The big debate

Ambika Shaligram
Sunday, 21 April 2019

The ‘baap’ of all political elections is here. And, the children ie the electorate, are confused over who they should side with

In the early days of Facebook in India, the users posted images of fresh-from-the-stove  Paneer Masala Tikka, plated with finesse, to show off the culinary skills of the user and to set your (people on the friendlist) tummy growling. Soon enough, travel itineraries took the platform by storm and goaded by FB’s ‘What’s on your mind?’ people started spelling out their objectives, plans, mission et all. 
Slowly but surely, political parties (we will call them PP) with their respective digital armies (troll) realised what a captive audience they have. And, launched their (dis) information campaign. With burgeoning social media outlets like WhatsApp, Twitter, the PP spread their tentacles far and wide. Their digital armies circulated jokes intended at maiming the other PPs and their leaders. The users had fun laughing at and circulating ‘market me naya aaya hai’ jokes, missives from the Top Brass, High Command of the various PPs. 

What began as something to laugh at, morphed into ammo and the users of these social media platforms became the launchpad, knowingly and unknowingly. They circulated messages, took up positions on the frontline, recalling former US President George W Bush (Jr)’s prescient words — ‘Either you are with us or against us’. The battlelines were drawn. Gloves were off and the boxers eyed themselves warily in the ring; sometimes they were familiar faces, their own friends, relatives, acquaintances, who were now on the opposite side.  
These PPs split the families into two, something which even the cunning saas and demure bahus couldn’t manage to do in all these years of their television presence. This was the run-up to the ‘baap’ of all elections — the 17th Lok Sabha elections, which is currently underway in the country. Call it ‘baap’ or ‘key’ elections, one that will determine what direction the country’s governance takes, the stakes are much higher. And, the FB, Twitter and WhatsApp warriors are all ready, to make that final lunge for power.

However, there is a certain section of janata, which is wary of taking sides and even voicing their opinions in family groups or amongst friends. ‘There is no point in arguing,’ say most of them, off the record, we must add. Those who are willing to speak on record are quite confused. Dr Sangeeta Joag, a pathologist, says, “I know of two brothers, who are pitted against each other. One is pro-Modi and another is anti-Modi. I am a part of the same group. I have been listening, reading pros and cons listed by them. But I can’t quite make up my mind. I feel disillusioned with Modi, but I am not for hyper-secular parties either. I don’t think Rahul (Gandhi) can match up to the expectations of becoming the Prime Minister of the country.”

Her kids, who are now adults, are not BJP followers. “They say,” adds Dr Sangeeta, “They have seen BJP’s  dictatorial, one upmanship game. According to them, this is not healthy democracy. However, the elderly people from my mother’s generation keep telling them why a pro-Hindu party is necessary. I am caught in a crossfire. What I have gathered from the casual conversation that I have had with my team is that the card of Hinduism isn’t as strong today as it was in 2014. They also think that the ‘Vikas’ hasn’t reached them.”

In the recent past, it wasn’t sacrilege if family members voted for different parties. Of course there were debates and arguments, but they all ended civilly. And, people voted who they thought was the right candidate. Bhavana Nissima, Neuro-Linguistic Programme (NLP) trainer, remembers the time when her dad and mom sometimes voted for different parties. “We teased each other and also had debates at home. It was okay for us to have different opinions,” she says.

In these hyperbolic times, she has noted the difference — how the narrative has changed. “I have witnessed family members brutalise anyone who finds flaws in ruling party’s position. I have seen best friends fall apart. I have also seen those who hold ruling party ideology being ostracised and shamed in certain circles. There is tension in the air,” she adds. 

Hence, Bhavana avoids airing her political preferences these days. She says, “For me, friendships are more important than fleeting ideologies. I make the effort to bridge across. I feel there is a silent understanding with some friends that we are on different sides of spectrum. And, at least in my limited experience, I have received respect from them for whatever I believe in.”

Malvika Bhatnagar has also found herself in a similar predicament. A government servant, she uses the social media to post innocuous stuff (Not Paneer Tikka Masala, mind you) but refrains from taking a political stance. “I don’t discuss politics at home either. My relatives and I are not on the same page. And, I don’t want to get into pointless arguments. I keep my political preferences close to my heart,” she quips.
On the other hand, Satyajit Salgarkar is quite candid about his political ideology. He has differences of opinion with his relatives over PPs and says, “The logic that the Urban-Uppercaste-Middle class (UUM), who also happen to be my relatives, voted this regime to power for development and as that promise has failed, they will not vote them now, is completely false and naive. I believe they voted for BJP last time because they were successful in hiding their ugly communal face behind the mask of development. The UUMs tried to fool themselves in believing that it is not about communal hate but development as they were ashamed of openly embracing the evil at that time. Five years later, that inhibition has gone and the UUM will vote for them again. This time no pretence of development is needed.”

The educator believes that the snobbery of Left intellectual is also responsible. “The Left has a tall order if you want to adhere to its ideology. Our parents’ generation assumed that as a country, we have become secular, and that’s enough. Consistent work at the ground level in civil society was/is a must,” says Salgarkar. 

Meanwhile, we think of simpler times, when Paneer Tikka Masala ruled all social media conversations.

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