Salvinder Singh and the politics of perception

The Gurdaspur SP’s ambiguity in body language is a curious instance of how opinions are formed by perception


Gurdaspur SP Salvinder Singh
Gurdaspur SP Salvinder Singh

What newspapers can’t do, however scathing and insightful, but television does, even when superficial, is it unbars the politics of perception. News stories probing the gaping security lapses in the Pathankot terror attack have moved on from Gurdaspur superintendent of police (SP) Salvinder Singh’s possible complicity but the doubts about his insincerity that his body language and speech evoked are unlikely to be overwritten soon.

To reiterate, the SP has not yet been found guilty. Even though his verbal narration of the events that led to his kidnapping by the terrorists were found inconsistent and his motives behind visiting a shrine alone without appropriate security despite intelligence reports suggesting infiltration of terrorists into the region is viewed as highly suspect. He may be innocent or foolhardy or both but something unsettling about Singh’s manner while retelling the episode surfaced on television. I have no idea what trained crime analysts think about it but to an ordinary observer the man comes across as unconvincing.

It didn’t help that subsequent charges of corruption as well as sexual harassment against him add to that perception.

Perception politics is no small battleground in human behaviour and it is hardly just about criminal intent. It lays bare a whole range of perplexities and commotion that goes on in the brain. As a number of behavioural scientists have argued, perception is what hands us clues and tools to make or break relationships, assess situations, suss out threat versus safety, comprehend people and their moods. It may not always be a hundred per cent correct but it’s an indicative compass alright. People often rely on it to navigate through life.

Judgment by perception is also the reason why, when a seemingly “innocent looking” man is charged with murder, rape or violence, we express “disbelief”. Our disbelief is rhetorical in the face of fact but it comes from our reading or perception of a person’s innocence based on appearance.

Unlike in politics where perception gets candidates elected and governments defeated, working as a powerful tool of communication and an agent of change, in ordinary life, it just adds up to opinions, some of which can be misleading. Some though do turn out to be correct.

While politicians can manage or manipulate public perception about them to a certain extent with the help of behavioural, linguistic and personality strategists and campaign directors, untrained or unprepared human beings usually can’t. The facial, bodily and eye expressions of most people image what’s going on inside the mind—confusions have a way of bobbing up to the surface as do emotions, convictions or the lack of them.

Salvinder Singh is one such curious instance but no exception. Last night, for instance, I took back a poor impression of P.K. Mishra, former additional director general (ADG) of the Border Security Force (BSF) while watching him on a prime time debate with Rajdeep Sardesai, on the India Today channel. Besides a boisterously emphatic but poor articulation of his defence of the BSF which is also facing some fire around the Pathankot incident, Mishra was totally out of place in his reaction to a slip of tongue by Sardesai. While thanking his guests, the anchor called everyone Mister so and so. Retired police chief and now politician Kiran Bedi was the only lady on the show and Sardesai mistakenly called her Mr Bedi but immediately corrected himself. Mishra though was caught laughing aloud on camera—no other guest reacted that way. This is a small observation and doesn’t say anything concrete about Mishra’s manners, even though in my head perception politics laid naked on TV went to work.

Decoding body language is a part of some people’s careers so it is not just a vague little theory. If you watch American series Criminal Minds, you may be familiar with the character of Dr Spencer Reid played by Matthew Gray Gubler. A supervisory special agent with a detective agency, he not only has an eidetic memory but is hired to conduct psychological post mortems, analyse handwriting, body language, interests, eye movements and a whole range of behavioural variants to nail down personality tendencies and through them crimes, criminals as well as victims and potential targets of deceit. Following his work can be riveting for those interested in the politics of perception.

Coming back to Gurdaspur SP Salvinder Singh: do ordinary perceptions on body language and manner mean anything to trained investigating officers or are these notions shoved aside in high-level probes? It makes me very curious.

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