You need politics to discover truth: Yogendra Yadav

Failure to engage in conversations with the ordinary man results in a failure to produce truth, says Yogendra Yadav in an in-depth discussion about the idea of post-truth politics

December 31, 2016 05:05 pm | Updated 09:11 pm IST

File photo of Yogendra Yadav. Photo: Akhilesh Kumar

File photo of Yogendra Yadav. Photo: Akhilesh Kumar

To many people, the term post-truth is an unnecessary and esoteric euphemism for plain old lies. The word, like the phenomenon it describes, seems to obscure rather than inform. But beyond the word lies a conversation that encompasses crucial debates about how society will adapt to the information age. Yogendra Yadav, political scientist, psephologist and co-founder of the Swaraj India party, talks about the idea. Excerpts:

Post-truth politics have dominated world headlines this year, from Brexit to the election of Trump to the demonetisation in India. But surely, the idea of obfuscating or even denying the truth and projecting a conveniently stilted interpretation of events in its place is as old as politics itself? Are we just naming an age old phenomenon or is there something new about this beast?

To my mind, this is a rather grand name for something that has been present in politics all along. It’s just that we have seen a special moment of that phenomenon. It is also a somewhat lazy description that takes both politics and truth as static phenomena. In a sense, what we are saying is the following, here is truth which is self-evident and here is the activity called politics which is to conducted on the basis of that truth which is given and out there. Unfortunately, we somehow are living in an age where these two things are not compatible. That is what this phenomenon called post-truth politics seems to be saying. I find it a lazy description because it overlooks the ethical responsibility of production of truth. Truth does not lie out there. There is no truth of politics outside political practice. If there is politics that seems to defy what we commensensically think to be true, it must be because our political practice has failed. It must be because conversations we should have held have not taken place. It must be because we have forgotten to speak the language in which ordinary people speak.

Brexit is not a rejection of truth. Brexit is a failure of those who believed in the idea of European Union to hold meaningful conversations with the working class of Britain. Trump is not a statement of our times. Trump is an inability to understand and respond to the anxieties of an ordinary American. Narendra Modi’s success is not a failure of truth to prevail. It is a failure or refusal of our liberal secular progressive elite to speak the language of an average Hindu. When we begin to blame history for our failures, it is either ignorance or arrogance or both.

Do you think there has been some kind of recent change or shift, perhaps in the media or technology or society in general or even in the way politics is conducted, that makes this kind of politics more prevalent or more effective than before?

I would not deny that. Conversations in a mediatised age are far more difficult and complex than face to face conversations. The most bewitching aspect of modern democracy is that ordinary people wish to setup a personal, almost intimate relationship with distant leaders. This relationship can only be setup through the media. This condition opens up the possibility of exaggeration, stylisation of facts and outright cheating. The complexity of modern communication, especially after the explosion of social media and the absence of any robust filters intensifies the possibility of political leaders creating grand illusions and selling false dreams.

A 2014 study by the Pew Research Center showed that there is a clear and constantly increasing tendency towards extreme political polarisation among the American public and while there don’t seem to be any comparable studies on India, five minutes on Twitter will provide quite a lot of anecdotal evidence that it is true here as well. How do you think the politics of post-truth ties in with the larger theme of breakdown in conversation between opposing ideologies?

I don’t have a feel for the structure of public opinion in North America and Europe. But I do not see a breakdown in conversation or ideological polarisation in India. What I see is absence of conversation. What I see are loose floating opinions that can be readily marshaled to serve any political objective. In fact it is the absence of ideological polarisation which makes it possible. Take demonetisation: the fact that the Prime Minister has been able to sell, at least in the initial phase, this very difficult, unpopular and unwise decision, illustrates the presence of a very unstructured, floating public opinion that has been skilfully marshaled by a demagogue.

So in India, if you overlook some hard-headed fringe elements of the old left and the new right, for vast majority of the population, the problem is not polarisation along hard lines of ideologies. The problem is very loosely formed bits of public opinion which are not in conversation with one another. This is what leads to possibilities of mass deception.

The responsibility of producing the truth for the public record presumably rests on certain institutions like the media, the judiciary, and academia. Is the current state of affairs a reflection of a failure on their part?

