Of bullshit…and suchlike matters

A recent article in the Hindu interested me deeply. The author dealt with the complete disinterest in facts in our time, especially among leading political figures. Of special interest to me was his reference to the 1986 essay of the American philosopher Harry Frankfurt. Titled “On Bullshit”, the essay distinguishes between lying and bullshitting. The liar is aware that what he is seeking to convey is false, that the listener will be led away “from a correct apprehension of reality”. Thus, Yudhishthira, during the Mahabharata war, had to utter the fateful words “Ashwatthama is dead” to destroy Dronacharya’s will to fight (indeed to live), though he added thereafter, inaudible to Drona, “Narova kunjarova” (I am not sure whether it is man or elephant). He was throughout fully aware that his lie was the trigger for an event that would influence the outcome of the war. The bullshitter, on the contrary, is unconcerned with the truth or the facts as they actually are; as Frankfurt puts it “his intention is neither to report the truth nor to conceal it.”

Bullshitting is probably reaching an all-time high now, far higher than estimated by Frankfurt in 1986. Those of us in the civil services were quite familiar with this syndrome. As the year-end neared, the boss would question us district officers about achievement of targets in different government programmes, whether of sterilisation cases, small savings or hut construction. It was stupefying to see officer after officer confidently affirm that he/she would achieve the annual targets, never mind that the achievement after nine months of the year was not even remotely close to the 75% mark. But these replies satisfied the boss; he probably displayed the same sang froid when attending the Chief Secretary’s review meeting.

Bullshitting can, however, enter into far more dangerous, uncharted terrain when it becomes the social norm. The spread of mass media, especially the electronic media, has intensified this disease. With 24*7 studio appearances, there is an almost unlimited demand for “experts” who can hold forth on any topic under the sun, with each news channel having its own mafia of experts, never mind that they have very little hands-on experience of the subject matter. Public memory of these half-hour sessions is short and, unlike the print media, where opinions are sealed in black and white on paper, a commentator can offer contrary views the next week, without anyone remembering what he said the week before. Equity analysts are beneficiaries of this system: they can advocate investing in a particular stock on a particular day, without accountability to all those poor sods who lose their life savings in some unwise investment recommended by the analyst. But seasoned political commentators are no exception to the rule. During the last Bihar assembly elections, I remember the chief anchor of a prominent news channel and a very well-known political commentator predicting the victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party at 9 in the morning, based on the leads available till then. Now, as any seasoned administrator can tell you, by 9 AM, postal votes have just about been counted. These are a miniscule fraction of the total votes polled and largely represent the votes of servicemen and election staff on duty. Needless to say, there were red faces all around in the studio and abject apologies from the experts when, a couple of hours later, the trends showed a clear victory for the Janata Dal (United)-Rashtriya Janata Dal coalition.

Things have become worse with the rapid advent of social media in the past few years. Now, every Tukaram, Damodar and Hari is an expert who can weigh in on a range of topics from pollution in Delhi to Rohit Sharma’s loss of form and the prospects of the AIADMK in the next general elections. Twitter and WhatsApp sites are flooded with opinions, often ill-formed and downright vicious, accompanied by a flood of invective designed to cow the opposition. A recent, appalling forward on WhatsApp asks Hindus to unite, else the Muslim population will overtake the Hindu population in India in the next two decades. Ignoring the official statistics that show the Muslim population in India grew from 9.8% of the population in 1951 to 14.2% in 2011, the message estimates increases in the percentage of Muslim population to 38.1% in 2031 and 84.5% in 2041. That such a possibility is neither mathematically nor humanly possible seems to have escaped the attention of the bullshitters spreading these canards.

It is in this context that thinking people in India, who value the principles that have held this country together for the last seventy years, are concerned about the rapidly falling standards of public discourse, including the jettisoning of truth, especially during election campaigns. There have been regrettable attempts at community profiling and portraying opponents as “anti-national”. These efforts seem to have reached their zenith in recent days in the run up to the Gujarat state elections. For the first time, a serving Prime Minister has cast aspersions on the patriotism of not only a former Prime Minister and Vice President but also of retired civil and military officials. A normal dinner meeting with a former dignitary from Pakistan has been labelled a “secret meeting”. The reference in an unverified tweet to the preference of a retired army officer from across the border for a Chief Minister from a particular community has been made the basis for inferring interference in the election process.

What is unfortunate is that all these statements over the past four years lead one to infer that loose, unrelated conclusions are drawn on the basis of unsubstantiated information and dubious statistics. The consequences can be hazardous for the country on two counts. First, it panders to the deep insecurities that people already nurture within themselves and poisons the social environment. We just need to reflect on the recent brutal murder in Rajsamand, Rajasthan to understand how deep this sickness has taken root in the Indian (Hindu) ethos. The second consequence has a historical precedent. In 1962, the country was led to military defeat by the bullshit doled out to an impressionable Prime Minister and Defence Minister by a Corps Commander with overweening confidence. Failure to pay attention to truth at the top echelons of government will inevitably lead to bullshitting at lower levels, with disastrous results in various sectors of governance. The wise old adage “Yatha raja tatha praja” (as is the ruler, so are the ruled) continues to have relevance even today.

This article was originally published on Indus Dictum, a site where thought leaders from diverse fields, spanning business and technology to politics and modern law, contribute unique insights and experiences. You can access the article here

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The Indian Political League

This article was originally published on Indus Dictum, a site where thought leaders from diverse fields, spanning business and technology to politics and modern law, contribute unique insights and experiences. You can access the article at https://indusdictum.com/2017/08/10/the-indian-political-league/

The match went down to the wire… ultimately, the winner was decided by the third umpire. No, I am not referring to a close finish in a cricket T20 match, but to the results of the Rajya Sabha polls in Gujarat. Like its acronymic twin, the Indian Premier League (IPL), the Indian Political League (IPoL) is today’s greatest spectator sport for the ten months of the year that the cricket IPL is not in operation. Indians have an abiding interest in these two spectator sports: cricket and politics. Spectator, because most have never played the game and because both circuses (like the Roman ones) provide titillation on an almost continuous basis, given the ubiquity of cricketing and political contests in the subcontinent.

