Making Sense of the Narratives
The Competence Cauldron

Making Sense of the Narratives

Ravi Kumar Pillai

Ravi Kumar Pillai

When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:7)

As we listen to the shrill accusations and posturing that constitute the political discourse in India, one is reminded of the above words of Jesus Christ. He was speaking to those who levelled fierce allegations of adultery against the woman they brought before him. In the muddled political space, who is to blame for rendering the political pitching in India bereft of ethics, mutual respect and honesty of purpose? Is anyone having the moral right to throw the first stone?

Not just in India, in many of the open democracies too, there is a palpable regression to ultra-conservatism. Hitting below the belt and positioning fabricated lies as obvious truths are tactical games politicians play with impunity. There is an orchestrated attempt to re-define the extreme right as the new normal. One can argue that overzealous liberal politicians have pushed the silent middle class too far into inconsequence. This could perhaps have hastened a majoritarian rebound, fanned by an opportunistic sleight of hand by the conservative forces.

White middle-class voters bought into the narrative presented by Donald Trump and backed his protectionist agenda in the last US elections. Similarly, the rhetoric of Narendra Modi swayed the predominantly young audiences in India and handed him consecutive wins in general elections - in 2014 and 2019.

Both in the US and in India, the electoral victories could be credited at least partly to impactful story-telling laced with clever exaggerations and interpretational flexibility like what Bollywood Directors with a knack for box-office success would do. In the US, the economy seems to be booming and validates Trumpian policies in the eyes of the average American voter. The Indian ground reality however does not match the dreams painted vividly to a desperate citizenry. Economic performance has lagged not only the promises but also the potential. Nevertheless, the core political narrative has hardened into a schism of “We and They” with disturbing portents for stability, development and shared values. Where shall the buck stop for this distorted and risky narrative?

Before deep diving into the political fault lines of contemporary India, let us explore the role that narratives do play in shaping public opinion. Story-telling skills are an effective communication technique, equally important in corporate, academic, governance and public service domains. Most of the successful corporate turnaround and transformation programs happen on the back of inspiring narratives articulated by change leaders.

Pathbreaking mass movements in history were driven by the power and influence of masterly narrative building. Mohandas Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King used simple anecdotes and examples which the man on the street could relate to and motivated diverse crowds to commit to shared vision of an inclusive and enabling future for all. Parables are central to the soul-rousing messages by prophets, saints and spiritual leaders. Holy Books of most Religions are replete with exemplary illustrations of the triumph of righteousness. Surely, the cultural history of story-telling is as old as humanity.

Communication is not merely an exchange of words. When we communicate, we share imagination, emotions and experiences. Essentially communication is a behavioural process. Human behaviour still demonstrates many animal instincts. Our brains respond to messages by looking for the stories that can connect to our past experiences and imprinted perceptions. There are several psychological reasons why stories are so powerful to communicate ideas. Stories are capable of establishing an instant resonance with the brain. Stories can paint a virtual imagery that the human mind can relate to. They facilitate convincing interpretations of the messages received.

Let us look at the contemporary political narrative in India to understand the role of story-telling in shaping the political perceptions and behaviours. In the lexicon of the prevailing political slugfest in India, certain keywords have assumed critical importance. Nationalism, appeasement and dissent to name just three of them.

The aggressive posturing of the Hindutva zealots revolves around the narrative of exclusionary Nationalism. In this narrative, Muslims are identified with Pakistan, Christians with Western world and the Left is accused of extra-territorial loyalty to socialist “stereotypes”. Their storytelling is often laced with exaggeration, nostalgia for lost glory and reinforcement of a notional first claim on the legacy of India for the majority community.

The narrative crafted by the right-wing ideologies has inherent fault-lines. India is still a collection of sub-nationalities. The nation is too large to be fitted into a regimented and uniform society. Diversity is at the core of the idea of India - a vast land mass with immense variety in culture, habits, customs, traditions, languages, religious practices and power equations.

The concept of nationalism that someone at the bottom of the pyramid can identify with is more emotional than political. This lively and personalised idea of nationalism revolves around the affinity, familiarity and comfort of his or her immediate neighbourhood. Pushing for a pan-India and majoritarian nationalism could clash with the hyper-local comfort zone that provides a blanket of safety and sustenance to communities. For example, a tribal in a deep Chhattisgarh forest can hardly identify with the need for clearing the trees, levelling the ground for the new mammoth factory to be erected and trooping in outsiders to take over the serenity of his environment. In one narrative he is an obstruction of development, while in another he is a defiant fighter for preserving his identity. Who are we to judge the efficacy of a community’s perceptions when we hardly try to look at things from their eyes?

