Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

The suffocating spectre of politics

Politics swamps every square inch of our national discourse; it contaminates every corner of our waking existence

As a slogan, “The personal is political" was born in the US in the 1960s out of the churn of radical feminism. Within its brevity, it contained a whole manifesto. Our private lives are shaped by public forces, so our personal problems ought to be considered political problems. Women fighting for their liberation were urged to open themselves up to politics, to think about their troubles—the prejudices of the workplace, the tyrannies of sexuality, the enforced domesticity—as political outcomes. This wasn’t only a recognition of the political influences inked deep into the lives of all women and men; this was an invitation to improve those lives through politics as well.

Half a century later, across the world but particularly in India, we are inhabiting a time of contrary temper, in that we have a surfeit of politics. Politics now swamps every square inch of our national discourse; it contaminates every corner of our waking existence. The public imagination has narrowed to exclude any aspect of policy or art or sport that cannot be framed in political terms. We run the danger of replacing the personal with the political wholesale.

In the main, this is alarming because of what “politics" has come to mean. Once, politics described the methods of governance—of arranging the affairs of cities, according to the word’s Greek root. Today, within our daily discourse, politics refers more and more to the performative aspects of acquiring the power to govern. It refers to the antic rhetoric of campaigns, to the manoeuvres of leaders, and to the efforts of parties to chivvy and stymie each other. Properly speaking, India has grown preoccupied with politicking rather than politics, with stagecraft rather than the play.

Even in a country where the state has perennially intruded, often to discomfiting depths, into its citizens’ lives, our current, hyper-political moment feels new and unfamiliar. It isn’t easy to speculate about the conditions that created it. One possible culprit—for this as for several other ills of the world—is social media, that ruthless amplifier of regrettable tendencies. Another is the election of 2014, which demanded that Indians define themselves, starkly, as either supporters or critics of one man, Narendra Modi. The divisive rhetoric of that election has, like acid, chewed straight through to the cores of our lives.

But the effects of this moment are patently evident. Consider your Twitter and Facebook timelines, and how full they are of political stance-taking, and how exhausting that is to absorb. Consider the hot furores over film censorship versus the shrunken space for real film criticism. Consider how much we heard about a recently shunted minister in charge of education versus how little we hear about education; multiply that across every ministry.

Perhaps the most vivid exemplar of our cast of mind came last autumn, when dozens of writers returned their Sahitya Akademi and other awards, protesting the state’s indifference to attacks upon intellectuals and the chilling of speech. The writers made a robust political gesture of the classical kind, as a response to a moral issue—and yet nothing about it entered the mainstream except the political nature of the gesture itself. There were no sustained attempts to engage with these writers, or to explore the ideas in their works, or even to regard them as artists who may have done things other than return awards. Having being used temporarily, by the left as well as the right, as mascots in the everlasting game to score political points, these writers were returned to the backwaters to which, for the most part, they are ordinarily consigned. It will, likely and sadly, be a while before the names of Dalip Kaur Tiwana or Rahamat Tarikere or Ambika Dutt reappear in our national newspapers.

The media is complicit in this condition, perhaps even the architect of it. The assumption that prime-time news, magazine cover stories, and most of the front pages of our newspapers must be devoted to politics is never questioned. Reporters are so reliably dispatched to cover the noise and theatre of political attention-seeking that politicians know well how to ease themselves into the news cycle. Fooled by parties into believing that democracy is all about voting, media outlets gallop from one election to the next. Already, amid the torrent of empty speculation about next year’s state elections, reports have appeared about Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah’s plans for the 2019 parliamentary polls. We are permanently goaded to think about the mechanics of political power, to crouch into the ready stances of our political positions. Little oxygen remains for a discourse about anything else.

There are, to be sure, large segments of Indian society that urgently need more politics of the right kind—more representation, more rights, a stronger connection of their personal miseries to the public weal. But we should burn away our obsession with politics as an end in itself rather than as a means to an end.

For us, as a nation and as individuals, there’s plenty else to do. We could think more effectively about India’s fundamental challenges: nutrition, healthcare, education, the environment. We could read more fiction and poetry, or visit a museum, or listen to more music, and we could discuss these experiences in tones that lack the dull ugliness of our political conversations. We could pay attention to the human stories—the tragic and the comic and the outrageous and the joyous—that pour out of India. We could stop watching news television in the evenings; we could browse through our newspapers back to front.

By reclaiming our lives from politics, we may even be able to force politics to improve, and to push it closer to an approximation of what it truly ought to be.

Samanth Subramanian is the author of This Divided Island: Stories From The Sri Lankan War.

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