Sunday, December 6, 2009

On democratic delusions and the politics of publicity

The crucial but complex relationship between the public and political parties has been under extreme pressure in recent past due to the lack of an efficient, reliable and dynamic exchange between the two sections. The existing setting was lowering the credibility of politics in general and was looking somewhat ‘risky’ for democratic progress. To come out from this position, it was required to expose and amend the limitations and problematic aspects of the existing form and find out a newer form. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, capitalist lackeys have found an excellent opportunity to popularize the idea that a strategic partnership between democracy and market economy constitutes the favorable conditions essential for economic growth. During the same time, in the year 1991, India has started implementing its liberalization policies. A major shift in the political landscape was also taking place. The country that had tasted only a single-party regime for 25 years since the first general elections in 1952 had started to experience various shades of coalition governance. Since the 1989 general elections, this tendency has found itself a firm foothold. Though the 2009 general elections have given a decisive mandate for the Congress Party, its share of the popular vote in 2009 has increased only by a mere two per cent from the 2004 general elections. The changing situation with its variants has fundamentally distorted the relationship between public and political parties. The political arena has been altered into a keenly competing market where essential marketing mechanisms are allowed to regulate the system for carrying out the ‘right’ message in the ‘right’ place at the ‘right’ time. Some choice marketing phrases like relationship, credibility, loyalty and motivation are frequently being heard from the everyday political talks.

The ruling ideas of every age have always been the ideas of the ruling class. Bourgeois analysts today are spawning lot of hope around a market driven symbiotic model between the public and the political parties. The analysts feel that this model, under an extensive presence of the ‘free’ media, will strengthen and eventually improve the democratic institutions, its representatives and instruments of democracy promotion. Toeing the line, political doctrines are being shaped according to bazaar rules, ideas and strategies. It has also started to significantly regulate and shape opinions of the Indian public.

Though public opinion germinates in the imagination of the public mind, “It is not the consciousness of man that determines their existence,” as Marx has famously said, “but, on the contrary, it is their social existence that determines their consciousness.” Public opinion is the human response to a wide range of feelings that originates from socio-political relations; from the conflicts, choices, ambitions, compromises, purposes and uncertainties of human life. But the image that appears to the human mind from the varied aspects of the social structure can also mislead the people in their dealing with the outer world. This happens if interpretation of that image is shaped into a pattern of mental stereotypes that is influenced by preconceptions and prejudices. All sorts of complex human issues like individual aspirations, economic interests, class views, enmity and hatred, religious and racial prejudices distort the way people see, think and act.

Besides, people’s access to information is always obstructed by the establishment. Having supreme control over the access of facts, the authorities of establishment consciously decide how much the public should know. Facts are circulated in a deceptive way that prevents the public from separating the truth from the myth. On several important issues pertaining to their life, people make up their minds before the facts are verified and defined. In his major work Public Opinion, American political columnist and social critic Walter Lippmann has shown how public opinion is “pieced together out of what others have reported and what we can imagine” and depends upon “what group of facts we shall see, and in what light we shall see”. “The tendency of the casual mind” Lippmann continues, “is to pick out or stumble upon a sample which supports or defies its prejudices, and then to make it the representative of a whole class.”

Public opinions are therefore, rarely spontaneous and mostly subjective. Opinions formed from disingenuous facts mixed with emotions, instincts, and prejudices do not remain just as opinion but transforms into delusion.

Delusions consistently influence the consciousness of the public and deprive them to perceive reality in its true sense. Fences of naïve political perceptions are erected all around the public mind that hinders them to appropriately make right decisions for their own future. It is widely acknowledged that public opinions are the deciding factor in a democracy. But delusion concerning democracy is extremely dangerous in the sense that it can smooth the progress of fascism. By damaging the rational and moral fiber of the public mind, democratic delusions drive them to follow demagogues. Experiences from history have always shown that demagogues have initially secured a following among the petty bourgeoisie and the intelligentsia – the ‘thinking section’ of the society. Their power and influence get reinforced when they further appeal to the emotions, instincts, and prejudices of other sections of the masses through a non-centralized, awkward and discrete manner. Fascism was born in Italy under Benito Mussolini as a political revolution and was blessed by the people for being ‘too good to be true’. The hypnotic and rosy beginning did not take long to turn into disillusionment. Similar delusional behavior of the German public had immensely helped the Nazi Party to grow popular. By mixing actual dangers with imaginary scares, the fascist demagogues have always created an atmosphere where the bewildered masses lose their ability for the constructive use of reason. The mass psyche is weighed down with meandering, invisible, and perplexing facts.