The realities of this localised social crucible are key building blocks to the larger national identity. Reeling under the trauma of post-partition animosity and violence, local communities got established with an overhang of religious and caste identities, especially in the North. A more uniform mingling of diverse people into communities that stay, play and work together right in the beginning of making the New India could have created a more accommodative society.

Politicians found it expedient to play on the fears and apprehensions of ordinary folks to perpetuate voter loyalties. The emergence of an assertive tribal and backward voter base was also cleverly used by politicians to appropriate to themselves the ‘saviour persona’ profile. The result was the emergence of powerful families riding on the back of identity politics, vocal secularism and socialist veneer to claim an entitlement to rule.

What has happened in the 2014 elections and thereafter is the weakening of the narrative of entitlement politics. While that by itself was a welcome sign of political maturing, the alternative however has turned out to be a toxic mix of nationalism and majoritarianism. “From the frying pan to the fire” could be an overused cliché!

So much for the narrative on nationalism. Let us now look at another idea around which much of political discourse is happening. ‘Appeasement’ and its corollary, ‘vote bank’ were arguably the most debated topics over Indian social media. There is also the story in circulation about tactical voting by minorities to keep BJP away. It helps to position the party as a victim of polarisation of opposing forces though apparent unfair tactics.

Political storytelling is a nimble art and our political class are masters in incorporating instant twists and turns. We have seen the unexpected political posturing by Shiv Sena post the Maharashtra State elections recently. The narrative to justify the somersault was crafted by Sena backroom almost with the swiftness of a scriptwriter altering the climax of a soap opera right on the editing table.

Lobbying to advance the interests of business and civic communities is part of democratic process in open societies. It is legitimate and logical for interest groups of citizens to use available electoral or parliamentary opportunities to advance their collective cause. Of course, if there are malafide, manipulative and coercive practices, the law should be able to take action against the erring parties and leaders.

In the electoral saga of our country, the minorities, especially Muslims have been used by political parties consistently as mere pawns in the chess game for power. While the avowed secularists play upon the minority’s fears of majoritarianism, the Hindu Right has conveniently used Muslim community’s majority phobia to consolidate their own vote share. Both sides have pilloried the hapless society unashamedly. Only an assertive Muslim voice can call the bluff and demand their right for being treated as equal citizens who would assess and vote based on the manifestos and track record of parties. Education, empowerment and extensive participation in mainstream politics would be far more effective for Muslim citizens to assert themselves than seeking the security of cocooned sectarian identity. Hopefully the turnaround would happen from within in the not so distant future.

Dissent is equated with lack of patriotism in the Rightist narrative. Democracy cannot thrive without debate and dissent. Dissent has a large canvas and a variety of players in the Indian context. Rather than dubbing the liberals with social concern as ‘Urban Naxalites’, it is incumbent upon the Government of the day to listen, understand and accommodate as far as possible the differing viewpoints.

The primary political power play in India is between the ruling Right and the opposing Liberal Democrats for the present. A range of isolated voices by left leaning elements do exist but they have not yet assumed a critical mass to influence and impact the wider national agenda. It baffles me sometimes why even after almost a century of existence, the Left in India has not established its presence in much of the Indian heartland. Progressive discussions have been limited mostly to intellectual, artistic, academic and trade union domains. As far as political narratives go, the leftist versions thrive in isolated pockets where they have stronger connections with people. The leftist ideas are far from catching the imagination of the most needy and deprived sections of Indian society who live in the caste-dominated villages of heartland India. Their narrative therefore has little appeal for the aam aadmi in contemporary India. By demonstrating disruptive spirit and putting performance as their narrative before people, AAP has scored a march over intellectual leftism in India.

Ability to decipher and interpret the submerged, surrogate and surreal messaging of the political narratives is indeed a key citizen competence. When the average voter has courage and confidence to see through the stories and narratives, accusations and posturing, then and then only can we say loud and clear, “Democracy has arrived”

*Ravi Kumar Pillai is a practising strategy consultant, trainer, coach, mentor and start up enthusiast based in Trivandrum. He can be contacted at ravikumarpillai9@gmail.com

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The views and facts mentioned in the article are that of the author

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