As Amit Shah announced the dismantling of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, the opposition was split. Some of them knew it would be foolish to oppose a move that came with the force of nationalism.
Perhaps, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) was taken into confidence by the BJP, but a party like, say, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) was certainly not. Many in the Congress, particularly those who have to soon face the voters in state elections, publicly broke ranks with their party to support the move.
Before announcing the decision on Article 370, Narendra Modi and Shah must have asked themselves this question: Will the move get popular public support in India? The answer, we can now be certain, was yes.
Until it actually happened, doing away with Articles 35A and 370 seemed unthinkable. How did it become so mainstream that the government could do it with the stroke of a pen?
A policy expert in the US, Joseph P. Overton, came up with a theory of how ideas move in public discourse – from being unthinkable to policy. This theory came to be known as the Overton Window, and was consciously used by Donald Trump in the run-up to his 2016 election campaign.
A further refinement of the theory spelled out the journey from Unthinkable to Policy:
The discourse on dismantling of J&K has also followed the same strategy. Hindutva’s views on Article 370 have always been well-known. The problem was always framed as ‘Why should Kashmir have something special that we don’t?’
Until Modi became the PM in 2014, most people thought it was Article 370 that prevented them from buying land in J&K. After 2014, the BJP and its allied noise-makers started a campaign against Article 35A. Over a period of five years or so, the ‘unthinkable’ slowly became ‘policy’.
The battle of ideas
Liberals and opposition parties alike will have to stop the unthinkable there itself. Unfortunately, both are too overwhelmed by Modi’s non-stop googlies. They all are out, with few runs on the board. (When I say liberals, I include politicians and parties that may consider themselves so, and anyone who is opposed to Hindutva.)
Those who are opposed to Hindutva and its objectives will have to win the battle of ideas. In a democracy, whether or not run by a majoritarian government on a given day, ideas compete with each other on several planes. American historian Garry Wills said there were four main ‘markets’ where ideas contested with each other: the economic, the political, the moral and the intellectual.
In his book The Attention Merchants, Tim Wu takes the idea further and says that in the information age, these battles are not won on merit alone. They are also won by grabbing attention. People don’t have to buy an idea, only get used to it. For example, the publicity and hype over a Bollywood movie make many Bollywood fans watch it even though they suspect they may not enjoy it.
Liberals are certain they are on the right side of the good ideas even if they are on the wrong side of history. But even Hindutva followers think they are fighting the good fight, and they have been on the wrong side of history for a very long time.
The attention contest
It is the attention battle that liberals have been losing. Modi-Shah sprang a surprise on Kashmir, or maybe it wasn’t a surprise. It is what Hindutva forces have wanted to do forever. When was the last time you heard a cogent argument in defence of Article 370, or Article 35A, or the special status of J&K? If nobody is going to argue a case, expect us to lose it.
Sure, you could read constitutional expert A.G. Noorani, whose book Article 370: A Constitutional History of Jammu & Kashmir will open your eyes on the subject. But who will convert the book into two-minute videos for social media? Who will spread the book’s ideas through WhatsApp? Or before that, who will create a million WhatsApp groups to politically engage the masses?
The main responsibility to do this doesn’t rest with the liberal intellectuals, but with the political parties. And the main one, the Congress, has been failing badly at the job. But even liberal intellectuals and artists have a problem that they often don’t want to communicate with the masses. They consider it beneath their dignity. This has begun to change, for instance, with stand-up comics and viral liberal YouTubers.
The good news
There can’t be a better example of this problem than the idea of secularism, last sold to the public as a campaign in 1988 with ‘Mile Sur Mera Tumhara’. If secularism can’t be sold to the people as a campaign beyond English-language op-eds, don’t be surprised if Amit Shah soon stands up in Parliament and declares India a Hindu state.
What do liberals (anyone opposed to Hindutva) propose as a solution to the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi dispute, which is currently being heard by the Supreme Court? Rebuild the mosque, build both temple and mosque, freeze status quo? Before the Modi government springs up the issue of Uniform Civil Code, liberals must participate in the debate on it and make a strong intervention that shapes the final outcome. If one has to read the Economic and Political Weekly to know the answer, it’s a lost cause.
The silence over such issues is pusillanimous, and amounts to conceding the argument. There has to be a pushback, before ‘unthinkable’ becomes ‘policy’.
One way to push back is to do a reverse of the Overton Window, and it does work for liberal issues just the same. The best way to oppose bad ideas is to propose better ones. They may be considered unthinkable in today’s majoritarian environment, but give them a few years.
For instance, decriminalisation of homosexuality was considered unthinkable in the last century, but happened in a matter of years once it was taken up. Another example is the rural employment guarantee law, which was vehemently opposed by the economic right and a vocal India Inc (yes, it had a voice once). Today, NREGA is so mainstream that Modi can’t dismantle it even though he’s not a fan.
There was one great liberal who walked this land and knew how to set a liberal agenda and often managed to have his way.
Views are personal.