WhatsApp poses new challenges in poll year

Be very very sceptical of social media as we approach a vicious, acrimonious election season
Last Updated 20 February 2019, 19:36 IST

It is likely that the Lok Sabha elections this year will be the most bitterly fought elections in Indian history. Even the one in 1977, when Indira Gandhi’s Emergency was the issue, could not have divided people like this.

What is singular in 2019 is how the educated public, known to be politically apathetic, have been violently enlisted by two sides between whom there is very little to choose in moral terms. The reason for the new violence with which political opinions are being aired owes to social media being put to maximum use, spreading partisan messages and half-truths.

That so many normally quiet people have been roped in politically to send out prejudiced messages to their friends and loved ones is particularly alarming since few can be actually persuaded politically today–-every educated person has already made up his or her mind.

The Whatsapp messages don’t tell us anything new; most of them purvey a few truths but also gloss over several others. Just as it is irksome when friends join pyramid marketing schemes and try out consumer rhetoric on you, it is irritating to have someone close to you forwarding politically tendentious messages.

The national elections will end in a few months and when they are over, one will find that one’s circle of friends has diminished, or a new coldness has sprung up within the family. For the political parties, of course, all this mutual ill-will is only collateral damage, but citizens need to be especially cautious.

Political discussions can certainly be fruitful, but only if they testify to a minimum level of disinterestedness; those engaged in an argument must be agreed on what the ‘facts’ are and be willing to reach a conclusion in which each one has moved away from an existing political position. In the present scene, a disinterested or non-prejudiced viewpoint is virtually impossible to hold.

Regardless of which side one is for, one finds oneself being selective about the ‘facts’ that one base one’s arguments on. It is impossible to even speculate on the outcome of the elections since what one thinks is likely is what one would like!

A feature that one encounters frequently is people engaged in political arguments basing their viewpoints and conclusions on ‘special knowledge’ only they have. Often they know someone ‘unimpeachable’ in an important position affirming something or the other. Accusing such people of inventing stories can lead to a great deal of hostility and bad blood, which one likes to avoid. When such inconclusive political arguments are fiercely underway one does not grant the adversary even an ounce of normal acumen: one is as eager to win an argument with one’s friends or family as political groups are to win the elections.

Perhaps the most dreadful thing is that the ‘nation’ is constantly portrayed as being under threat by all sides. While there is no doubt that the nation is under threat, it is equally from all the warring parties, although in different ways. Patriotism is a welcome virtue but it should not be equated with rhetoric about the nation or willingness to inflict violence on its behalf.

Patriots are not those who sing the national anthem with passion and fling their household waste on pavement as they drive to work. They need to be good citizens who adhere to the law, express their democratic dissent only in lawful ways, do not seek private privilege or pleasure at the expense of the milieu, or profess beliefs and sentiments detrimental to society. All this may be common sense but it still needs to be reiterated when people are pointing fingers at each other for failings they are themselves guilty of. Readers may wonder whether they need to be warned to stay away from heated political discussions, but the country’s ethos has gone from bad to worse in the past few years and disharmony rules.

If politics has made an adversary or enemy out of a friend because of a mere disagreement, one may be sure that the same thing has also happened to millions of others in India. Given this alarming increase in public antagonisms, what is best is that citizens who wish to remain in amicable social relationships stop forwarding Whatsapp messages, received from god-knows-where to their acquaintances. They should (notionally) place in quarantine those friends or relatives known to be doing election-related canvassing---at least until the elections are over---and stop believing that one can save the nation through heated words.

Patriotism as sentiment is normally admirable but it is becoming violently competitive today and threatening. If every citizen takes an oath to keep his political opinions to himself or herself and not inflict them on others, perhaps the nation can be saved, beginning with the citizen’s own personal life, badly in need of protection from his or her over-zealous compatriots.

(Published 20 February 2019, 13:55 IST)

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