In the light of the various doom and gloom articles about the Indian elections in The Economist, TIME, and the New York Times released over the second half of the polling period, I recently had the pleasure of appearing on the Carvaka Podcast to discuss the perceptions of Indian politics in the international media and the ill-fitting use of left-right labels in Indian politics.
In it, among other points, I argue that the average Indian voter is a lot smarter than media elites credit them for, and that they understand how to vote in their self-interest better than any editor of an English-language newspaper or magazine. Also, the articles in such publications are aimed for domestic consumption among their core readership in the US and UK, or to validate the feelings of wealthy urban Indians who see themselves as future US or UK citizens, with little to no impact on actual voting patterns in India.
The results that have come out this week only prove to validate this theory, although it is not a particularly complex concept, as those Indians willing to pay for a subscription to The Economist and those Indians willing to line up to vote on a 40-degree day form a Venn Diagram with very little overlap in the first place.
And then, this week, we saw a fascinating set of articles come out within hours of each other in the New York Times – one which alleged that Narendra Modi’s track record on issues is akin to Bernie Sanders’ left-wing policy platform, and the other which compared him to right-wing demagogues such as Donald Trump, Viktor Orban, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Now, most voters know that the truth is a lot more nuanced than that, but why do we not see a reflection of this nuance in international coverage of Indian politics and elections?
The Reality Behind International Media Coverage
At the moment, the current understanding of Indian politics globally is incredibly superficial. In fact, the current understanding of politics outside of the US and UK among the English-language media suffers from this problem, whenever there is reporting on any country outside of the Anglosphere.
Journalists and editors working in the western media are generally not paid to make nuanced documentaries on other countries, or be balanced in their reportage about countries which their audiences barely ever think about.
When a newspaper, television channel, or radio station in the US or UK chooses to pay attention to elections or politics in the rest of the world, and this could be in wealthy developed countries in their backyards, like France, Germany, or Sweden, or emerging markets like Russia or Serbia, or postcolonial countries like India or Indonesia, it is not to give their readership a political education into the history of each candidate or political movement in these countries – it is to apply the US/UK paradigm of left-centre-right onto these countries, so that their audience knows who the “good guys” are, who the “bad guys” are, and who “our guys” are. So that they superficially know if they should feel good or bad when the results come out, even if they never intend to visit the country in question.
So, we see a common trend of using outdated, ill-fitting paradigms to explain the politics of countries like India, which have a very different socio, economic, and political context to that of the US or UK.
They treat a country like India as a blank canvas, on which they can project a lot of the problems in their own society, which they are either unwilling or unable to address back home.
This is not to say that we do not have problems of our own and that these publications are 100 per cent wrong 100 per cent of the time – as a postcolonial, developing country in the Global South, we do face massive challenges. Our country’s politics, society, and economy are by no means perfect.
We do indeed have political parties which are based on regional, parochial, caste, or linguistic identities, we do have a law and order problem and a violence-against-women problem, we are trapped in a infinite growth model that pits economic growth against ecological sustainability, we are economically still a very unequal society, and these are themes that many Indian voters not only admit themselves, but actively vote to address. It is not inaccurate to say that these problems exist, be it by the Indian electorate or by foreign observers.
What is important to note, however, is that when The Economist, for example, endorses one candidate over another, saying Rahul Gandhi is the “better” of the two choices, it does not mean that they have exemplary insight or expertise into what is good for ordinary Indians or not, it means they think this candidate is better for their readers, their values, and interests. Especially, since the vast majority of Indian voters can’t even afford a subscription to The Economist to read such an article in the first place.
“Heads I Win, Tails You Lose”
Over the past five weeks of elections, we have seen reports on Indian politics which portray Modi as an “illiberal” equivalent of Trump, Netanyahu, or Orban. Or portray Rahul Gandhi as some sort of “progressive” Indian Justin Trudeau. They call the BJP a “right-wing”, “Hindu nationalist” party to associate it with right-wing Republicans or white nationalists, while calling the Congress a “centre-left, liberal party”, associating it with neoliberal, centrist Democrats.
