capitalising on the yet-to-be-fructified schemes becomes a shared ploy among the ruling class of all political and ideological hues. When results and claims based on hard facts are less critical, statistics get a back seat, and the free flow of factual data is impeded. The Orwellian dictum from 1984 that ‘freedom is slavery’ and ‘ignorance is strength’ seems to be coined for our times.
Former Kerala chief secretary and ex-VC, Thunchath Ezhuthachan Malayalam University