Now we are closer to truth. Producing truth is an ethical and political responsibility. I am not simply talking about dissemination of truth. Truth is produced in these conversations. And when we fail to engage in these conversations, we fail in our responsibility to produce truth. And in that sense, most of the institutions you mention have consistently failed. I recall, 30 years ago, it was rare to find any right-wing Hindu sympathiser in the media. So the media was dominated, completely dominated by left, liberal, secular, progressive people. Did they use that dominance to hold conversations with ordinary people? Or did they get complacent during that time and create a vacuum into which Hindutva ideologues and market fundamentalists could walk in. Our academia is almost by definition insulated from ordinary people. English language is the biggest barrier here. The language almost systematically cuts us off from what’s happening in society. Barring some exceptions, the principal constituency of our academia is western academia, not Indian society. The failure of the judiciary is of a different kind. It is a failure to insulate itself from prevailing social prejudices and the flavour of the day. And in some cases, it is a simple failure of inability to speak truth to power.

In post-truth politics, one side cries wolf about the public being misinformed but most often, it is just a case of the other side lying more effectively. In such a scenario, does the truth matter?

That’s the routine stuff of politics. Two parties trying to propagate their lies and one of them doing more effectively. I am more interested in what such a description presupposes. Namely, the truth that both of them are denying and how that can prevail in politics. To my mind, politics and truth are not incompatible. In some ways, I believe that politics is precondition of truth. Because truth is created in a conversation. Truth is not about our relationship to an object out there. Truth is about the nature of our conversations with a fellow human being. And if the conditions of that conversation are such that a sincere, uncoerced and honest conversation is not possible, then there is no possibility of truth emerging. Politics challenges those conditions. And in that sense, you need politics to discover truth. But as you can see, I am using politics in a generic sense. Not merely in the sense of what politicians do most of the time. But I do think it is important to remember the fundamental meaning of the word politics which is about challenging and recreating power relations. And unless those power hierarchies are challenged, there is no possibility of truth in the world.

Let’s talk about the technicalities of a post-truth campaign. Is there a particular kind of party or candidate that is best suited for such tactics? We’ve seen outsiders and small parties use it a lot this year. Can it be used as a long term strategy without worrying about it backfiring? Are there distinctions to how it can be wielded by a candidate, in an election campaign and by an elected authority, as an instrument of policy?

Mr. Modi uses similar tactics whether he is in an election, as a Prime Minister, or as an opposition leader. This kind of ad hoc, almost daily shifts in positions obviously suits those parties and organisations which do not have an ideological frame to carry. The more unencumbered they are from ideology, from policy frames, and the more unencumbered they are from the responsibility of delivering something, the easier it is to sustain something like this. So yes, it works better when you are a populist opposition, when you can take any position, to attack your opponent. But it is also used, in power, to deflect attention away from one’s failures. And that is a riskier project, which can only be carried if your opponents are non-imaginative and lazy, which is what is happening to Mr. Modi. So, while crediting him for his success, we must not forget that many of them come in the wake of an opposition which is discredited, reactive and cut off from the public.

In the age of information, the powers of censorship rest in the filter. Facebook’s algorithm is suddenly a huge political factor as is the walled garden of your friend list, both of which tend to confirm and reinforce your world views constantly. As the internet spreads and social media becomes more omnipresent, does the truth stand a chance?

Those who want to create truth, find their ways in every situation. Some form or the other of regulation, of structuring, of systematic concealment, have always existed in all societies. What is new about the present situation is not the existence of such regulatory mechanisms, but the difficulty of detecting them and correcting them. Censorship is easy to see and mentally correct for, even if you physically cannot challenge it. Facebook algorithm is far, far more difficult to detect and decipher, let alone respond to. But I’m sure it is a matter of time.

In a sense the question is, what kind of new institutions should we be looking at, which would support conditions of production of truth. What we need are integrity institutions. Not merely vis-à-vis the state. But also the media, old and new. While we have some institutions to guard against excesses of the state, we are almost entirely deficient in institutions that would keep an eye on the media. And I’m not speaking of social media. Just good old, traditional print and electronic media. There is a desperate need in our country to have integrity institutions which keep the public informed about the political economy of the media, about ownership structure of media houses, about cross-media ownership, about conflicts of interest, about social profiles of media persons and prejudices thereof, about systematic biases that dominate our media and elementary fact-checking.

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