There was even an article this week in The Nation, which called Yogendra Yadav, who is not even standing for elections this year, “India’s most prominent democratic socialist”, as the leader of the “left-wing Swaraj India Party” (which does not even have any seats in Parliament), and compared him to Bernie Sanders.
The simplistic analogies of this kind descended into a farce that very same day, when the New York Times featured an article by Ruchir Sharma (not me, the one from Morgan Stanley) saying that he had hoped Modi would be an economic conservative like Ronald Reagan but was disappointed to have seen that he had turned out to have more in common, policy-wise, with the left-wing agenda of Bernie Sanders – possibly the US politician that the NYT editorial board loathes the most after Trump.
And then, within a few hours, the same newspaper ran an article by Jeffrey Gettleman portraying Modi as an amalgamation of every right-wing demagogue, from Donald Trump to Viktor Orban to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to even Scott Morrison, the kind of leaders their readership abhors.
For those craving positive coverage of India in the international press, let this be a wake-up call. It does not matter if India’s Prime Minister is left-wing or right-wing, liberal or conservative, patriarchal or feminist, whenever he or she acts in the nation’s self-interest instead of the economic or geopolitical interests of the other countries, they will attract criticism from the international media no matter what they do.
This was true of Nehru for supporting the Non-Aligned Movement, it was true of Indira Gandhi for supporting Bangladeshi independence, it was true of Morarji Desai believing in swadeshi and Gandhian socialism, it was true of Atal Behari Vajpayee for conducting nuclear tests at Pokhran, and it was true of Manmohan Singh for India’s negotiating stance on climate change.
Editors and journalists in the international media don’t write articles to make Indians feel good or India look good, they write what sells well among their audiences and reflects the views of their editorial board and financiers. From the perspective of hegemonic imperial states such as the US and UK, media coverage of any rising power challenging their geopolitical monopoly will always negative, be it Japan during the 1980s, Germany in the 1990s, Russia in the 2000s, or China in the 2010s.
This is proven by this week’s New York Times double-whammy – a classic case of “heads I win, tails you lose”, as the western media uses one hand to criticise Modi for being too left-wing and pro-poor and wish he were more like the conservative icon Reagan, slashing taxes and regulation for big companies, while the other hand criticises him for being too right-wing and illiberal, and wants to teach him “tolerance”.
After all, the western chattering classes claim to be experts at tolerance towards vulnerable groups – even if they only gave themselves that certificate to feel better about their track record of being either unwilling or unable to stop a ban on Muslims entering their country, or prevent 15,000 migrant children from being separated from their families and detained, or their police and justice system brutalising people of colour, or their politicians and policymakers saying that rescuing asylum-seekers drowning in the Mediterranean only encourages more immigration and then not only choosing to turn a blind eye to the drowning of 18,400 vulnerable men, women, and children of colour escaping conflict and persecution over the past five years, but even criminalising priests, professors, firefighters, and local politicians who try to help them.
If even 1 per cent of this was done under the leader of an African, Asian, or Latin American country, we would hear editorials on a weekly basis about how the “secular fabric of the country was being destroyed”, “minorities living in fear of the state”, or the “state destroying dissenting voices and institutions such as universities, churches, and civil society” and there would either be articles about the “coming of age” of some obscure opposition politician whose party has 8 per cent of seats in their legislature, or support for regime change or a coup d’etat. Perhaps, it would look something like this.
Yet, these doyens of tolerance feel that diverse, pluralistic, and multilingual societies in the Global South need to learn tolerance and multiculturalism from their countries, who are tearing their societies apart as they find themselves unable to process that the concept of equal rights also can cover those who do not look like or pray like them. All their lip service to liberal values and human rights does not disguise the fact that these countries, as many of their own more perceptive citizens have put it, “went from barbarism to decadence, without civilisation in between.”
“The Idea of India”, The Cult of Macaulay’s Children
Sometimes, the editors of international publications show some degree of self-awareness, and know that they can’t get away with writing lazy, xenophobic, Orientalist stereotypes about “savage Indians” needing western values to civilise them. And that’s when they weaponise their token writers of colour, who are often wealthy London, New York, or Washington denizens of Indian origin, working for an investment bank that begged for bailouts in 2008, a middle-rung university looking for fee-paying Indian students, or a think-tank funded by the oil, gas, and tobacco industries.
