The definition of “post-truth”, Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year, is interesting. It means: “Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
Evidently, “post-truth” pipped other buzz words to the post this year because a blithe disregard for facts has characterised both the vote for Brexit in the UK as well as the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States.
But post-truth politics is having its day in India as well.
Increasingly, unpalatable facts are being waved aside and the sceptics shouted down. What seem to sway the masses and mould public opinion are skilful plays on emotion and ancient resentments.
Take Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rally in Panaji on 13 November, where he made an impassioned defence of his decision to demonetise Rs 500 and Rs 1000 currency notes.
The defence was urgently needed, because there was considerable public anger over the chaos the move had unleashed. What was supposed to have been a “surgical strike” against the fat cats and black money hoarders looked more and more like an indiscriminate bombardment on the common people, who were having to queue up for hours before banks and ATMs to access a bit of their own money.
The truth was, cancelling 86 percent of the country’s currency and then trying to replenish it had landed the government in a logistical nightmare.
The truth was that many experts felt that there were other, better ways of going after black money, and that a very small proportion of it was held in cash anyway.
But what Modi said at that rally in Panaji had little to do with these truths.
The truth was, no one had noticed the really big fish standing in the serpentine queues that stretched before banks and ATMs from dawn till dusk. But Modi chuckled and declared that scamsters were now forced to queue up to get just 4000 rupees.
The truth was, the poor had been hit hardest by the currency crunch because few could fall back on credit or debit cards. But Modi said they were sleeping chayn ke neend while the corrupt rich went around looking for sleeping pills.
Chest-Thumping Over Note Ban
It was an irresistible narrative. And Modi, the master of popular psychology, deftly reeled it out with much chest-thumping — for he was the man who had effected this magical transformation. At one point, he even broke down, saying that he had sacrificed his home and family for his country. Then he finished it off with a flourish, declaring that because of his radical move the powerful were now out to kill him.
The crowd erupted in patriotic chants of “Bharat Mata ki jai”. Clearly, the common man’s ordeal of grappling with a blasted currency system, the fact that India’s cash-driven rural economy was being cruelly squeezed, were nothing before such uplifting visions of sacrifice and punishment for the “paapiyon”.
Riding High on Resentment
When it comes to post-truth politics though, Donald Trump, now the President-Elect of the United States, will surely go down in history as its pre-eminent archangel. Trump built his entire campaign on an avalanche of lies and half truths. Indeed, according to fact-checking website Politifact, as much as 70 percent of his statements were
false or mostly false.
But despite his raging mendacity, Trump won because he cunningly picked away at the scab of popular resentments — against immigrants, against job losses — and the feeling of cultural and economic marginalisation among much of the country’s white population. He would build a wall to stop “rapist” Mexican immigrants from coming in, he would bring the jobs back, he would ban Muslims from entering the US. It was a heady cocktail of racism and bigotry that appealed to enough number of disaffected people to propel him to victory on 8 November.
Re-Defining National Interest
Demagogues usually have a standard pitch — that the country is in a severe crisis and that they alone have the prescription for saving it. In that sense, Modi and Trump are cut from the same cloth. Both have made outrageous promises — the possibility of realising them be damned. On his 2014 campaign trail, Modi made the remarkable, and as yet unrealised, promise of bringing back all the black money stashed away in foreign countries and putting Rs 15 lakh in every Indian’s bank account.
But of the two, perhaps Modi is the more sophisticated practitioner of post-fact politics. His messages have been far more subtle. His rhetoric has not been overtly directed against this or that religious or ethnic group to whip up majoritarian support. Rather, increasingly, Modi has made this about “national interest”. His government is the articulator of national interest. So if you oppose the government’s decisions, you are acting against the nation.
Truth Doesn’t Matter
Modi’s demonetisation scheme is being similarly spun. The fundamental point being endlessly advanced by the government and its millions of social media followers and influencers is that it is for the good of the nation. Hence, the devastating disruption to the currency system is minor and incidental.
The message here is that the PM is at war with the corrupt rich, and that he is the messiah of the honest poor. And his chaiwala roots, which he flags repeatedly to identify himself with India’s great unwashed, are the centrepiece of this scenario. As he said at a rally in Ghazipur last week, demonetisation was a kadak measure, and he knew his kadak chai didn’t go down well with the rich.
There may be other measures to come. Indeed, Modi has said as much. They may or may not be ill-conceived or ill-executed. But the truth will not matter. Because when everything comes gilded with national interest, you are simply meant to join the chorus of patriotic chants.
(The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi. She can be reached @ShumaRaha. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)