On the danger of the medium becoming the message.
How could they see anything but the shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads?
— Plato, The Republic
Plato, in The Republic, gives us the famous allegory of the cave: prisoners chained in a cave all their lives see nothing but shadows reflected on the wall in front of them. Since that is all they see, they take these shadows for reality. Only when one of them is able to break free from the shackles of the cave, she is able to see reality for itself.
With the ascension of Narendra Damodardas Modi to the prime ministership of India, Indian politics also enters, both literally and metaphorically, into the Age of Hologram. One may choose to call it as the Age of Shadows. After all, Mr. Modi did not only address a record 437 public rallies, but also appeared as a hologram, often simultaneously, in 1350 3D rallies. This near flesh and blood avatar of Mr. Modi disturbs the distinction between reality and illusion, and light and shadow.
What is dangerous in this trend of politics is a certain hollowing out of its inner content; politics as genuine and democratic face-to-face deliberation among people about substantive issues that confront a society being replaced by politics as hologram — 3D images projected from studios in the nerve centres of power to the nukkads and mohallas of the vast hinterland where the poor and the unwashed live — and politics of the messiah.
Of course, in the age of mass media, or what the thinker Jean Baudrillard refers to as the ‘era of simulation’, all forms of technological communication tools will surely be used in political communication. Politics conducted across a vast geographical space cannot only remain face-to-face. Even when it does, it acquires the form of chai pe charcha conducted through video conferencing.
But the danger is in the medium itself becoming the message and the hologram itself becoming the face. That is why, in numerous reports, the voter does not even know the name of the local candidate, but casts his vote for one Narendra Modi. That is why on May 15, on the eve of the counting of votes, in Lucknow, a subaltern man who voted for Samajwadi Party in the last elections, tells me, ‘on this date, there is no leader in the world taller than Narendra Modi.’ The local, rather than being in a democratic dialogue with the national, melts away to be replaced by the distant national.
This does not mean that the traditional mode of politics like the door-to-door canvassing of the local RSS shakha or symbolic campaigns which involve people like that like Loha Sangrah Abhiyan (towards building the Sardar Patel statue) become obsolete, only that they become an appendage to the politics as hologram and politics as tele-marketing.
The latter cannot do without television blitzkrieg, Google+ Hangouts, SMSes and voice messages on mobile phones, 650 GPS-enabled raths traversing the interiors of the country or 11 million election-related tweets in the last five months, all propagating Mr. Modi’s name. One Hangout session was viewed in 116 countries by 82,000 people and apparently caused Google’s servers to crash. While traditional politics itself can be superficial, politics as hologram elevates superficiality to stratospheric proportions. Thus chai pe charchas are conceived on the spur of the moment as a response to a stray remark by an opponent, not because of a long-term commitment to democratising politics through discussions over tea.
In the age of instantaneity, or what the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman calls ‘liquid modernity’, the solid bonds of human relationships, whether in terms of family, friendship or collective political projects collapse or erode towards a fleeting, transient, and liquid state where everything melts in a second and everything becomes mobile and fluid. This is the most ideal condition for power and capital to solidify itself, which gets concentrated in fewer hands, ironically, by becoming mobile and fluid themselves (thus global financial and speculative capital knows no borders, it reaches every nook and cranny of the globe, wreaking havoc in its wake) and by exploiting the fragmentation and disarray of the forces resisting them. Here ethics, political or otherwise, has the shelf life of tweets, Facebook status updates, and SMSes.
In this scenario when politics does talk about ethics, it can assume pathological shapes and result in fascist forms — of course, fascism in the age of democracy will be one without gas chambers. Under it exclusions and silencing will been forced more ‘democratically’ than violently (thus, for example, large sections of the powerful media will abandon their commitment to truth and justice and instead wilfully participate in creating electoral ‘waves’). And in conditions of flux and fragmentation, who better to govern a vast and diverse society than an authoritarian figure who can singlehandedly deliver ‘stability,’ ‘governance’ and ‘development’ (the mantra of our times) and combine a heady majoritarian nationalism with it. Why bother with the local MP who is merely a number that makes up the mandate?
Politics as hologram is dangerous not only because it lends itself to fascist mobilisation and that it can change the destiny of 6,00,000 villages in the course of a mere six-month campaign but also because holograms are not just apparitions, there are real material conditions which produce them. But when the ‘people’ have given their verdict (as one newspaper called it ‘India is Modi. Modi is India’), it seems undemocratic and illegitimate and to ask about the source of the Rs.5000 crore (1/5th of the annual amount allocated for Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan) reportedly spent on the BJP election campaign. And it seems equally undemocratic to talk about the shocking absence of Muslims from the elected MPs of the BJP. This is where fascist politics becomes consensual.
Even as this is the case, we cannot resist politics as hologram by dubbing the Modi mandate as ‘the most unpopular and unrepresentative in republican India’, or ‘the biggest stolen election in the history of democracy’, or ‘the biggest corporate heist in history’ as some radical critics have done. Sure, only 31 per cent of the voters (21 per cent of the total electorate) voted for the BJP, making it the smallest vote share among single parties which have won majorities in India. Sure, the vote and seat share of the regional parties have not changed at all making it still a fractured mandate raising questions about the need for proportional representation. And, sure, the ‘Modi wave’ would not have been possible without the unprecedented and unabashed support of corporate capitalism.
Nevertheless, reading the mandate in this fashion is simplistic. It discounts the 31 per cent who voted for the BJP and the very significant rise in BJP’s vote share in states like Assam, West Bengal, Orissa, Arunachal Pradesh and J & K as inconsequential. By merely looking at the numbers who voted for Mr. Modi, it ignores the numbers who give silent assent to his brand of politics, even when they vote for other parties or not vote at all; it ignores the numbers that are sitting on the fence waiting to be bedazzled by holograms; it ignores states like Kerala which has never elected a BJP MP or MLA, but has the highest number of RSS shakhas in the country; and it ignores phenomena like Mr. Modi’s Facebook page being the fastest growing one among political personalities in the world.
By taking comfort in the fact that 69 per cent of the voters did not vote for the BJP, the radical sections play into the hands of politics as hologram. It fails to see the altered conditions of politics: that even the contending parties are now forced to play catch up, to construct their own holograms. Thus the Aam Aadmi Party does not want to expend the blood, sweat and tears required in building a political movement, but wants to serve ‘instant politics’ by contesting 432 seats.
It is not enough to lay bare the Rs.5000 crore spectacle, it is equally important to contend with, rather than dismiss as pawns, the people who have voted for Mr. Modi, to understand what their myths and utopias are, and why those find their resting place in him; and it is important to decode the attraction towards Mr. Modi even among large numbers of OBCs and Adivasis, and some sections of the Dalits. If not, we will be gift-wrapping people to be delivered to politics as hologram.
The greatest tragedy of Indian democracy is that it has largely been reduced to the exercise of elections instead of building vibrant struggles for democratisation across the societal spectrum, in the economy, in culture and in civil society. That is why, for instance, the searing material deprivation of vast sections of the people, even after six decades of freedom, has elevated terms like development to a life-or-death cadence. Thus ‘secular’ parties themselves, by abrogating their responsibilities, have laid the foundation for fascist mode of politics. And fascism, when countered only through elections becomes hydra-headed. Baudrillard had argued that in the age of mass media simulation, ‘there is more and more information and less and less meaning’. But the time has come to change that. It is upon us to find the true meanings behind the holograms. It is upon us to bring back politics to reality. And it is upon us, not a messiah, to liberate ourselves from the cave and see beyond shadows.