Sunday, July 21, 2024

Our national principles need the support of prudent narratives

The second event was yet another terror attack in Kashmir that left dozens killed and injured. Predictably perfunctory chastisement of terror groups and Pakistan followed. Security forces enhanced operations to hunt for the perpetrators, which means locals are subject to more restrictions, roadblocks, cordon-and-search operations and other associated trauma. 

(Such heavy-handed treatment in the aftermath of any terror attack is a strategic objective of terrorists aiming to widen the rift between the local population and security forces who are usually from outside the state.) While this attack was less lethal compared to Pulwama in 2019, it barely captured a fraction of our national mind-share. Of course, even without elections, terror attacks in Kashmir are routine and (with the exception of Pulwama) rarely grasp national attention beyond a day or two.

Not just Kashmir, but other national- security issues like in Manipur, the China standoff, Naxal violence, narco-war in several states or rising crime, especially against women, rarely hold our attention for long. 

This is also true of looming national crises like inadequate healthcare, severe malnutrition, youth unemployment, corrosive pollution, deforestation, devastating climate change events, water and energy deficiencies, increasing organized crime, polarization of society and alarmingly unequal wealth distribution. None of these seems to galvanize a national consensus towards solving the problem.

But it was the third event, or rather the narrative it played out, that may have been the most foreboding for us as a nation. On 9 June was held a match that was like the final of a T20 World Cup. Nearly 400 million people reportedly watched this India-Pakistan cricket clash. Again, a broad cross-section of the country. But what exactly was the narrative at play?

For decades, the India-Pakistan feud has spawned resources for a wide range of interests, from those of defence suppliers and politicians to those of smugglers, human traffickers and, yes, commercial beneficiaries of cricket. This strange ‘convenient war’ has also been stifling economic growth in both India and Pakistan, causing tens of thousands of deaths and injuries, and sentencing entire generations of citizens to lives of anxiety. 

Yet, this underlying feud was likely the main draw for half a billion viewers who invested nearly five hours of their lives watching a corporate funded show conducted in the US between two supposed arch-enemies, one of which had just killed and wounded nearly 40 innocent citizens of the other that very day! 

The irony of millions of Indians cheering and waving posters of a “cricket army” (yes, these were posters being displayed even by officials), while thousands of innocent citizens and soldiers have been slaughtered over decades by the same neighbour conveys contradictory narratives to different sections of the population.

Here is another example. The entire telecast was incessantly interspersed with advertisements for offerings ranging from financial services to automobiles, white goods, aerated beverages, chocolates, sugary processed foods and even some ‘mouth fresheners’ whose makers also sell tobacco.

Here is how this well watched event created dissonance. Firstly, it was a high decibel endorsement of sugar-rich processed foods consumption by role models (who probably don’t touch a morsel of less-than-healthy eats otherwise). True, this is capitalism at its freest, but as a nation that leads the world in diabetes, we might want to remember that it is the nation as a whole whose health suffers for the profits of a few business conglomerates. 

The extravaganza also encourages surrogate publicity of tobacco in India, which is the world’s second biggest consumer of a crop that results in an estimated 1% loss of GDP to illnesses caused by it. Of all the products and services advertised, ‘mouth fresheners’ and aerated drinks seemed the most affordable to about four-fifths of Indians. It did not matter that expensive products were also advertised that were probably well beyond the reach of most viewers of the India-Pakistan game.

Nations set their national narratives on certain first principles. Regardless of the governance model, be it democracy or dictatorship or anything in between, it is the credibility of these foundational narratives, backed by lived experiences and their alignment on the ground, that creates legitimacy for a small privileged group of powerful ‘haves’ to govern the vast majority of underprivileged ‘have-nots.’ 

When the bravery of wealthy cricketers subsumes our thoughts for fallen soldiers, short-term corporate profiteering is professed over long-term national prudence, catastrophic issues are routinely glazed over by gladiatorial distractions, and when the opulence of a few is on tantalizing display for those who can only dream of such lifestyles, the narratives backing those principles will fracture, and with it, any legitimacy they purport to provide.

#national #principles #support #prudent #narratives

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