‘You need politics to discover truth’

‘Censorship is easy to see and mentally correct for, even if you cannot challenge it.’Photo: Akhilesh Kumar

‘Censorship is easy to see and mentally correct for, even if you cannot challenge it.’Photo: Akhilesh Kumar  

Failure to engage with ordinary people creates a vacuum into which fundamentalist ideologies can walk in, says Yogendra Yadav

o 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 Trump to demonetisation. But surely the idea of obfuscating the truth and projecting a stilted interpretation is as old as politics itself?

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 the phenomenon. It is also a somewhat lazy description that takes both politics and truth as static phenomena 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 commonsensically think to be true, it must be because our political practice has failed. Because conversations we should have held have not taken place. It must be because we have forgotten to speak the language ordinary people speak.

Brexit is not a rejection of truth. Brexit is a failure of those who believed in the idea of the European Union to hold meaningful conversations with the working classes. Trump is not a statement of our times; he is an inability to understand and respond to the anxieties of ordinary Americans. Narendra Modi’s success is not a failure of truth; it is the failure of our liberal, secular progressive elite to speak the language of the 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 shift 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 set up a personal, almost intimate relationship with leaders. This relationship can happen only through the media. It 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 robust filters intensifies the possibility of political leaders creating grand illusions and selling false dreams.

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 even matter?

That’s the routine stuff of politics. Two parties trying to propagate their lies and one doing it 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. Politics and truth are not incompatible. In some ways, I believe that politics is a precondition of truth. 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 conditions are such that a sincere, unforced and honest conversation is not possible, there is no possibility of truth emerging. Politics challenges those conditions. In that sense, you need politics to discover truth.

In the information age, 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 reinforce your world views constantly. As social media becomes more omnipresent, does truth even stand a chance?

Some form of regulation, structuring, systematic concealment has always existed in all societies. What is new today is the difficulty of detecting and correcting them. Censorship is easy to see and mentally correct for, even if you cannot challenge it. Facebook’s algorithm is 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 we should be looking at that would support conditions for the 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. There is a desperate need to have institutions that keep the public informed about the political economy of the media, ownership structures, cross-media ownership, conflicts of interest, and systematic biases.

The responsibility of recording the truth presumably rests on institutions like the media, the judiciary and academia. Is the current state a reflection of a failure on their part?

Now we are closer to ‘truth’. Producing truth is an ethical and political responsibility. It is important to engage in conversations with ordinary people in a language they understand. 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. 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. The media was dominated by leftist, liberal, secular, progressive people. Did they use that dominance to hold conversations with ordinary people? Or did they get complacent and create a vacuum into which Hindutva ideologues and market fundamentalists could walk in? Our academia is almost by definition, insulated from ordinary people. The English language is the biggest barrier here. It 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; a failure to insulate itself from prevailing social prejudices. In some cases, it is a simple elementary failure to speak truth to power.

Our academia is insulated from ordinary people. Its principal constituency is Western academia, not Indian society

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