Post-Truth Politics for Sale: Marketing Fiction as Ideology

Human mind, skewed towards collective myths, seems to be an ideal bazaar for selling political ideas. But to visualise humans as passive absorbers of clever marketing ideas is a dismal thought.

Covid has taught me an unlikely lesson that there exists a market for truth. The virus is real; the race for chasing it is also real. Labs in many countries are climbing different steps of the testing ladder – P1, P2 or the coveted P3 – in an all-out effort to make vaccines. Their structures are explained, efficacy measured, scores of papers are written and peer-reviewed, data are sifted – in short, science has taken over; pursuit of truth has come to be a matter of life and a probable, gasping-for-air death. The virus has brought truth back into business; the usual interplay of perceptions, narratives and finding patterns are, for the time being, given the go-by. Now, hard-nosed scientists are distilling truth, through empiricism and ideation, constantly probing each other’s findings. What we are witnessing is a brief interval in human history, a rare occasion, when truth is set to triumph. 

However it is fiction, and not truth, that put humankind at the top of the evolutionary pyramid. The Israeli historian Yual Noah Harari wrote in his seminal work The Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind that homo sapiens could make a giant leap over other species only because they could tell stories. Our societies are held together by the glue of fiction. Harari’s famous exposition of “cognitive revolution’ goes on to say that  “Fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively.” In short, we fib therefore we are. Chimpanzees and ants cannot herd together around an idea. “There are no gods, no nations, no money and no human rights, except in our collective imagination”, says Harari.

In our mostly imaginary lives where does the ‘real’ world – of bricks and mortar, rain and thunder etc. – fit in? In fact, we are living in a dual reality. To quote Harari again, “On the one hand objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations. As time went by, the imagined reality became ever more powerful, so that today the very survival of rivers, trees and lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as the United States and Google.” 

When we look back it is easy to validate human history through these postulates. Power seekers always had successfully marketed ideas. Hitler is an obvious example: a failed painter he was, but he could successfully, albeit for a brief period, paint glorious visions of racial superiority and could slyly tap dormant anti-Semitism in the German society. More recent examples of successful marketing of political ideas are Donald Trump and Arvind Kejriwal. Both were political novices, unheard of a year or two before they rose to power. Trump marketed the idea of making America great again and more riches to people through protectionism and tax cuts. Kejriwal struck at a time when the people of Delhi were sick of corruption and bureaucratic nightmare that left them in helpless fury.

Trump and Kejriwal are not stray pickings, in fact they represent an important trend in the 21st century politics. An investment banker till the age of 35, Emmanuel Macron, joined the French government in advisory capacity, and later moved on to become a minister. Four years later he founded a party, En Marche, and won the French Presidential election the next year. Centrist and liberal, Macron’s rise to become the youngest president of France was in a way helped by his opponent, Marine Le Pen, a deeply polarising right-wing politician.          

Coming to India, today political parties increasingly recognise that right ideas need to be marketed well to get to power. The example of Prashant Kishor, who had styled himself as a ‘political strategist’, bears testimony to the surprising fact that political parties in India are increasingly seeing elections as a marketing war. Kishor had advised political parties on how to campaign in 2014 Indian general elections, followed by assembly elections of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Andra Pradesh and Delhi. Basically his role was similar to the head of marketing of, say, an FMCG firm. Mark out segments; employ multiple strategies. For example, in Bihar and UP elections, he helped the political parties to choose the ‘right’ candidates from the ‘right’ castes. 

Multiply Prashant Kishor many times over and you will get a U.S. or some of the European elections. So intense is the fight to dominate the political market that subliminal manipulation of voters’ intentions through Big Data – the kind that Cambridge Analytica was alleged to have done with purchased Facebook data – also shockingly happens. There is also the issue of in-your-face fake news spewed out by social media and ‘dedicated’ TV channels. 

As Harari noted, “fake news existed before Facebook”. He goes on to add, “Homo Sapiens is a post-truth species, whose power depends on creating and believing fictions.” Human mind, so favourably skewed towards collective myths, seems to be an ideal bazaar for selling political ideas. But that is a dismal thought, to visualise humans as passive absorbers of clever marketing ideas. Where is people’s agency? That’s a complex question to answer. Perhaps an example from the recent Bihar Election could throw some light. Young Tejasvi Yadav, the leader of RJD, which was founded by his father, Lalu Prasad Yadav, was riding on the crest of popular support; his meeting attracting hundreds of people. He was selling the idea that the age of ‘social justice’ (read caste) is over and the time has now come for economic justice (read jobs). This had aroused interest in him, cutting across castes, especially among the youth. In one speech, he referred to the stellar contribution his father made towards social justice and pointed out that that “Before Laluji, Dalits were made to carry their chappals on their head while walking before a Babu saheb”. There is some truth in what he said, but ‘Babu Sahib’ is moniker of an upper caste in Bihar. Suddenly Tejasvi Yadav lost his cross-sectional charm; he became an OBC leader. This utterance, pundits say, probably cost him the election. Marketing, management schools teach, is like skating on thin ice.  

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