The Pulwama attack, the aerial strike in response to it, the capture of an Indian Airforce Pilot, Abhinandan Varthaman and the aftermath of his return have evoked strong responses from the Indian public. While the patriotic quotient of such responses is justified yet it is necessary to highlight a problematic tendency inherent in them. For a large part of these reactions have exhibited forms of behaviour that could be characterised as a fetishism for aggression, impatience for vengeance and an ostentatious sadism. This becomes apparent by looking at the nature of commentary that has unfolded on social media platforms as well as by observing everyday interpersonal interactions following the aforestated developments. Without discounting the imperative of national security for the Indian citizen, such tendencies are reflective of a broader shift in public attitude.
So is it the case that Indians have become morepatriotic now?
As citizens of this country, present day Indians have inherited a national culture that has always eulogised the virtues and sacrifices of the jawan (soldier) and the Kisan (farmer). Figures like Kanklata Barua, Ashfaqulla Khan, Vinoba Bhava and Jayprakash Narayan have become reference points of patriotism for generations of Indians through their acts of valour. But the penchant for violence that has arisen amongst certain sections with regard to the recent developments stand in sharp relief and cannot be regarded as either patriotic or revolutionary. This is because such attitudes are rooted in hatred, affirmed by violence and gratified by fratricide. Such tendencies therefore indicate the emergence of a belligerent public consciousness. In this mode of thinking, the conscious projection of belligerence towards an external object is accompanied by a tacit endorsement of statist discourses of ‘governmentality’. Consequently, a belligerent public consciousness functions as the unconscious underwriter of a problematic internal politics.
The emergence of such a consciousness takes place through a process wherein‘public-opinion’ enters into a triple dialectic with Politics, Media and the Culture-Industry. But the character of this dialectic is not essentially affirmative. As Theodore W. Adorno had opined, dialectics could also produce negative outcomes. Today in India, mainstream media and culture-industry have significantly abdicated its critical autonomy in proportion to the hegemonisation of the political domain by the Right in the absence of any powerful counter narrative. It is therefore no accident that the protagonist in films like Buddha in a Traffic Jam and The Accidental Prime Minister also happens to be a front ranking supporter of the party in power. A similar relation could be discerned by cursorily looking at the workings of certain leading media companies. What happens therefore is a merger of interests between the three domains. Thus the design of content gets mediated in a way to subserve capital by serving politics.
This necessitates looking briefly into the politics of the contemporary Right in India. Long ago, Jean Jacques Rousseau had demarcated two realms of the self. A higher self that was sedate and guided by reason and a lower self that was aggressive, irrational and impulsive. The politics of the current milieu has proceeded through a design that seeks to appeal to the basest of human instincts. No less than the Prime Minister uses an exceptionally affronting tone while addressing actors across the border as well as across the floor of the parliament. The logic behind this rests upon a politics that attempts to incite the lower self in ways that generate a collective sense of despair. Thus by creating a farcical ‘state of nature’ the incumbent is trying to reconstitute political power and choice in ways that facilitate its further entrenchment and consolidation.
Ascendant forms of consciousness marked by hatred, vengeance, sadism that emerge through this politics are appropriated consciously as well as unconsciously by the media and culture industry. This is because the products of popular consumption ( generated by 24 hour news channels, commercial cinema) could only generate surplus if they correspond to the inclinations of the consumers. Writing about the question of music-taste under advanced capitalism, Adorno thus opined that ‘Responsible art adjusts itself to criteria which approximate judgements’. Thus the media and culture-industry not only imbibes the ascendant consciousness but also reproduces it in its content.
‘Belligerence’ thus undergoes a commodification with regard to politics and capital. And like Marx had said, commodities take a life of their own. A belligerent consciousness thus confronts a majority of Indians in their daily contact with politics, media and culture. In this way, such a mode of thinking permeates into the everyday life of the citizenry and becomes part of our everyday discourse.
A belligerent public consciousness could however never prove to be beneficial with regard to the trans-border security concerns of India. But its implications are particularly inimical with regard to the internal social economy of this country. This is because such a consciousness functions through a negation of inter-subjectivity which is extremely essential for the harmonious working of a heterogeneous society like India.
Nonetheless, it is not adequate to place liability merely on the ruling dispensation and its complicitous adjuncts in the media and culture-industry. A proportionate responsibility or the lack of it also falls upon the political opposition of the country. The failure of opposition parties in recent times to articulate a powerful counter narrative has played no small role in legitimising the ideological politics of the Right along with forms of consciousness imparted by it. The Left could have provided an ideological counterpoint but it has instead kept itself busy by playing junior partner of the Congress. The latter in turn has continued to indulge instrumentally with charisma, religion and technology while dabbling intermittently with the sterile prospect of a Mahagathbandhan.
The emergence of a belligerent public consciousness is reflective of an incipient shift away from Gandhian ideals of non-violence, humility and compassion that underpinned the foundational consensus of this polity. Is this the new India we imagined?
Abhinav P Borbora is a Political Commentator