In the recently concluded Maharashtra assembly poll, Raj Thackeray’s three-year-old party Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) has won thirteen seats including six seats in Mumbai alone. From the day of its birth, the MNS and its maverick boss have continuously been in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. In the name of safeguarding Marathi culture and the rights of the Marathi Manoos (Marathi people), the party has earned national fame by instigating assault on North Indian taxi drivers, shopkeepers and hawkers, by beating up North Indian students who appeared for the all-India Railway Recruitment exam. MNS has objected to Chaat Puja celebration of the Bihari people and attacked cinema halls in Mumbai, Thane and Nasik exhibiting Bhojpuri films. (Source) The Indian IT major Infosys had to stall their expansion and shift 3000 of their employees from Pune as MNS supporters attacked on North Indian labourers in the construction site. The reputation of MNS got a huge boost when Raj Thackeray was successful in reinstating the sacked employees of Jet Airways by threatening the management with dare consequences.

MNS maintained its reputation when its newly elected legislators physically assaulted the Samajwadi Party legislator Abu Asim Azmi inside the Maharashtra Assembly House during the swearing in ceremony. Abu Azmi’s offense was that he was taking his oath in Hindi – India’s national language. The MNS legislators later justified their act by proclaiming that Abu Azmi has insulted the ‘Marathi Manoos’ by taking his oath in Hindi.

From the election results, it is apparent that MNS has obtained the consent of a sizeable section of the Maharashtra public. The regional chauvinism of ‘Marathi pride’ propagated by Raj Thackeray and his party and its street-fighting method of politics has favorably captured their imagination.


On 30 December 2006, Mamata Banerjee was on her way to address a rally against the proposed Tata Motors car project at Singur where the state administration, apprehending trouble, had already imposed prohibitory orders. The police stopped her from entering the area, bundled her into a car and brought back to Kolkata. To condemn this ‘barbaric’ incident and register protest against the assault on their supremo, furious Trinamool Congress (TMC) legislators decided to discharge their rage on the Bengal Assembly House. The vandalism that went on inside and outside the House later was unparalleled in the legislative history of Bengal. TMC legislators overturned tables, smashed furniture and microphones off their holders and flung the broken pieces at the ruling Left Front legislators. Six legislators belonging to the Left Front, two staff of the Assembly and two journalists were left injured during the incident. During the extensive vandalism, one TMC legislator was seen ‘busy breaking furniture and jumping from table to table’. Some fetched eggs and chicken legs from the Assembly canteen and hurled them towards treasury benches. One CPI(M) legislator was slapped. Another female legislator of the TMC ‘kept hollering abusive slogans against the chief minister’ and ‘threatened CPI(M) legislators with dire consequences’. (Source)

Two years later following the Bengal Assembly ruckus, this same female legislator, known to have proximity with the TMC chieftain, was once more in the news as the key performer of another unmatched incidence. She had locked at least thirteen policemen including the inspector-in-charge (IC) inside a police station in Nodkhali of South 24 Paraganas district. Much to the delight of the TMC clan, she then frantically went on to hurl abusive and filthy language while threatening the IC in full view of TV cameras. Enthused by their leader, her followers snatched the IC’s badge and manhandled other policemen.

Over the last few years, TMC and its rumbustious leaders have received effective consent from a considerable section of the general public, media and business bosses, the intelligentsia and bureaucrats. Mamata Banerjee and some other minor TMC leaders have become central ministers with ‘significant’ portfolios. Political astrologers have predicted that TMC is going to rule Bengal following the 2011 assembly votes.


