To Each His Own
Before you read any further, a disclosure at the outset – I have a strong personal bias favoring AAP, so everything that follows should be read within this context. I would also like to stay clear from the electoral rhetoric and hence the timing (elections are over) of writing this piece. I don’t ask you to take any sides and you are welcome to disagree with me. I am open to criticism provided that it should not be based on unverified and ludicrous conspiracy theories. Always keep in mind that being skeptical, not cynical, aids us in forming opinions which are in agreement with evidence. Cynicism, especially in politics, almost always results in perennial mudslinging matches seldom based on issues and credible evidence.
We Are Democratic and Thus Have The Right To Expression
To make a general point about opinions, everybody is entitled to have one. It’s only encouraging for a democracy that multiple conflicting opinions exist and to that extent India is succeeding. However, this election season we have reached a strange situation where everyone thinks that his/her opinion has more validity than that of others. To put it bluntly – ‘I am clever and you are a moron’. A sad way to do a political debate, I think, especially when those arguing had no insider information on either side. The result is a situation where political discourse, at least on social media, is dominated by terms like ‘AAP-tards’,’Modi-tards’ and ‘Bhakts’. To form and defend unshakable opinions based on dubious media reports and then attack others for the same mistake is a bit ironic, to say the least. Sadly, Indian media, with its selective and biased reporting, has not made things better. Media credibility is at an all-time low. Adjectives like ‘news traders’ are frequently used in popular discourse around media and Twitter tags like #PaidMedia trend quite often. Respected veterans like P Sainath and Paranjoy Guha Thakurta have critically commented on the present state of affairs in the fourth estate. Quite often, you can find the media channels peddling the myths of their own convenience and liking. In this profit oriented age the proverbial neutrality of the media has been compromised. Indeed, these unsettling times demand an honest introspection by senior editors over issues like ownership (political or corporate), transparency and editorial control.
Influence of The Paid Media on Democracy
But the picture is not as bleak as it seems. News reports coming from media channels might be superficial and biased, but rarely are they fabricated. A majority of these news reports are – borrowing a word from one of the best cop films made in India-‘Ardhsatya’. However, with close to 400 news and current affairs channels in India along with social media, one can always get the ‘other’ side of a story. Only lazy sloths form opinions based on juvenile high decibel drama masquerading as debates orchestrated for high TRP’s. These so called debates, which are more of an ego battle between ‘expert’ panelists, should not become the source of arguments in a rational discourse. Meanwhile, social media, which by definition are social, with no control and regulations whatsoever, are perceived to be unbiased. Initially, dismissed as a toy for the educated youth, political leaders are now using it as an effective tool for directly connecting with voters and for setting the political discourse. In some ways this has liberalized and brought swiftness in the supply of information in India. It has quickly acquired a place of surrogate media with even the mainstream media channels picking stories from Twitter.
The Social Media Too Has Joined the Bandwagon
Yet, this social medium has its own share of problems to deal with. People, engaged in political argumentation on Twitter and Facebook, are very opinionated and judgmental. They go all guns blazing to defend their passionately held political beliefs sometimes even crossing the lines of decency. There is a certain pigheadedness involved in the discussions and seldom do people heed to opinions and evidence in conflict with their own political preferences. I am yet to see a twitter argument not resulting in a stalemate. Political converts in the online world, if any, are a minority.
Mimicking the real world, people in online networks organize themselves into groups of individuals with similar viewpoints. However, in one area the online and real world networks differ significantly and that is the presence of a very strong positive feedback loop in the online world. In absence of any geographical or physical limitations in connecting with others, you can always find enough people on your side, however ludicrous and unreasonable your argument might be.This positive feedback loop feeding a strong personal bias causes a selective amnesia and blindness to all the evidence that clashes with your political preference. This bias can then be exploited by political parties with an army of people working in Photoshop mills fabricating ‘evidence’ to feed swollen egos of these blind loyalists. With no checks on the quality and content of information, farcical conspiracy theories abound on the social networks.
