Home > Opinion > Columns > Opinion | India’s immense political stamina for useless issues

Three weeks in January I was in New Zealand, a place of such relentless pastoral beauty that its stray patches of ugliness turned out to be golf courses. There was so much street joy, as people kissed, ran, biked and hiked. From there, if you followed the most important news in India, you would think India, too, has solved all its problems of basic survival and is therefore obsessed with useless issues.

The truth, though, is that our air is poison, we are stranded for half our lives in traffic congestion, we lurk in utter spatial ugliness and chaos. Our children grow up with very low national self-esteem. Usually, nations look richer than they are in reality; India, in plain sight, is poorer than what bank accounts suggest. Yet, the greatest public outrage is reserved for esoteric matters, issues that are not about the quality of life; that will, in fact, only make living here worse.

Friday night, in a posh Gurgaon club called Quorum, I asked politician Subramanian Swamy, who had just announced to his audience that he was the “second most popular man in the [Bharatiya Janata Party]", why this was so. Why do we have such immense political stamina for useless issues?

He understood the spirit of what I meant by “useless"—issues that will not improve the lives and prospects of most Indians. Religious and other cultural identities are primarily the domain of the upper classes, which hold all the cards. How then have they transmitted this disease of identity so easily down the classes? How is it that a Subramanian Swamy has got a Kanhaiya Kumar embroiled in the same useless debates around identity?

Swamy told me, correctly, that identity is not a trivial thing, that religious, caste or national identity matters to a vast section of Indians. But then, that was not the substance of my question. “Why" was my question. Why is it that a majority of the nation that lives in appalling conditions wastes its political energies on issues that hardly matter to their lives? Why don’t people agitate for air-conditioned transport and water and electricity and free schools more often than they do for esoteric things? Or, at least peacefully vote for these issues, as the people of Delhi have begun to do recently, since the advent of the Aam Aadmi Party?

Some powerful forces are at play, apart from the most obvious element, which is that the upper classes have a disproportionate control over storytelling. The fundamental nature of stories and storytellers, too, is responsible.

A story is a very corrupt thing. A story is not an event, but an interesting event. And, here lies its deviousness. What is interesting in a story is not what is important in life. At times, the two do meet, but that is very rare.

This is why politics is the way it is and why democracy itself may be doomed in the long run. The most captivating stories are not necessarily true, nor what will make our lives better. People “identify" with stories not out of wisdom or clarity, but impelled by that highly influential force—misunderstanding. Clarity is often inconvenient, while misunderstanding is a pleasurable massage of prejudice.

Far more important is the nature of storytellers. The edginess of a good storyteller does not emerge from virtues like sanity, sobriety, clarity and stability. The mad, the melancholic, the enraged and the innately melodramatic tell the best stories. They are too good for more sober or moral storytellers who try to win people over through common sense, say, through the promise of better infrastructure, schools and hospitals.

Even politicians who know the game, who try hard to be interesting and dramatic only to achieve moral ends, eventually get caught in the process of storytelling, and fail to reach their end.

But can’t issues co-exist? Can’t religious identity co-exist with duller things like infrastructure? The problem, as we see in India, is that political focus is a zero-sum game; the political stamina of the public is finite. Everything is at the expense of something else. Dull but transformative issues, like matters that affect the quality of life, often cannot compete with religion or caste.

There is a parallel in India’s space programme. Its fans raised a question right at the start, when its morality in a poor country was challenged: Why can’t a space programme co-exist with the eradication of malaria? Should a nation wait to kill all its mosquitoes before it sends metal to space? But then, considering that rocket science is easier than eradicating poverty or malaria, we arrive at the very reason why societies do some sexy things—to hide their failures in more substantial and difficult ventures.

The exotic issues of Indian politics exist not because Indians so love their culture. They exist because it is easier to demolish a mosque or build a temple than it is to enrich India or even enforce intelligent road design. But then, isn’t it true that matters of great relevance can hide within esoteric issues? For instance, support for the government’s discrimination of foreign Muslims is more about a fear of the economic immigrant than Islam.

True, issues of identity and culture often conceal more practical matters. But then why do we hide important things in less important things? That, in essence, is our problem. I hope that one day a cunning patriotic humanitarian billionaire will create breakthrough visual effects that will create the illusion of god, who will then order Indians to drive in their lanes and keep the nation clean.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’

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