Put the Public back into the Public Discourse
The imagination and collective life of a nation are defined in large part by its public discourse. We need to rescue India's conversation with itself from petty partisanship.
Published in The Mint
The imagination and collective life of a nation are defined in large part by its public discourse. In a democracy, it is the public discourse, which provides the dialectical space for the back and forth necessary to evolve consensus to renew or build new normative frameworks. It is the public discourse through which new ideas and innovations are mainstreamed. Public discourse is what allows ordinary people the space for expression and engagement in our collective life and what gives the citizenry the ability to prioritise and set the boundaries within which governance decisions are made. However the public discourse in our country is no longer playing its role of educating or providing space for dialectical engagement among citizens and between citizens and the government. Instead our public discourse is doing the opposite - dividing people into partisan groups, spreading disinformation, mainstreaming hate and bigotry, and assaulting the citizenry on a daily basis with nonsense - events and individuals - pitchforked into the national spotlight with the only aim of mass distraction and confusion.
Some people justify this surfeit of nonsense which has overtaken our public discourse as “democratization”. It is said that elites have lost their gatekeeping powers and this cacophony is the inevitable chaos created by an influx of new voices. This explanation is unconvincing. It is not democratisation when the new set of voices are merely reacting to the agenda set elsewhere. Nor is it democratization when the responses are constrained to expressions of support or opposition for the protagonists. Most importantly, it is not democratization when the public discourse is overwhelmed with manufactured issues irrelevant to people’s daily lives thus disconnecting them from having an opinion or mobilising on issues related to governance and vision for the country. What is attempted to be explained as democratization is a calibrated ecosystem between the political class, television news and social media platforms driven by power, profit and bad faith. For television news media, cobbling together panel discussions with “spokespersons” or supporters from various political parties is an easy tactic which requires zero intellectual, time or monetary investment but provides limitless hours of programming. This ecosystem serves the ruling party but opposition political parties too have engendered this through a model of “professional” communication where articulation is almost always divorced from actual organizational decision-making and political programs. Social media platforms have facilitated weaponization of their platforms, willfully spreading disinformation, obscuring the distinction between vetted information and propaganda and undermining the integrity of the public discourse because this provides a fertile source of growth and engagement.
The resultant discourse is one in which an ordinary person can enter only within a framework of partisanship. Everything - from serious issues like inflation, unemployment, rule of law - to manufactured nonsense by grasping third-rung leaders looking for the spotlight - are seen only within a framework of political parties. This framework reduces citizens to mere supporters of one political party or another, constraining their ability to think independently or coalesce and collaborate as citizens. Public discourse is how we think, talk and dream as a nation and how new ideas are mainstreamed but because our public discourse has become subordinate to partisanship, our imagination is now clipped and we are forced to think in terms of individuals, events and associated minutiae. Consequently, our country is mired in vertical petty antagonism instead of collaborative citizenship.
One reason this has happened is because we lack community organizations which could facilitate civic engagement and allow citizens to collaborate horizontally instead of dividing them into partisan antagonists. A network of such organizations would have also allowed citizens to run a parallel discourse outside of the manufactured narratives of mainstream media, thereby exerting an influence on the agenda set by media and political parties as well. There are theoretically many local organizations such as panchayats, rotary clubs, RWAs, youth clubs which could play this role but they have either themselves become suffused with partisanship or are constrained in their imagination to petty local concerns instead of becoming a site for larger conversations about the nation and its trajectory. There is thus a need to create such a discursive space where citizens can be political without being reduced into unthinking partisan supporters.
Television news and political parties too should not be complacent because they are riding a wave which will lead to their own demise. If the only thing that television news offers us is personal opinion from fungible talking heads - unconstrained by any kind of editorial due process - then it is only a matter of time that they will be supplanted by a new rising crop of homegrown “influencers” online. Similarly, unless political parties, particularly those in the opposition, infuse depth in their articulation through community engagement and political programs, they will not just contribute to vitiating the public discourse but will also be vulnerable to being swept away by new entrants. This is not hyperbole, the trend of brand new entrants sweeping aside established parties is visible in countries around the world. Finally, our country is overwhelmingly young with 65% of our population below the age of 35 years. Most young people do not head to the library to understand topical issues but instead look for cues from the public discourse. We thus owe it to the young people in our country to bring some sanity, rationality and civility back in our public discourse.