— Abhijay (@a2musings) May 15, 2014
Virual World Vs Real World Politics
There is also a spillover from online to real world. The online political warriors are potent carriers of many absurd theories to the real world, where these ideas get further credence. In the absence of any evidence, for or against, these theories gain a lot of traction amongst the general public. Psychologists have long associated with belief in conspiracies with lack of interpersonal trust in a society. Indian society, being heavily fractured along the lines of caste, class, religion, language and region, has worryingly low levels of interpersonal trust. Hence, even the most crackpot ideas get accepted by the general public and are seriously argued upon.
No room for cynicism, politics is full of it, democracy requires trust, accountability, kindness, fairness, vision & action every day.
— Che Marville (@CheMarvilleReal) May 13, 2014
Another interesting phenomenon in this election was the creation of a personality cult around the leaders – mainly Mr. Modi – which spontaneously raised an army of followers some discerning enough while others believing him to be some sort of messiah. The difficulty with such a messianic relationship is that you can kiss goodbye to any rational conversation centered around the leader. Any journalistic piece criticizing the leader evoked a genuine sense of outrage among his followers with some even feeling personally offended. These biases and tendencies make a fact and issue based political conversation a futile exercise. Swirl in some pseudo-nationalism and religious fundamentalism and you have the perfect recipe for heated argumentation based on unsubstantiated accusations and counter-accusations with a bombardment of cuss words. I am glad that the elections are over and now we can move to a more issue based political discourse. In my personal opinion, AAP being a new party and in the absence of any old baggage of accusations, over corruption or communalism, has been the prime target of such unreasonable criticism. Lacking any coherent argument against it, AAP has been heavily attacked based on half-truths and, in some cases glaring lies. This has created a sense of confusion amongst many fence sitters. For them – to trust or not to trust – has become the main question concerning AAP. As the dust settles with elections coming to an end – It might be an opportune time for its leaders to clear the fog of cynicism around AAP.
One last point that I would like to make is about Arvind Kejriwal. Being the leader and the prime mover of this whole movement, his personality and motivations has been analyzed to the hilt. People are divided over him being a ‘Moral Politician’ or a ‘ Political Moralist’ – a distinction made by Immanuel Kant. His supporters, including me, are convinced of his intentions. Yet, a number of people think of him as, someone who fashions his morality to suit his own advantage as a politician. For me, this is entirely a matter of personal belief. I cannot offer you any evidence to support my case. I am certainly not making a case for blind worshiping. Don’t be a romantic fool who believes that Arvind will bring us some kind of utopia. But, I request you not to discredit someone’s earnest and selfless efforts using half-truths. Making assumptions based on unverifiable, and fabricated, ‘evidence’ gathered from social media is even worse.
Yes, a lot of Arvind’s decisions can be seen as a compromise or reversal of his previous stands; but then politics is nothing but an art of compromise for public good. Yes, a lot of what he does can be called a political exaggeration of issues; but then the whole point of politics is to take basic issues to a larger platform. Sometimes, politics demands dramatic symbolism to make people understand a complex issue. Not all of us have economics degrees to understand the effects of crony capitalism on Gini coefficients. You need to make – an Ambani or an Adani or a Vadra – the symbol of what is wrong with India’s growth story. Discussing such issues in development economics summits is not going to solve anything. Finally, I would definitely urge all of you read an excellent CARAVAN profile of Arvind written in 2011. The timing of this profile is important as AAP was nowhere in the political picture at the time. So, one can expect it to be free from all the distortions and biases of the media reporting during elections. Arvind was not an electoral threat or an ally for anyone at the time, so apart from any personal bias of the reporter no other motivations can be ascribed to it. This piece of journalism might be the only transparent window available to us to understand Arvind’s motivations and intentions.
These people – Arvind, Medha Patkar to name a few – have devoted a major part of their life fighting against the inefficiencies of the system to make India a better place. We ought to be more supportive of such individuals instead of slandering them with nasty motivated allegations. For political and social movements, like AAP, to survive we ought to put more faith in our fellow citizens. We need to move away from cynicism towards a healthy skepticism. Remember the first casualty of cynicism is rationality. We already have a lot of naysayers in India, what we need more of is a sense of rational optimism. I leave you with the words of American satirist Stephen Colbert – “Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us.”
By Abhijay Awasthi
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