Or, who are the most westernised (and by extension, “trustworthy”) Indians in the leafy streets of Central Delhi. Leaving the Ring Road means entering a world a bit too hot and dusty for the newspaper’s India correspondent’s comfort, after all. The hardship allowance only goes so far.
This is made easy by the fact that many postcolonial countries have an elite today which has adopted the language, culture, and mannerisms of their former colonial masters. And when western journalists, academics, or companies come to India, they work together with these people, who they see as more western than Indian – and thus more credible, reliable, and easy to work with. These elites are often educated through western paradigms, and often share and validate the same opinions on India that a western observer would have.
As Prime Minister Morarji Desai said in an interview on Thames Television in 1977:
I should know, having narrowly escaped such a fate myself, being an Anglophone urban Indian who went to private schools where French or German were taught rather than Sanskrit or Marathi or Gujarati, and a university in Delhi famous for studying History and Politics through a Marxist lens, which meant I was constantly surrounded by this social group throughout my education and social life.
I could even have turned out to be like one of them, were it not for a healthy anticolonial scepticism (if not contempt) of American and British bourgeois values, developed through an appreciation for non-western perspectives from the Second and Third World.
Nevertheless, my peer group, as did I, would religiously read The Hindu every morning and Frontline every month, watch debates on NDTV every evening (and occasionally get invited to the studio), talk about the subtle differences between obscure parties in West Bengal such as the All India Forward Bloc and the Revolutionary Socialist Party, and supported the student wing of the CPI(M), the Students Federation of India in university elections, even while the Left Front descended from being the supposedly “moral and incorruptible” permanent opposition to supporting a venal UPA coalition at the Centre.
Having being an insider within such an academic and social environment, I would even go as far as to say that even today in 2019, the top rungs of our society and education system actively incentivise people to act precisely the way Lord Macaulay envisaged in his famous ‘Minute on Indian Education’ back in 1835:
To put it simply, when our top schools and universities churn out Pankaj Mishras and Arundhati Roys, this is not a bug in the system, but the key feature. Creating such specimens is the entire point of the educational system we inherited from the British Raj, and those who come out with some form of critical reasoning or self-awareness or cultural roots intact are the unintended bugs and defective products, to be stamped out and ostracised from the establishment.
So, just like those Indians employed as clerical staff and commercial middlemen during British colonial times, a tiny substratum at the socio-economic summit of Indian society is nowadays cultivated and encouraged to write about India the way their editorial masters in the west used to back during their colonial “mission civilisatrice”, but cannot get away with anymore.
They portray aspirational middle class and working class Indians with their traditional, indigenous value systems and beliefs as “illiterate, bigoted, superstitious, savage natives,” who don’t know what is good for the country, and need a neo-feudal, ‘mai-baap’ state to keep their base passions in check and protect the “Idea of India”, by hoarding all social capital at the top, while throwing the poor just enough crumbs to keep them alive.
In a phenomenon that Cambridge scholar Ayşe Zarakol has termed “auto-Orientalism” (or self-Orientalism), the educated classes within postcolonial or post-conflict countries are shamed through stigmatisation for their history or cultural traditions and then internalise, validate, and amplify this shame among their own country and to the establishment abroad. As she observed in “After Defeat: How the East Learned to Live with the West”:
Aatish Taseer, the author of the recent “Divider-in-Chief” profile on Modi in TIME, is funnily enough, the Lutyens insider who put it best when discussing one of the leading Indian activist-authors from among this comprador bourgeoisie, Arundhati Roy, back in 2011 when she used to criticise the Congress government:
So, when western editors, journalists, or academics want to portray India a certain way, be it out of misplaced good intentions, outright malice, or simply laziness, they in turn get validation from our westernised elite, who are willing to write what makes the western establishment happy, acting as their interlocutors to a set of indigenous cultures and languages both sets of self-serving elites perceive as inferior.
