Home / Opinion / Columns /  The ruling party’s odd inability to promote a good idea

One day in Chennai, some agitators sat on a footpath and claimed they will fast until they died. Their rivals then arrived, sat across the road, and started eating heaps of biryani claiming they will “eat until they died".

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has not displayed a fraction of the swag of the biryani-suicide-squad in its response to the politically orchestrated “farmer protests" against transformative agricultural reform. I thought great armies of farmers will emerge from various regions of India that are controlled by the party, rejoicing the end of middlemen and the abolition of statutory restrictions on where and to whom a farmer can sell his produce; I thought farmers would hold up brinjals and tell BBC correspondents about their luminous future once they are free to sell popular crops to anyone anywhere, even as the government guaranteed them a profitable price, exempted them from income tax, and plied them with free electricity and fresh water.

How difficult can it be for a ruling political party to convey to the world that in an electoral democracy it is in its self-interest to enrich half of India instead of impoverishing them while activists will pay no price for deploying ideology to ruin the lives of poor farmers, as they often do?

Instead the Indian government has got into a Twitter fight with singer Rihanna, the activist Greta Thunberg, and other self-diagnosed humanitarians of the West, and thus formally given the facile, dull and innocuous global activism of the well-fed the stature of being a threat to the nation. Also, the government or the BJP appears to have nudged some of the country’s richest actors and cricketers to endorse farm reforms.

The BJP has legitimate claims to interpret the agricultural reforms as humane, on par with Manmohan Singh’s liberalization of 1991 that served the Indian middle class so well. But I suspect the party does not realize that propaganda and truth have very different ways of transmission. When you want to tell the truth, never use famous liars.

Global activism, however farcical, usually has some substance, but the global attention on what has come to be known as “farmer protests" is so vacuous that the Indian government and the BJP could have used the movement to demonstrate to the world how the poor are sabotaged by the self-righteousness and moral posturing of a fashionable and ignorant global elite, a class of people who need to recruit causes to fill the emptiness in their lives with meaning.

It is not just the singer Rihanna and the world’s most famous activist, Thunberg. Most people in India and the rest of the world who stand “in solidarity with farmers" do not seem to have informed themselves about the issue. The agricultural profile of any nation is a very boring subject and studying it requires some effort. As a result, most people who have a view on “what’s happening in India" do not realize that the average Indian farmer is poor because the market for his goods is inefficient. The new laws hope to change that.

Why is one of the largest and most successful political organizations in the world, the BJP—or one of the largest governments in the world, for that matter—unable to tell its own side of the story, one that is not just a reasonable story but even humane?

In some respects, they are doomed by the very nature of storytelling. A story is more farce than anthropology because of its two requirements—plot movement and entertainment. The moral arc is the easiest way to move a story, and the triumph of the underdog is a combination of movement and entertainment. The triumph of morality and of the underdog are not truths of the world, but two powerful plot devices that the world has forgotten are plot devices. In the face of such devices, the strong and the successful are no match for the lamenters. The strong always tell bad stories.

But there are other ways in which a political party can communicate a practical idea for reform. In the US, Barack Obama’s Democrats did it well. The BJP is unable to do so because of its own failings. The track record of the party in carrying out transformative reform is poor. In 2016, it had the revolutionary idea of cancelling large-denomination currency notes, for example, but did not seem to know how to put new cash in automated teller machines. And it wanted farmers to become industrial workers, but did not succeed in expanding Indian industries.

Also, the party has the talent of preaching to the converted, but not to the rest. Any priest can preach to converts, but it takes a prophet to convert. An organization of priests will naturally make it hard for prophets to rise. Like many large political organizations, it has not nurtured people who are very good at conveying truths.

Also, this government has not been kind to people who are unrestrained truth-tellers. A defining quality of this era is the perception of vocal and creative Indians that they have lost their freedom of speech. They feel suffocated by this government. Why then would they back it even when the government deserves to be supported?

One of the reasons why strongmen have risen to power around the world is that intellectuals have become so despicable that even when they make sense, people doubt sense itself. This works the other way round, too. To a section of people in India and elsewhere, the BJP is such a cultural villain that they wish to believe the very opposite of what the party says is good for the nation.

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

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