Home >Opinion >Columns >Opinion | India and the growing business of outrage

It is just over a month since the elections to the three state assemblies of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan concluded. The Congress, which ended up the winner by a landslide in Chhattisgarh, and through a coalition in the other two states, dedicated their victory to the farmers in the grips of rural distress. Commendable no doubt, except for the fact that six weeks later the issue of farm distress is neither part of the political/news cycle, nor is it trending in social media.

It is not that the crisis has blown over. If anything it has worsened: Retail food inflation plumbed a new low in negative territory with the number at 2.51% in December, suggesting that remunerative prices for farm output is a pipe dream; similarly, rural wages continue to stagnate at the bottom. In fact, unless the structural fault lines in Indian agriculture are resolved (not just through loan waivers), the crisis will keep recurring with greater intensity. Yet, vexingly this is not part of our national discourse any longer.

So why are we not outraged? It could well be, and understandable at that, the issue of farm distress, with the passing of elections, is facing fatigue in the news cycle. Or, worryingly so, it could well be that the outrage had a business model—with a strong foundation in the social media space—which now, that the elections are over, has no currency. Anecdotal evidence points to the latter.

Actually, if we dispassionately look back to 2014, the year when social media became a key tool for election campaigns, there is a clear pattern to the outrage. Between the agitated talking heads in electronic media and the trending hashtags in social media certain issues seemed to acquire a life of their own. In fact, social media channels such as WhatsApp soon morphed into platforms for channelizing rage even on fake news. It is also a fact that news outlets desperate to exploit the power of social media in the fight for eyeballs have only fuelled this medium; and as they say about sensational news, “if it bleeds it leads". (In fact, I knew of an editor who used to circulate a DIY kit, which included a lexicon of click-baits for generating viral stories).

This business of outrage is very similar to what transpired in the US presidential campaign in 2016. It is now a matter of investigations by the federal authorities, as to how those based outside the US were able to drum up opinion for/against an issue in the campaign using the dominant social media platform Facebook. The backlash has, in fact, forced Facebook and Twitter to crack down on fake news and curtail the scary multiplying power of social media.

While it is important to make these social media platforms accountable, it is equally significant to ask the pertinent question as to what facilitates it. The ecosystem that has allowed for a business model of outrage is the binary discourse that has taken over, not just in India, but the entire world. This column has repeatedly (bit.ly/2MiUFBN) dwelled on this phenomenon and its ruinous fallout. Thanks to the new maxim of “my way or the highway" we have stopped listening to each other or simply created groups of the like-minded on social media to generate echo chambers of mutual gratification.

The most damaging outcome is that it has squeezed out the moderate voice, without which there is no ecosystem for debate. Why blame only politicians; ask yourself as to when was the last time you engaged in a civil debate with someone who had a point of view that strongly disagreed with yours.

And, in issues of national importance, this skews the nature of the debate and, consequently, the policy response. Going back to the issue of farm distress, the emerging solution of farm loan waiver (or other versions of it), responding to outrage, fails to address the structural fault lines that have emerged in Indian agriculture—thanks to the shift to value-added and more remunerative agriculture (like horticulture), the risks of farming have spiked; particularly to volatile prices. A farm loan waiver will, at best, provide a short-term relief, but not in any way address the issues facing the Indian farmer—for which the starting point is a national debate.

But then, are our politicians even listening?

Anil Padmanabhan is managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. His Twitter handle is @capitalcalculus.

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