The above two gems from the contemporary history of democratic India are cited here to reveal a blooming political culture that is steadily receiving popular support among the citizens of this country. The hooliganism of MNS workers establishes a fascistic mindset behind the act which has many similarities with the actions of the Trinamool cohorts in Bengal. What encourages Raj Thackeray to supervise the organized hooliganism of MNS activists has also been the pivotal motivation to the awkward and rancorous Mamata Banerjee and her pet ruffians – the ambition to gain quick popularity and votes. Both have perceived that showing little or no respect for the institutions and practices of democracy could also be put into effect as a publicity tool that has the potential to capture the mind and hearts of the ‘stupid’ public and deliver political mileage. The regional bigotry of MNS supremo and the imperious conducts of the Trinamool chieftain, their calculated attempt to take politics away from the democratic framework is therefore a deliberate choice – to obtain publicity.

Publicity is basically a political device which dispenses a massive influence on the society. It systematically works upon mass anxiety and offers a superior alternative to overcome the anxiety. It also works upon emotion. Emotional reactions motivate and guide the people for their future thoughts and actions. It gradually builds up a physiological mechanism or a mind model with the assumptions about what is important in life. This mind model is also attached to various kinds of incentives. Any challenge to this mental status quo faces stern resistance as it threatens the established routine of lives.

In his highly influential work Ways of Seeing, the English art critic John Berger has revealed that, “without publicity capitalism could not survive” because “publicity is the life of this culture.” Publicity needs to be dynamic and must be continually renewed and made up-to-date. It is also closely related with certain ideas about freedom. Berger further observes that publicity is not merely an assembly of competing tactics since all forms of publicity follow a certain logic which confirms and enhances one another. Publicity talks only about the future. It can offer different choices but makes just a single proposal – to transform human lives for a better future, to make them feel good. Publicity helps to put up a mirage by filling the public mind with “glamorous day-dreams” because existing social contradictions “make the individual feel powerless”. The choice of day-dreaming becomes a substitute for political choice. It is this key reason, Berger argued, why publicity remains credible. According to him, “Publicity helps to mask and compensate for all that is undemocratic within society.”

The way people perceive things are influenced by what they know or what they believe. Public opinions are manufactured through gradual, systematic but insidious application of publicity. The manufactured opinions are then set into action to influence and control the courses of the land. The best way to control the minds of people is to control their perceptions. The fundamental purpose of publicity therefore is to manufacture fake realities and deliver them right into the people’s mind. The media, governments, big corporations, reactionary religious and political groups are all hand in glove in this manufacturing process.

Manufacturing of consent, as Walter Lippmann has depicted, is a revolution “infinitely more significant than any shifting of economic power”. He has further explained the design in the following passage:

“Within the life of the generation now in control of affairs, persuasion has become a self-conscious art and a regular organ of popular government. None of us begins to understand the consequences, but it is no daring prophecy to say that the knowledge of how to create consent will alter every political calculation and modify every political premise. Under the impact of propaganda, not necessarily in the sinister meaning of the word alone, the old constants of our thinking have become variables. It is no longer possible, for example, to believe in the original dogma of democracy; that the knowledge needed for the management of human affairs comes up spontaneously from the human heart.”

When a political party gains popular support by encouraging its band of cohorts to callously violate basic democratic principles, when a political party which wishes to acquire its legitimacy through popular votes is found to have no real faith in democratic institutions or democratic practices, it squarely indicates the ineffectuality and fallacy of the democratic system. It also raises serious doubts about the mindset of the people who sanction the craven acts. But whether the people are to be blamed or they are “only a pawn in their game” is the pertinent question here.

In the disguise of democratic freedom, consents will continue to be manufactured in a deliberate way “under the impact of propaganda” to “alter every political calculation and modify every political premise”. The MNS and TMC instances might sound cliché and petty in a wider context. But the stakes caught up in these instances are high and serious. It was therefore necessary to rip the topic to bare its hidden layers.