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A special collective

Glimpses of a counter-Establishment sphere
An opinion poll conducted last year by India Today suggested that 54% of Indian citizens believed in an organised ‘love jihad’ conspiracy to convert Hindu women to Islam.
An opinion poll conducted last year by India Today suggested that 54% of Indian citizens believed in an organised ‘love jihad’ conspiracy to convert Hindu women to Islam.

Asim Ali   |   Published 24.12.22, 03:39 AM

Ye public hai, sab jaanti hai” (The public knows everything). I have heard variations of this dialogue in countless Hindi films. But how true is this notion of the perceptive and knowledgeable public anywhere in the world? The book, Public Opinion, written in 1922 by the American writer, Walter Lippmann, can be one starting point.

Lippmann had been an adviser to President Woodrow Wilson and was an integral part of the Committee on Public Information during World War I, the American government’s propaganda arm meant to drum up popular support for the war effort. In Public Opinion, Lippmann argued that the public was, by and large, ignorant and prejudiced and thought about the world using stereotypes (“pictures in their head”) rather than on the basis of empirical information. Attacking the conventional view of citizens as “inherently competent” to direct public affairs, Lippmann compared the knowledge of the public on political issues to a bewildered man in the theatre — “the public will arrive in the middle of the third act and will leave before the last curtain, having stayed just long enough perhaps to decide who is the hero and who is the villain of the piece.” At another place, he likened the average American to a “deaf spectator in the back row” of a sporting event: “he does not know what is happening, why it is happening, and what ought to happen.”


This was not the fault of the public, Lipmann wrote; it was simply the case that contemporary capitalist society had grown too big and complex for crucial events to be mastered by the average citizen. The prominent democratic theorists of the 20th century took Lippmann’s criticisms of the misinformed citizenry seriously but disagreed with his prescription of a government ruled by an elite technocracy. Among other things, they argued, a rise in public education levels coupled with ever-broadening arrays of information outlets guided by technological advancements would produce at least some approximation of the informed and knowledgeable citizenry demanded by the democratic ideal.

Well, a hundred years on, it is still an open question whether Lippmann was right or his critics. The political science scholarship of recent decades has convincingly demonstrated that more information does not necessarily lead to an enlightened citizenry; it can just as likely lead to greater partisanship and ignorance. More informed voters are better at rationalising and articulating their political views rather than arriving at a ‘reasoned’ political view.

An opinion poll conducted last year by India Today suggested that 54% of Indian citizens believed in an organised ‘love jihad’ conspiracy to convert Hindu women to Islam. A phantom created by the sangh parivar a little more than a decade back is now the majority view in the country. Sure, we can blame the public, we can blame the sangh parivar institutions, and we can blame the large parts of mainstream media which, pretty brazenly, advance the agenda of the Bharatiya Janata Party and speak the sangh’s vocabulary. But we must also ask: where is the progressive public, which could be expected at this stage in our democracy to resist the assault on our democratic institutions and the alarming level of demonisation of our minority communities?

The mainstream public sphere in the country has now been thoroughly co-opted into the right-wing regime. But there are enclaves of progressive public spheres in Indian states (such as Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka) where writers, intellectuals, journalists, film directors, resist the Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan hegemony, produce work that is imbued with a progressive idiom, and find a significant audience because they speak in a regional language. The recent Kannada film, Kantara, steeped in an anti-feudal iconography, has exploded at the box office and become the second highest grossing Kannada film of all time.

Then there is the liberal public sphere, which speaks in English and comprises respectable newspapers and NDTV, the sole liberal news channel recently bought out by the businessman, Gautam Adani. This liberal public sphere never had a large audience but its authority came from proximity to power, or at least having its voice echo in the corridors of power. This is no longer the case.

While this liberal public sphere always aimed for the ideal set out by the German philosopher, Jürgen Habermas, of an enlightened discourse where every viewpoint is discussed fairly, a consensus is reached using the tools of reason, and public-spirited demands articulated and forwarded to the State, the reality was messier. The Habermasian ideal required a liberal-bourgeoise citizenry formed in opposition to State control whose interests were largely autonomous of State imperatives. Yet the liberal public sphere in India (both during the Nehruvian and the post-Nehruvian eras) was deeply connected to the State with caste-class ties, and dependent on the State for its economic interests. It decried every progressive change in Indian politics: socialist parties in the 1960s and 1970s, Mandal politics in the 1980s, and welfare politics post-1990s. It was all ‘too much populism’ much like the ‘too much democracy’ condemned by the former Niti Aayog chairman.

Think of NDTV. A high-quality public institution, which exhibited a devotion to facts that is rare on television now. But if one looks back at its debates now, it is hard not to feel a sort of cringe. A typical NDTV debate would be like the one Barkha Dutt hosted in 2014 on ‘love jihad’. The BJP spokesman gets to paint an ominous picture of widespread love jihad; Dutt questions his claims, then turns to the Samajwadi Party spokesman and criticises him for ignoring “the spike in these cases” (a lie), and accuses the SP of ‘playing the Muslim card’ like the BJP plays the Hindu card. In the end, the episode turns out to be not an exercise in debunking falsehood but in making it a respectable topic of debate.

There are signs of some hope. A progressive public sphere is taking shape in Hindi on YouTube channels which have mushroomed over the last few years. The entry of the former NDTV anchor, Ravish Kumar, an excellent storyteller who commands a huge audience, is likely to spur further growth of this space. The philosopher, John Dewey, argued that the ‘public’ is created in response to the actions of the State when citizens club together and articulate a discourse to push back on the constraints imposed by the State. In this sense, this counter-Establishment sphere is being driven by the coercive nature of the BJP regime, which is pushing large groups of people towards this sphere. Popular movements such as the anti-CAA protests and the farmers’ movement, as well as the almost complete right-wing co-option of the mainstream media, have helped platforms like these (as well as digital English outlets like Wire, Scroll, Newslaundry, Quint) shore up disillusioned audiences.

There have been many criticisms of this emerging progressive public sphere too, not all of them invalid. It is too one-sided, more concerned with storytelling than reporting facts, and journalists have become celebrities with their own legion of fans. But that is part of how counter-Establishment spheres are formed, a chaotic space where ‘us versus them’ discursive frames and a feeling of crisis are often employed to generate a feeling of shared community. The historian, Daniel Hallin, argued that all media platforms function in three ideological ‘spheres’ that inform their reporting: consensus, legitimate controversy, and deviance. All journalistic spheres are, at base, storytelling spheres, just that the parameters for what counts as ‘consensus’ and what counts as ‘deviance’ in their stories might be different for this counter-Establishment sphere as compared to the conventional liberal sphere. Its development must be welcomed not just as a necessity for our times but also as a belated acknowledgement that the democratic discourse requires the engagement of more than just an amorphous upper-middle class.

Asim Ali is a political researcher and columnist

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