The best example of this was the recent Hasan Minhaj episode on Indian elections, which regurgitated 5 years’ worth of lazy, misguided, or malicious Anglophone media tropes into a convenient little video package, and put the cherry on the cake by having an American of Indian origin present it with the authority and immunity from criticism that comes from his Indian ancestry – a neat little microcosm of the media landscape that we live in. Now, being a video, it is best analysed in video form itself, and since the Sham Sharma Show and Carvaka Podcast on YouTube have already dissected that episode quite well, I need not go into it.
But to put it simply, we live in an era of private, for-profit media, and this is the narrative that editors feel is the one that is most profitable to them. It makes either their audiences happy or their financers. We live in a capitalist era and society, for better or worse, so there’s very little point in outraging at unfair treatment by these media outlets. If they want to go with this narrative, by all means, they should do what they want, it’s a business decision on their part. They aren’t writing for Indian middle-class voters – they are writing for the audiences that buy their subscriptions.
What it does mean, though, is that we, as consumers of this media and these narratives, need to understand something important. That if The Economist or TIME or the New York Times endorses Rahul Gandhi over Narendra Modi (or even vice-versa) for the 2019 election, it is not necessarily a reflection of this magazine really thinking that Rahul or Modi would be better for the vast majority of Indians, but rather a reflection of who is better for the interests of the publication’s owners and target demographics, who can afford a subscription.
Just because it’s published in London or New York, does not mean it is more credible or reliable or neutral than any politically-affiliated Indian publication out of New Delhi, Chennai, or Kolkata. So, read the news with your eyes open, and consume it with a pinch of salt.
One does not see hand-wringing from Chinese or Russian audiences saying that they feel ashamed to be from their country just because The Economist or NYT wrote an unflattering portrait of their leader. Nor does one see Japanese audiences saying they can’t sleep at night because some Asian-American stand-up comedian joked about Shinzo Abe so as to pivot his career from making tired jokes about his immigrant parents to making political analysis for those blessed with the attention span of a toddler.
They understand that this is simply people working in the media abroad doing their jobs and propagating the narratives their employers and target audiences incentivise them to craft. And, if the public in non-western countries do not agree with these narratives, rather than outraging about them, many countries choose a more effective approach - setting their own narratives that matches their experiences and perspectives, and letting it compete in what classical liberals call the “marketplace of ideas”.
Qatar’s Al-Jazeera is a leading exponent of this approach, as are to a lesser extent, Russia’s RT and Sputnik, Turkey’s TRT, China’s CCTV, and Japan’s NHK. Rather than getting worked up every time you see the international media’s slanted coverage, push for Rajya Sabha TV, WION, or your favourite Indian media outlet to think big and go toe-to-toe with them.
There is No Good Or Bad In The Media And Geopolitics, Only Self-Interest
So, when a media outlet or think-tank or university in the west sends foreign experts or hires local compradors to “guide” people in postcolonial or post-conflict countries a certain way, it is imperative that the public take their advice with a pinch of salt.
To put it simply, western governments are not your friend. The western media is not your friend. Western companies are not your friend. There are no friends in geopolitics, there is no good, no evil, no left-wing, no right-wing, there is only self-interest.
None of these entities have anything to gain from the advancement or upliftment or self-interest of the average Indian voter. At best, they can represent the interests of one or two substrata of Indian society, and at worst, they represent purely the interests of their paymasters.
So, when these western economists, journalists, and academics say to Indians, “If only you acted more like us, one day, you too could be rich like us,” or “You should be more socially liberal like Hillary Clinton”, or “You should be more economically conservative like Ronald Reagan”, or “You should build a social democratic welfare state or ‘capitalism with a human face’, just like we did in the 60s”, it is not because aping the west will magically solve all of our problems and lift us into the club of rich, developed nations. They are not waiting at the finish line to give us a big hug, a gold medal, and a seat at the UN Security Council or the OECD.
By giving their input on our society, economy, or politics, they are acting in their own self-interest because the current systems at the international level, be they economic or geopolitical, are designed to keep certain countries poor, weak and unstable, so that the wealth, power, and stability of certain other countries are maintained.
