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 percent mark. But these replies satisfied the boss; he probably displayed the same sangfroid when attending the Chief Secretary’s review meeting.
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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 percent of the population in 1951 to 14.2 percent in 2011, the message estimates increases in the percentage of Muslim population to 38.1 percent in 2031 and 84.5 percent 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 civilian 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.
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The author, Venkatesan Ramani, is a retired Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer. His work focuses on public policy reform and improving public service delivery systems.
Tweet at Venkatesan: @vramani10