That feeling of numbness?

It was a moment of absurdity that seemed so right. A lady participant on India’s loudest news show, decided to eat lunch while others performed their usual rants. By the looks of it, she chewed every morsel the correct number of times, resulting no doubt in excellent digestion. If you happen to be one of the unfortunate residents of the little box-prisons that these shows put you in, and you are waiting endlessly for your 2 minutes of screaming time, eating a good meal is probably a productive way of spending time. And in this case, the panellist in question had the good sense to do something useful while engaging in something quite futile.

Our standards of watching TV news have sunk so low, that we have become benumbed to farce. The idea of someone matter-of-factly masticating food on TV somehow captures the spirit of media today. Absurdity deserves absurdity, as numbness prevails.

We have become numb in other ways too. Covid-19 continues to rampage through the country and there is a curious absence of analysis or a coherent critique to what we might we doing wrong as a nation and what we could do better. For something that has such a profound impact on our lives, it is strange to find such obvious indifference. Contrast this with other countries, in particular the US, where Trump’s handling of the pandemic is the primary subject under discussion. The early days saw a lot of chest-thumping (and thali-banging) about the Indian success in containing the virus. Now that India’s is 3rd in the world in terms of total cases and is showing no let-up in the number of daily fatalities, instead of a critical appraisal of the Central and State governments action, what we have is silence. The once laudatory Whatsapp groups too have moved on to other subjects.

Instead going by news channel headlines, and social media trending subjects, issues relating to Bollywood seem to be uppermost in our minds. Sushant Singh Rajput’s tragic suicide has spawned a mini-industry of vested interests that have come to the fore, and abetted by media, have hijacked the headlines on our TV channels. The case is becoming ever more surreal by the day, and our news channels show no compunction by making the wildest surmises, which change frequently.

The Covid situation is serious, and barring pockets of good news, looks like it is getting worse. It is clear that the mode of intervention by the state can make a big difference to the situation on the ground. Delhi is a good example of how when the Centre and the State governments co-operate and co-ordinate efforts, palpable improvements become possible.  In a larger sense, however, we seem to have accepted this as our new reality and have opted to find our own ways of coping. At one level, this is an admirable attitude, but we don’t show the same equanimity when it comes to other pressing issues, like endless debate about the Bollywood mafia.

The other issue which has met with muted responses is the border issue with China. By all accounts, China has encroached on and occupied a significant tract of Indian territory. The government’s response to this has gone through a bewildering series of denials, retractions, half-admissions, flashes of bravado and obfuscations. Again here, TV and social media warriors have little to say by way of critique or analysis. There is a lot of symbolic chest-thumping, fantasies of revenge and the mandatory Ajay Devgn film on the anvil, but little by way of substantive concern. 

The economy too faces an unprecedented crisis. We were hardly in the best shape before Covid-19 struck, and things have become considerably worse now. Even allowing for the fact that given its fiscal constraints, the government does not enjoy too many options, what is striking is that there is such little pressure on it to do better. Strangely, there was more pressure on the government before the crisis than there is now. 

What seems to occupy the headlines, from the Bollywood mafia, are the political shenanigans in Rajasthan. Here too, it is interesting how we have become completely indifferent to the everyday phenomenon of buying legislators. In the last few months, we have seen numerous attempts, successful and unsuccessful of toppling governments by getting MLAs to switch sides. There was a time when such ‘defections’ (a word we never use anymore) excited strong critical comment when the phenomenon of Ayaram-Gayaram was seen to be a direct threat of democracy. Today it is described in a completely different vocabulary, ‘masterstroke’, ‘political genius’ and “Chankaya-niti’, are some of the favoured descriptions.

What has caused this large-scale passivity, this ability to accept so much without asking questions? We celebrate empty symbolic victories and brush aside substantive failures. One can explain media pliability in political terms, but how does one make sense of societal indifference? The power of charismatic authoritarianism is that it overwhelms our critical faculties with symbolic reward. Banging thalis to combat Covid and banning TikTok to show the Chinese their place are part of this new toolkit that substitutes substance with symbols, and facts with narratives. A new pantheon of heroes and enemies, concepts and ideals is constructed, which become our new yardstick. Institutions enable rather than regulate the powerful, and the media aggressively cheerleads this new direction.

This is not to make the case that governments must be criticised for everything that goes wrong in society, but for the need for sober reflection on the critical questions of the day. The recent announcement of the NEP, for instance, is a substantive move that calls for measured analysis, but the subject is found to be too real to be discussed. Currently, the power of the dominant narrative is so strong that it sweeps everything that comes before it. As things stand, we could live in a state of permanent numbness, coming to life only as cheerleaders, blind followers or frustrated critics. 

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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