In this light, the negative portrayal of Indian leaders is not a phenomenon which has magically appeared over the past five years with the arrival of the “divisive” Modi. The New York Times, The Economist, and TIME have written about every Indian Prime Minister with hostility, often reserving their most vitriol for Nehru and Indira Gandhi back in the 1960s and 1970s for not bowing down to the geopolitical interests of the US and UK.
Leave aside India, these publications do not have a kind word for any postcolonial or independent-minded country, which challenges the Washington consensus on neoliberal economics or the Blairite-Clintonite “Third Way” of social liberalism combined with economic conservatism.
If you have the time or inclination, have a wade through the archives of these publications over the past 70 years. The Anglophone media has never praised a foreign country or leader, until and unless they totally capitulated to western interests, and started putting the economic or geopolitical interests of the US or UK ahead of their own citizens’ welfare.
So, who do we see them praising? Rebel groups whom their governments finance like the “moderate rebels” who have destroyed Syria or the “anti-Soviet warrior” who put his “army on the road to peace” - Osama bin Laden, or puppet dictators like Suharto in Indonesia, Augusto Pinochet in Chile, or Yahya Khan and Zia ul-Haq in Pakistan, who turned their countries into American client states and killed anyone who opposed such a move with sadistic glee.
And who do they have a history of vilifying? Independent-minded leaders of independent-minded countries, who questioned and challenged the geopolitical defaults of their time. Olof Palme of Sweden for using the country’s diplomatic neutrality to criticise the Vietnam War. Urho Kekkonen of Finland for refusing to join NATO because the neighbouring USSR was its largest trading partner.
The mild-mannered Salvador Allende of Chile, for nationalising his country’s copper industry. Indira Gandhi, for standing up against genocide in East Pakistan and supporting the Mukti Bahini for Bangladeshi independence. Kenneth Kaunda, the Gandhian of Zambia who stood up to white supremacist states like Rhodesia and Apartheid South Africa. Kwame Nkrumah, the African nationalist leader of Ghana, who sent troops to support decolonisation in the Congo and supported black activism against the white-minority-ruled Smith regime in Rhodesia. There was not a kind word among the western establishment for these leaders until their funerals.
Foreign Media - An Integral Part of Their Countries’ Geopolitical Establishment
The Establishment is not necessarily made up of the individual politicians who are in charge for 4 or 5 years at a time. The Establishment comprises individuals and institutions in the worlds of academia, business, policy, and the media, who use their social capital to get what they want in the long-term, regardless of which individual politicians are in power.
The Economist or NYT or Washington Post may superficially oppose Trump as a candidate or politician, but when his administration flexes its muscles to threaten a regime change in Venezuela or war with Iran, they quickly fall into line without question, because that is what they have been conditioned to do.
To them, American exceptionalism and imperialism is always good and worth supporting, regardless if it’s with a liberal, humanitarian, Democratic face, or a neo-conservative, realist, Republican face.
The reason these major publications are considered part of the Establishment in the west is that they unquestioningly toe the line of their state’s geopolitical interests. There are many famous examples of this, even beyond India.
For one, after the 1996 Presidential elections in Russia, where Gennady Zyuganov of the reformed Communist Party of the Russian Federation was the clear favourite, Bill Clinton deployed the US government to support massive electoral fraud in favour of the drunken and incompetent Boris Yeltsin.
Ignoring the mass sentiments among the Russian populace and administration that this election was rigged, the American media approvingly echoed Clinton when he called the election of Yeltsin a “victory for democracy”. It became such a common fact that the 1996 election was fraudulent, that even President Dimitry Medvedev could say so out at a meeting with Opposition leaders in 2012, to their agreement.
And then, after enough time has passed for the damage to Russia’s economy, society, and geopolitical power to be complete, the Establishment media then reports with surprise at the revelations that the electoral victory of the candidate they were cheerleading was a sham, with headlines like “Rewriting Russian History: Did Boris Yeltsin Steal the 1996 Presidential Election?”