I thought we Bharatvasis had had more than our fill of political spills and thrills after the Yadav father-son battle in Uttar Pradesh, the coronation of a religious head as Chief Minister in the same UP, the internecine struggle for power in Tamil Nadu after Amma’s departure and the “about-turn” change of government in Bihar. I was wrong: we are now in a perpetual silly season, where political shenanigans in different states dominate the public consciousness, titillated by the blow-by-blow descriptions given on a round-the-clock basis by screeching reps of the electronic media. As Gujarat has shown, we need our daily dose of Bollywood-style drama, replete with Bengaluru resorts, income tax raids and exciting polling processes coupled with hysterical scenes outside the Election Commission in New Delhi.

The IPL is, of course, still in its childhood (nine years and counting) as compared to its hoary grandfather, the IPoL, which has entered its sixty-sixth year of life. The IPoL, in the first fifteen years of life, was somewhat staid in appearance, resembling Indian cricket of that time, when test matches were the only source of entertainment for the masses. Things became far more exciting when legislators started defecting en masse on an almost daily basis after 1967, giving rise to the popular Aaya Ram Gaya Ram phenomenon. Elections also ceased to be once-in-five-year affairs and, with the delinking of Parliament and State Assembly elections, were held year in and year out. Things have become far more exciting in the past four decades, ever since the Congress Party’s dominance in the political hustings was successfully challenged, much in the same way that Bombay’s stranglehold over the Ranji Trophy was loosened by upstarts like Delhi and Karnataka.

But it is the similarities in the IPL and IPoL that command our interest and attention. An examination of these highlight both the features that the two have in common as well as the ways in which, with its infinitely superior financial resources and experience, the IPoL has managed to straddle universes that are outside the reach of a modest IPL.


ipl auction watermark


Everything starts with the auction of players. However, unlike the annual or biennial auctions in the IPL, the IPoL auctions are continuous in nature. These auctions are conducted by the team managements themselves and are held on camera. Unlike the IPL, there is no way to know the cost of each player to the team. In earlier days, especially after anti-defection laws were passed, auctions took place only at specified intervals, when elections or by-elections were due. Nowadays, the trend is towards mass auctions of large portions of a team, rather than individuals. After a match (read election) is over, even an entire competing team can be merged with the existing team (think Goa and Manipur).

What keeps the players in the IPoL engaged continuously are the opportunities given to them to twist the rules of the game to keep adding to the moolah already given to them at auction time. Even before the match starts, there are chances available to seduce the ground staff to prepare a pitch conducive to one’s strengths. These could include freebies distributed recklessly prior to the election or illegally transferred just prior to the start of the match. The players would not be averse to nobbling the on-field umpires as well: to their eternal regret, the umpires (the Election Commission and its paraphernalia) have proved immune to blandishments.

But nothing stops the players of one team from influencing the opposing team members, given that the open auction system is in place. The match can then be suitably fixed, with all the 22 players going through the motions of a keenly contested match. Even measures like shepherding all the players of one team to a hidden sanctuary prior to the match and producing them only at match time are often futile, given the ubiquity of mobile phones. Where phones are confiscated, there is nothing to prevent signals being given on field to compromised players, as was the case in IPL matches (and as was so wonderfully demonstrated during the Gujarat Rajya Sabha elections). The unsuspecting public is generally unaware of the charade, though it does wonder sometimes why its favourite batsmen are throwing their wickets away. The match-fixers — the management, the players and their backers and financiers — are reaping the rewards of the crowd attendance, through revenues from crowd payments (taxes, etc.) as well as from the extra-legal earnings through inflated infrastructure and supply contracts.


ipl stadium watermark


The only flies in the ointment for the players in the IPoL are the oversight authorities in the form of the Election Commission and the courts of the land. The players have a code of omertà between themselves, known more commonly as “honour among thieves”. Knowing that matches can go either way, depending on the quality of manipulation by both parties, the best option is to keep silent on the transgressions of one’s opponents, in the hope (and trust) that the favour will be reciprocated at the opportune moment. When nemesis does catch up in the form of a whistle-blower, an enthusiastic judge or a conscientious civil servant, the indicted players rely on the lumbering judicial system and the loopholes of the law to stay out of prison as long as possible.

This then is the “saam-daam-dand-bheda” approach, attributed to the astute Chanakya, that is the governing philosophy of the IPoL. It starts with friendly advice to opponents to join the current popular dispensation while the going is good. Where moral suasion is insufficient, the lubrication of lucre is added to sweeten the deal, either in the form of upfront payments or deferred gratifications in terms of dabbling in patronage and sharing in the spoils. The unmoving opponent is then subjected to the travails of the legal system, through innuendoes and insinuations leading to registration of cases and protracted litigation that could go on for decades, punctuated possibly by stretches in prison. It helps that most players in the IPoL have a past that renders them vulnerable to such pressures.

The final tool is the “divide and rule” strategy that has been perfected over the centuries by our colonial masters. The IPoL players are masters at winning the support of important segments of the crowd by exploiting differences in language, religion, caste and ethnicity. And so, the game goes on “to the last syllable of recorded time” as lamented by Macbeth. It is apposite that his soliloquy ends with the statement “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” His ruminations would find favour with our ancient sages, who saw this life on earth as maya. And yet, we go through the illusive make-believe, the political dramas that characterise our petty lives.