City City Bang Bang, Columns

Caught between reward and guilt

The Opposition in India is completely bereft of ideas. In any other circumstances, given the fact that that the country is facing crises on several fronts, both external and internal, the Opposition should have had more than enough fodder to attack the government, but such is the dominance of Narendra Modi and his government, that there is no meaningful counter-narrative that has even been attempted.

But the deeper truth and one that perplexes and vexes the critics of this government is as to how Modi and his government continue to not only win elections, but enjoy widespread popular support. More importantly, he somehow seems to effortlessly elude any criticism for his government’s actions or the lack thereof.

It helps, of course, that that the media often works as a force multiplier for the government, in large part because its viewers like and respond to the tenor of its coverage. It is extremely unlikely that media would be so strongly aligned with the government had there been a stronger undercurrent of anger against it. Supporting the government suits it, which is why what we see on display is not grudging acceptance of the government’s diktats but a militant espousal of its preferred narrative.

The problem with the critics of this government is that the frameworks and mental models they are using are outmoded. The issues that are of primary concern to this group have little mainstream resonance, and, hence, are condemned to be consigned to the periphery of the political process. Real understanding is substituted by a form of self-righteous name-calling. Bigoted, regressive, divisive, fascist, misogynistic, repressive, authoritarian — these are the kind of labels that fly around in profusion. While these might offer some succour to a closed group of like-minded liberals, they have virtually no impact on the people who are supporting Modi.

The fundamental difference between the two sides is that what the right offers today is a system of reward and validation, while the liberal side offers flagellation and guilt. The key to understanding the appeal of the right is that it makes people comfortable as they are and does not demand that they change in order to feel good about themselves. The past is legitimised, society as it exists is celebrated, natural impulses that drive people are held up as ideal. What is demonised are the forces of disquiet, that destabilise the status quo, that are constantly carping about what is wrong with the way things are.

The nation becomes a very important rallying point for the right, for it allows people an identity that rises above their origins, and is deemed widely to be beyond any criticism. It is possible to inculcate a sense of community that collaborates for a common cause. There is a very real sense of being part of something important, of every individual mattering. It also allows for all criticism of the government to be characterised as being against the interests of the nation, which in turn allows supporters to be feel self-righteous as they bask in the patriotic glow that they confer on themselves.

The sense of community, of being part of something larger than oneself is what allows people to overlook the hardships that they have to face when the government’s actions impacts them adversely. The persona of Modi as a decisive, caring leader who means well, and one who is constantly under attack by people who do not have the larger interests of the nation at heart, adds to this narrative.

When critics make fun of people banging thalis to fight Covid, they fail to grasp the emotional power of a sense of participation that such symbolic actions evoke. The big difference between the two sides might well be the degree to which they grasp the centrality of symbolic emotional reward when it comes to politics.

What is counter-intuitive is that on the surface, the right feeds off anger and bitterness. The TV anchors who bat for the government are spittle-spraying dementors, social media is full of targeted abuse and hate, and the political discourse is in constant search for enemies to demonise.

This is vital in order to create a sense of legitimacy for the ruling narrative, for it needs to work less hard to prove its relevance. It doesn’t matter if many of these fears about being besieged are contrived or transparently false. The power of fake news is that it is seen to speak a higher truth.

But important though this whipping up of bitterness is, the real power comes from the positive feelings that are generated. The invocation of past humiliations, imagined and real, and a sense that these will be avenged is a reward by itself, but the larger reward lies in a sense of righteous belonging that the ruling party has managed to evoke. That’s why support for this government transcends its actions and even ideology. The sense of comfort, of belonging, of one’s deepest desires being acknowledged is what makes Modi’s government impregnable, at least for now.

The liberals market dissatisfaction, the right offers validation. As the right sees it, the former constantly point to differences, division and discrimination in their quest for equality and justice. What the liberals see as an attempt to redress injustices, the right sees as an all-out effort to delegitimise everything they hold dear.

The problem with those opposing this government is that they have no alternative rewards to offer. The liberal discourse has very few takers, and serves largely to mobilise the supporters of the government. The traditional levers of caste and sub-regional aspirations have been stripped of their potency. Unless a new political vocabulary emerges, there is little hope of a viable political alternative to BJP. For that to happen, there is a lot of unlearning that those opposed to the government have to do.