The establishment media also wholeheartedly approved the “shock therapy” neo-liberal reforms that western experts imposed on Russia under Yeltsin, which led to a collapse in society during the “wild 90s”, as the reins of the economy were handed over to a criminal class of elite oligarchs through botched and fraudulent privatisations, while healthcare and welfare standards fell so dramatically that the country’s death rate skyrocketed, and still has not normalised 25 years later.
When a senior executive at Morgan Stanley or fellow at an American think-tank says that they dream of a Ronald Reagan for India, to create “big-bang reforms” and a “free market economy”, this is what such a dream looks like in reality – an anarchic handover of the economy to a criminal elite hand-in-glove with foreign interests. Like the Manmohan Singh era in India, but worse.
This lost decade was an unmitigated demographic and socio-economic disaster for the vast majority of Russian people, but according to The Economist, it was probably worth it because liberal western economic values and “reforms” had prevailed, and for the US policy and business establishment, it was worth it because not only did the only other superpower since the Second World War implode, American companies got to profit from dirt-cheap privatisations and opening another market for McDonald’s and Coca-Cola.
But then, surprise surprise, 20 years after all that uncritical cheerleading, Jeffrey Sachs, the then-Harvard economics professor who was portrayed in the west as the charming, boyish face of Russia’s economic reforms, came out to say:
These are also the publications who unquestioningly consumed and regurgitated the lies and fabricated intelligence that led to the Iraq War, ‘manufacturing consent’ among their readership (to use the term popularised by Noam Chomsky) to approve a war against a secular country that had nothing to do with radical Islamism behind the 11 September attacks.
A war that destabilised the entire Middle East and led to the resurgence of Al-Qaeda in Iraq and Syria and the creation of ISIS, whose atrocities have now spanned Paris to Colombo. And again, about 15 years later, once the damage is done and short-term US foreign policy goals completed, the editors and journalists involved suddenly find their consciences, pretend to introspect, and promise to do better by ‘speaking truth to power’, before wholeheartedly and blindly supporting US intervention in Libya, Syria, and Venezuela all over again.
Our Constitution Was Written to End Foreign and Elitist Rule, Not Ossify It
For any country not in the club of wealthy, powerful nations and their client states, it is absurd to crave or even expect the approval of the Anglosphere and their media. Like the apocryphal story of the Chataka or pied cuckoo which only drinks falling rainwater, and would rather die of thirst than drink from the ground, we can look up to the west for as long as we like, waiting for approval to trickle down, but it won’t come.
Contrary to the myths about the Chataka only drinking rainwater, they quite happily drink water from lakes and ponds. So, rather than waiting for our would-be neo-colonial masters to trickle down some elite approval our way, our ruling classes have a huge lake to drink from – the approval of 1.3 billion Indians, which is more important than that of a few dozen editors and journalists in London, New York, and Lodhi Road. All they need to do to access this lake of mass approval, is bend down from their mighty pedestals.
That is, after all, why in 1950, India chose to become a democracy, so that our legislators and ministers would reflect the values, aspirations, and democratic will of our population, rather than disenfranchised masses being ruled directly by a bureaucracy of civil servants hand-picked by the elite through an exam and interview, like in colonial India or Confucian China.
Ambedkar and the Constituent Assembly designed a Constitution that would allow a sovereign India to act in accordance with the interests of its people - be they rich or poor, educated or illiterate, traditional or westernised. It was not written for the benefit of other countries, or merely as a tool to allow an indigenous English-educated elite to take over from British administrators’ roles in the Indian Civil Service.
It was a radical, revolutionary document to empower citizens, not a reactionary, elitist manifesto to protect abstract values from the base passions of the masses. It was a repudiation of the inscription (which still exists) above the main entrance to Sir Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker’s Central Secretariat on Raisina Hill, which exemplified British colonialism:
The results of the election have come out this week, and with them, those among the chattering classes and Twitterati who will now shame Indian voters for having voted the wrong way. And will now wring their hands about how they are ashamed to be Indian, and how their dreams of becoming US and UK citizens are dashed because over there, they will now be painted with the same brush as these hoi polloi because the voters have delivered a result that displeases the western masters.
