“Sometimes people hold a core belief that is very strong. When they are presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance. And because it is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalize, ignore and even deny anything that doesn’t fit in with the core belief.” ― Frantz Fanon
As Indians, we have two clear choices. The first is to accept the reality and get on with our lives. “I cannot change anything. I have my own problems to solve. And let’s face it – life is much better for me than it was for my parents, and I am sure it will be better for my kids than it is for me.” Or give a strong counter punch: “There isn’t anything wrong with India. Who says we are poor? We have a great leader with a 78% approval rating (according to the India Today Mood of the Nation survey) who is solving every problem – Covid, China and the economy. We have full faith in him. Don’t be an anti-national by calling India weak.” The politics of vishwas, as Neelanjan Sircar wrote in a paper referenced by Pratap Bhanu Mehta in an Indian Express op-ed:
Voters prefer to centralise power in a charismatic strong leader and they have faith that whatever the leader does is good. This model is in contrast to the usual models of politics, where leaders are held accountable on performance or because they serve a coalition of interests.
Sircar offers two broad explanations underlying this phenomenon. The faith in the leader is not merely a materially instrumental faith; it represents an underlying shift in the ideological preference for a Hindu nation, an entity that is untied and rises above the messy negotiations with difference. Faith in a leader is deeply facilitated by nationalism: The leader as the simplified embodiment of unity, will and purpose. Behind this phenomenon of producing vishwas is an extraordinary machinery of communication, which literally deploys as many elements in a communicative tool kit as there are feathers in a dancing peacock: From the semiotic command of images to a saturation with messages; from good-old-fashioned hard-working party outreach to literal control of the media.
Three predictions follow from this shift in the underlying model of politics. The first is an immunity to any accountability: You can preside over poor economic performance, suffer a military setback, inflict suffering through failed schemes like demonetisation, and yet the trust does not decline. In fact, it thrives on a certain nonchalance about actual performance. In the face of vishwas, it is impossible to point out that India is in the midst of what historians used to describe as a military-fiscal crisis — both in a fiscal and a military corner. The point about vishwas is that fact, performance and interests are all petty. The second prediction is that this politics requires the continual feeding of ethno-nationalism, moving from one issue or one enemy to the other. And three, it points to the fact that vishwas is not just a political artefact — it has to be continually sustained by a saturation of the mindspace and control of media.
For those in this group, all I can say is, “So be it. I respect your opinion. But I will tell you one thing. The hunger and greed of a politician’s power knows no caste, creed or community. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. We have seen that before in the mid-1970s. Silence and acquiescence are both wrong. I hope one day you will wake up and do the right thing.”
There is a different path.
Tomorrow: Part 16