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Lost in propaganda blitz

Friday, 18 April 2014 - 6:00am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna

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The Aam Aadmi Party has refrained from including the issue of the rights of the LGBT people in its manifesto due to strategic reasons. Explaining the absence, the party officials said that conservative voters might turn away from the party if they find it supporting the LGBT cause. The LGBTs also seem to understand the constraints of the poor party. The election meetings could have served as a wonderful platform had the party decided to talk to the people about this issue, telling them why it is important for us to ensure liberty to individuals to decide about their bodies. It would have been an educational exercise. Given the fact that people are ready to listen to this new party and its ideas, this reluctance on its part to take up this role says a lot not only about it, but also about the health of our polity.

The AAP candidate challenging Rahul Gandhi is harping on the bad condition of the roads of Amethi and lack of electricity there. One wonders whether Rahul Gandhi, in his response, would have the courage of a now-forgotten former Congressman. Abdul Ghafoor, once Chief Minister of Bihar, was campaigning in Siwan in a Parliamentary election. At a meeting, voters started complaining about the bad condition of roads and sanitation. He told them bluntly that he was there to seek their approval for his candidature for the membership of the Parliament and they should not waste their votes on him if they expected him to fix these problems. The problems they cited were something a municipal councillor was supposed to look after. It is a different story that he lost the election.

My father, now 80 years of age, recalls the parliamentary elections of 1962. It was preceded by a rare celestial event called Ashta Graha Yoga in which all the eight planets had fallen in a line. Yagnas were held all over the country to appease the Gods since this constellation was considered inauspicious by Hindu pandits. Jawaharlal Nehru was especially requested by his party colleague and renowned astrologer Pandit Sampurnanand, then the Governor of Rajasthan, not to undertake air travel. Nehru made it a point to talk about it in his election meetings and criticize this unscientific, superstitious approach to life. 'I fly closer to the stars and know more than any pandit about their movement," he would tell his electorate, largely Hindu, in his own colourful way to remove the fear of the wrath of the grahas from the minds of his Hindu electorate. Today, we do not expect any politician to take on the stars or pandits in election times and earn their displeasure.

Those were different times, we were told. Elections then were also about an education in democracy. Democracy was new to us and the political leaders considered it their duty to talk to the masses about ideologies and policies. They did understand the difference between propaganda and education. The prospect of immediate gains in elections did not prevent them from speaking on issues our current leaders dare not touch for the fear of disturbing the ruling 'common sense'. For example, no political leader would dare speak about the evils of large dams in Gujarat. Medha Patkar would not be invited by her party people in Gujarat to campaign for them. In the last elections for the Gujarat assembly I heard my diehard secular friends expressing relief that Congress leaders had not spoken about communalism since any mention of the 'C' word would turn Hindu voters away from them.

Nehru thought otherwise. In 1952, Jan Sangh, the original avatar of the BJP, was in its nascent stage. There was no need to mention it in the election campaign. Wounds of Partition had not yet healed. It was better not to touch that raw nerve of the Hindu masses. However, Nehru did not want miss this educational opportunity. The birth of a party like Jan Sangh in the early years of Indian democracy was, in his view, a dangerous signal and people needed to be told about the politics that it represented. Jan Sangh leaders would joke that they could not have found a better campaigner. Nehru, the campaigner, would talk with his constituents about the ills of all hues of communalism but would not desist from warning them that majority communalism was always most dangerous and it was the duty of the majority community to not allow it to enter the mainstream of political discourse.

The Left parties always told their members that election campaigns are to be used as opportunities for the ideological education of the masses. Losing or winning was not as important for them. But lately, we see them hobnobbing with 'bourgeois parties', striking tactical alliances and seldom talking directly with the people. They seem to have withdrawn from this educational role.

Today we see our leaders keeping away from 'sensitive issues'. Bad enough. Worse is that they are advised to do so even by our political analysts and academics. Why blame the politicians from shunning the role of educators? Look at the silence in the departments of Political Science in our universities in these noisy times. It was painful to see the campus, students and teachers not participating in this great exercise of democracy. We did see them campaigning in constituencies as representatives of different political parties but the fact that the campus restrained itself from discussing this election academically should worry us. Imagine lakhs of young men and women, first time voters, spending their best hours on the campus, trying to extract meaning from the cacophony of the propaganda war unleashed through electronic channels and other media, left on their own. My daughter wants to know as to what would change fundamentally in our lives after the chosen saviour is elected. Why have her textbooks or her school failed to anticipate this young anxiety and devise academic or educational means to address it? To leave the youth at the mercy and vagaries of their instincts and intuition and not create opportunities to examine their common sense is worse than not finishing the syllabus on time.

Human beings are not born as democratic beings. Democratic sensibilities are something societies need to cultivate. Smart propaganda cannot replace education. The failure of the 'secular parties' to meet the challenge of the propaganda blitz of the 'chosen one' has largely to do with the abdication of their role as democratic educators of the masses.

The author teaches Hindi at the University of Delhi and writes literary criticism

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