So, they smear poor voters who cannot fight back in TV studios or opinion columns as “illiterate”, “parochial” “bigots”, for having voted based on their own experiences, aspirations, and interests, rather than voting the way the media and establishment tried to shame and force them into.
Just so you know, there’s nothing wrong with acting in your own self-interest. We live in a capitalist democracy in a realist, pragmatist geopolitical world, where if you don’t act in your own self-interest, you get walked over and squashed by those who do. The system expects and incentivises individuals, companies, and countries to do so, and punishes those who do not.
We do not need to put western coverage of India onto a pedestal. Nor the opinions of their experts, be they westerners or Indians. They aren’t sending correspondents or academics to India or even hiring Indian staff as some sort of big altruistic favour to us, out of their generosity, to share the secrets of their successful society. They are sending and hiring these people to achieve their own goals, and it is imperative that one recognises that.
Indian voters do not need western lenses to tell us how to understand our society around us, we have our own eyes, we have our own experiences, and most people back themselves to trust these experiences, and vote for whoever makes sense in this light, not because this newspaper or that magazine or some celebrity tells us to.
Some urban bourgeois Indians have voted for the Congress, some for the BJP, some even for the CPI(M) or MNS. Some rural, subaltern Indians have voted for the BSP, JD(U), SP, RJD, and some for the BJP or Congress. Some of these votes translated into seats, some did not. Nevertheless, each of these voices is equal and legitimate.
And in a country with equal voting rights for all – one vote for each citizen, shaming an overwhelmingly poor electorate for expressing their democratic aspirations by having voted for the “wrong” candidate is denying the subaltern their voice – whether it was when they elected the BSP’s Mayawati as Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh in the 2000s, or whether it is the NDA winning close to 350 seats in the Lok Sabha in 2019. Criticise the policies, parties, and candidates, if you must, but criticising the voters is punching below the belt.
It is not a “victory of democracy” only when your favourite candidate wins. Every free, fair, and peaceful election where everyone’s vote is treated equally is a victory for democracy, regardless of the result. Our eminent intellectuals and media personalities famously ask, “Can the subaltern speak?” But when they do speak through the ballot and say the “wrong” things or make the “wrong” choices in the eyes of those who think they know best, these same champions of the poor either ignore or discredit their voices as those of “illiterate bigots”, who do not value democracy, be it Pankaj Mishra’s hand-wringing about the dangers of WhatsApp being in the hands of the poor, or the Congress spokesperson who went on television to say that their party did not do well in North India because voters there are uneducated. And quite frankly, the voters respond by returning the favour - ignoring and embarrassing the establishment media every time they speak.
Although this is not a new phenomenon, it is as old as our democracy. In 1977, in response to a question from a foreign journalist about the challenge of democracy in a country plagued by an urban-rural divide, illiteracy, and the lack of a highly-informed public, or the need to impose certain values upon them from the top-down, the epitome of moderation in political and personal life, Morarji Desai had this to say, with an eloquence and accent that would confound those who think speaking English is a monopoly of Congress leaders like Nehru and Tharoor:
The election results have only served to reinforce that the average Indian voter does not care about what happens in this Anglophone bubble, since they consume news and opinions in Indian languages, not English.
And to these voters, even when they do hear that their country or Prime Minister made the news abroad, it does not matter to them whether the portrayal was positive or negative, the man or woman on the street often (much to the chagrin of the NDTV senior reporter holding the microphone) says it makes them proud to see that the world is finally paying attention to India. “Modi ne desh ka naam roshan kiya,” was heard from ordinary voters across cities and villages around the country over the elections. Maybe the old adage is true, that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
Perhaps their lack of exposure to Macaulayan education has kept their immunity to auto-Orientalism intact.
Or, it may just be that it is these voters in villages and smaller towns, outside the gated communities of our metros, who understand the age-old advice (attributed by some to Mahatma Gandhi and some to trade unionist Nicholas Klein) on this matter better than anyone else:
Vox populi, vox Dei (The voice of the people is the voice of God).
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