When less news is good news

When less news is good news

Acute Angle

Sitaraman Shankar lives for the space between the headline and the story.

To a newsman, the exhortation ‘May you live in interesting times’ sounds like the ultimate blessing. After all, interesting times translate into big news stories and front or home pages that transfix reader eyeballs or draw one pleasant mouse click after the other.

It is, in fact, a curse, attributed, questionably, to ancient China, a malevolent wish that you live through a period of disorder and confusion.

But, blessing or curse, there’s no doubt that these are compelling times in India.

Forget the monster mandates for Narendra Modi, the note ban, Balakot, Kashmir and Chidambaram. What’s more interesting is how the mood in the country’s living rooms has changed over the past five years.

Let me explain. In the BJP’s first term, it was all about polarisation. Initially, you were either pro-Right or pro-Left, and, if you were strong-willed, neutral or willing to take positions based on the issue at hand. Then the neutral space more or less disappeared as polarisation took greater hold. Finally, Right and Left also went out of the window: it was either pro-Modi or anti-Modi.

Now, in the second term, something equally interesting is happening: the emergence, finally, of a unipolar nation. This is the ultimate triumph of polarisation, but that also means, there’s no further it can go. It carries the seeds of its own unravelling or, at any rate, its relevance diminishing.

We didn’t get here overnight. The conditions for the initial successes had to be conducive, which they were: the electorate needed to be unhappy about something and the polariser had to be filling the blanks. If you were replacing a corrupt government, additionally inflicted by policy paralysis, the polariser had to create an image of honesty and decisiveness. This was relatively easy.

But the BJP’s march was not just about winning one election, it was about conquering people’s souls. Polarising figures succeed best by tapping into inherent insecurities and repressed hatreds. This is what makes Othering of people so important in their scheme of things. This is not to say the governments so elected cannot do positive things with the bigger and bigger mandates they thus win, and the BJP has done some. But to the cadres, good administration is the cherry on the cake, not the cake itself.

There are a couple of other factors that aid polarisers: a strong reaction from the people they Other, and a reaction from the outside world. The Other’s strong response only results in more people crossing over to the polariser’s side (‘He’s right. Just see what these people say and do, they are truly anti-national’). A sanctimonious intervention from the Western world has the same effect (‘Who are these Whites/former colonisers to tell us what to do?’).

Then, of course, there is an inept Opposition, which aids the polariser’s cause with one misstep after another. The worst missteps are those that try to mimic what the polariser is doing, but do it badly. Soft Hindutva is one such: it may accentuate divisions because people see through it with ease, but the benefits of these divisions certainly don’t go to the Hindutva imposter.

The polariser’s dilemma is when there are no souls left to harvest.

The muted political opposition to the jackboots in Kashmir suggests that the other political parties feel that this a popular move in the rest of the country, never mind the breast-beating on Twitter. This, in turn, suggests that many of the electorate in the anti-Modi camp have switched sides. What else could follow? Uniform Civil Code? Few are going to oppose that. Ram temple? Few Hindus would mind. Any move on PoK would galvanise public opinion nicely.

The point is that, like in Parliament, the extent of debate or noise in living rooms across India may be dying.

But while it may take decades for the effects of polarisation to be undone, there may be factors that make it less relevant to winning elections.

A significant impact of Rahul Gandhi’s near withdrawal from public life is that there is no lightning rod for voter contempt any longer, no one for the bhakts to ridicule. In that respect, and probably unwittingly, the Congress scion has played a master stroke.

The failing economy could sink many ships, regardless of polarity, over the next year or two. Stock market investors, many of whom are squarely in the bhakt group, are likely to look askance at the government for measures that have been decidedly anti-business, even if some are being rolled back.

Just last week, news emerged of job cuts at Parle, makers of the poor man’s biscuit, because demand was falling off a cliff, and distress in the textile and tea sectors. The less said about carmakers, the better.

The positive that could emerge from all this is that the emphasis on creating divisions will disappear, and parties will be tested on governance and governance alone. Then we could all happily settle down to times that are less interesting.