A Sociologist’s Perspective


Shiv Visvanathan

An election is an unfolding of theatre in space and time. Anyone trying to describe an Indian election operates with a series of ideal types in his head. The problem here is not of map to territory but of competing maps. The pictures do not fit and the territory keeps changing.

Anchoring all these axioms is an idea of the political involving a struggle for power, a battle over issues. What one expects is an articulation of ideologies, platforms around the grid of the party. But what one actually witnesses is a kind of a swarm behaviour whose logic appears only in retrospect. The shadow play of politics is what one watches and it is created by media – on TV and in print. A whole generation of commentators behaves like marionettes, articulating positions which are like absurd dramas. This play within the play is what appears like politics. The whole act centres on number and numeracy replaces story telling.

It is almost as if the commentary replaces the real struggle and the virtual struggles on TV become the electoral drama. The commentators even add cynically that the actual battle begins around two days after the votes are in. The arrogant assumption is that politics begins after the electoral rounds are over.

In a deep sense, elections are no longer the theatre of democracy they once were. Voter participation is lukewarm. Worse, an idiot drama is created out of first time voters being asked to do what they should do normally. It asks them to vote as if voting is an act of civics devoid of politics. Such a banality forgets that votes are vectors that have magnitude and direction. They are preferences about power which follow acts of contestation. Voting is not a public act of table manners.

The depoliticisation is deeper. The party as a vehicle of politics lacks the old dynamic. It appears as a piece of nostalgia, a set of brands which once had resonance and value. The party lacks the ferment of ideology, the rhetoric of isms. Words like justice, rights, corruption, violence are no longer enzymes for action. The citizen sits like a couch potato around a common consensus. There is little to choose between parties – so the quarrel is built around personalities. Each individual leader epitomises a party and his or her frailties and eccentricities become embodiments of the party. It is the first step to fascism when the leader is the party. Here charisma becomes a fabrication and magic a substitute for argument and reason.

The problem is that in covering these events one is covering an ersatz politics. Does Rahul Gandhi walking with a plastic bucket and a shovel represent the Congress battle against poverty? Is the Left debating the great issues of poverty and globalisation or merely looking like a bunch of second rate professors playing Charles Lambs to the complexity of our Shakespearean politics? As a wag put it, the Left sounds like Kunjis (workbooks or guidebooks) but even Kunjis update themselves annually.

When ideology disappears and charisma is ersatz, how does one cover a democracy? In a strange way the journalist is not covering “The Big News” that the sociologist Robert Park talked about but eventless events. Instead of the bustle of a circus, or a bazaar, the warmth of crowds, all one reports is a slow version of musical chairs, where the interest is not in performance but in consolidation or substitution of candidates.

The real news appears to be the disappearance of the political. The political has become a parallel world caught in grassroots struggles, human rights initiatives, battles for the right to information, where the struggle for livelihood is fought around ecology, gender or migration. The elections seem to involve a separate hygiene, a drama displaced from its original purpose. None of the leaders – whether, in the case of India today, Manmohan Singh, Sonia Gandhi, L.K. Advani or Narendra Modi – excite people. They all appear like characters in an Ekta Kapur television serial, pregnant with nostalgic meaning in a play that has lost its way.

One asks oneself: where did policy get close to the political as an attempt to redefine a community and its way of life? This happened in two reports that are being virtually bypassed – by the media, among others. The first is called ‘Waiting for Freedom’ and it is a report about the future of the nomads and denotified tribes in India. The second is the report on the country’s informal economy which might redefine the nature of rights, work and employment. Neither document figured in public discourse during the Indian general elections.

In fact, one has to begin asking whether elections and “politics” are ways of postponing change. Is the journalist facing a moment where the social secedes from the political, and the electoral moves away from the democratic? What then is the history that the media is chronicling or are they also creating the parallel worlds between elections and democracy by banalising the key words that make politics political? I am referring to words like participation, voice, violence, corruption, or even the real implications of demographic change as the creation of a new kind of memory.

In fact, if the media are reporting anything, it is the creation of a new form of “memory” out of the politics of the old. How do you report in a society where socialism means bureaucracy, where justice cannot compete with mobility, where violence is seen as necessary, even logical? The challenge before the media is how to cover events in oral, literate and digital space while retaining speed and maintaining content. Speed becomes the biggest threat to reporting as newspapers and TV channels have no place for what Bergson called “duree” or Heidegger called “dwelling.” The event as spectacle creates only specimens, the forced semiotics of Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi. Even Mayawati, who understood the possibilities of electoral politics, finds such a spectacle a seductive process.

In a deep way this void of politics creates a strange challenge for the media. It has to become a hybrid entity, half ethnologist, half story teller reporting the everydayness of life, livelihood, gossip, scandal and survival.

Unfortunately the newspaper has become a homogenised landscape. Suburban supplements do not add to politics. They in fact show that politics becomes a form of conspicuous consumption, a spectacle that few can participate in. What media have to avoid is the failure of story telling. Democracy survives on the memory of retelling and the story retold is more crucial that the vote. If democracy is a crucial ritual, then it falls to the media to keep its genuine myths alive. In this, the journalist as story teller becomes both a critical trustee and a special kind of citizen.