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As India gears up for national elections in summer 2024, the atmosphere across the country is uncharacteristically flat. There isn’t much of the usual suspense or festivity that marks the occasion, since Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are set to return to power in what observers declare is “almost an inevitability.” India’s democratic health, according to most indicators, has declined precipitously during his tenure. An unprecedented centralization of executive power has been achieved through the effective takeover of traditionally nonpartisan institutions like the judiciary, and a fierce crackdown on independent political spaces has ensured that barely any space exists for opposing views. As the government has weaponized antiterror laws and foreign funding directives to arrest activists and shut down civil society organizations, scholars contend that no country is a better exemplar of our global democratic recession than India.

In what many regard as a mystery, Modi continues to enjoy shockingly high public support despite presiding over democratic backsliding and historic unemployment. Both of his electoral victories have been achieved with record turnouts. The BJP now runs not only the central government but also over two-thirds of the states, making it by far the country’s most powerful political party. As one commentator concludes, “democratic backsliding has begun to enjoy electoral legitimacy.”

How do we understand the public’s support for an agenda that seems to conflict with its self-interest? Are the people being deceived into voting for the ruling party, or are they making an informed decision? Of course, the contrast between being deceived and being informed is not a stark binary, but this question arises as dissenting voices ponder how to reconcile the desires of the populace with what they consider to be its tangible interest. Government actions and policies acquire legitimacy through electoral successes, which further marginalizes conflicting views. Any opposition is thus confronted with the daunting contradiction wherein their advocacy can be dismissed as being in conflict with the will of the people. My aim is not to deliver a verdict on the naivete or clear-sightedness of India’s populace but to ask why the question of the people’s vulnerability to deception acquires significance in the first place. To draw out the stakes motivating this problem and the political implications it carries, I draw on my ethnographic fieldwork and present a scene from the strategy planning meeting of a dissident civil society group. 

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The Discursive Role of Deception

It was a couple of days after the Legislative Assembly elections in the North Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, where the incumbent BJP had won an overwhelming majority in what was for many observers a surprise victory. Home to the largest Muslim population in the country, Uttar Pradesh is considered India’s most politically significant state and a bellwether for the national mood. On this balmy late-winter morning, I found myself in a dim room in a building under renovation on the outskirts of Lucknow, the state capital. Equipped with plastic chairs and creaking ceiling fans, the venue had for the past few months been serving as the makeshift meeting point for a loose collection of activists and social workers who were seeking to evade state scrutiny. Piercing the glumness, someone sighed while perusing the newspaper, “You can’t argue with the results.”

Visibly agitated, other participants protested, calling the verdict a thopa hua (imposed) mandate. Among other things, the imposition was referring to the state capture of media, which has resulted in the stifling of dissenting views and the consolidation of a narrative that aligns with the interests of the ruling party. “They have infiltrated into every neighborhood and every phone,” Shivam lamented, summing up the BJP’s door-to-door as well as digital outreach, which is constantly mobilized to maintain a conducive ground for ideological dissemination. A key element of this narrative control is the concerted effort to ensure consistency among media outlets in how events are portrayed. 

An advocate who provides legal aid to under-trial prisoners, Shivam enumerated a list of incidents from his district wherein Muslim men were arbitrarily apprehended on charges of insulting the Hindu religion, by now a familiar template for a news event in Uttar Pradesh. The accusation was invariably fabricated, but its circulation across the mediascape served to generate resentment and aggression among large segments of the population. He illustrated, “Pick up any two newspapers and you will find the exact same reportage, switch on your TV and the same framing of the issue will be repeated ad nauseam on every channel, the same hashtag will then trend on Twitter.” With business magnates close to the ruling party establishing control over the free press, even journalists admit that news outlets now function as the government’s propaganda wing.

Shivam continued, “Everywhere you turn, you will see the same misleading issues packaged in the same misleading manner.” The events, designed to amplify sectarian tensions, were orchestrated through a compliant media apparatus, creating a cycle of narratives that reinforces the government’s grip on power. In such a scenario, the formal democratic process provides only a veneer of legitimacy, as the underlying reality is one of deception, where the outcome is predetermined through the systematic manipulation of public opinion. The forced mandate that results from such conditions, then, is not a genuine expression of popular will but rather a distortion of democracy. While there is no official suspension of the democratic process, as in a state of emergency, many liken the situation to an internal siege, since the government has secured a firm grip over the public sphere. If the legitimacy of representation derives from the consent of the governed, that legitimacy is suspect where the consent is obtained through deception.

Those not content with taking popular will as natural and evident thus find in deception an opening to a deeper level of analysis. “We must be careful to avoid attributing these happenings to some notion of inherent prejudice that prevails among our people,” Afroz, a senior union leader, clarified. “After all, various communities were previously living together in relative peace—the situation was never this bad.” She cited her elderly neighbor to illustrate the changing attitudes. “I have known her all my life as a gracious, mild-mannered woman. She is often sitting on the charpoy [woven cot] outside; we sometimes chat for a few minutes when I am leaving or returning home. Of late, I have been noticing that she, too, has started reciting the same bigoted ideas about Muslims.” Other participants nodded in sympathetic understanding, this pattern of radicalization familiar to us from friends and relatives. 

It is easier to demonize people in the absence of personal interactions with them, the gathering concurred. The prevalence of prejudice is exacerbated in places where there is little contact with individuals who belong to different communities. Across India, with increasing social homogenization of neighborhoods in both urban and rural regions, everyday encounters between religious communities are becoming so scarce that pernicious stereotypes and misconceptions can persist unchecked. “What is surprising is that if a Muslim vendor selling blankets or utensils were to visit,” Afroz finished her point, “she would still invite him inside and ask him for water.” 

Strategies for Dispelling 

This disjunction between everyday experience and political rhetoric presents a challenge, but it is also an opportunity for activism. “We should realize that things that seem obvious to us, those things may not be evident for others,” another voice interjected, gesturing at all present. People may be living in siloed communities, arriving at basic orientations through particular biographies, and it would be arrogant to expect that they should be operating with the same common sense as those assembled. So, rather than assuming that people’s beliefs were simply a matter of individual determination, activists had to address the troubling ideology through their work.

This was, to begin with, a matter of countering state discourse with genuine awareness. In the cacophony of state-sponsored narratives, the manipulation of information for political gain has muddied the waters of public discourse, making it increasingly difficult to separate fact from fiction. The difficulty of reposing trust in the veracity of information undermines the foundation upon which sound political judgment rests, leaving individuals adrift in a sea of deception. Fact-finding reports are therefore a vital tool for activists attempting to challenge propaganda. Recently, some members of this group began collecting and collating the experiences of people affected by extrajudicial killings in western Uttar Pradesh, getting the reports photocopied when printing presses refused publication and organizing collective reading sessions in neighborhoods to develop a better understanding of the everyday realities people faced. 

More crucially, tackling deception required cultivating conditions that would enable people to realize the chasm between their perceptions and their interests. One way activists approach this is through monthly “inter-dining,” which brings people from different communities together to share a meal. Long a cherished tactic for social reformers in a society where dietary and commensality restrictions are integral to caste hierarchies and religious purity, inter-dining efforts are targeted at young people, in particular, since they are considered less entrenched in their worldviews. Eating and drinking together in a common physical and social setting is a means to construct social relations characterized by intimacy and equality. Gradually, participants may begin to develop familiarity with each other and identify shared concerns preoccupying them. Grassroots efforts such as these are aimed at challenging stereotypes and promoting intergroup dialogue at the local level. By facilitating meaningful interactions across sectarian divides, such initiatives seek to encourage people to align their desires more faithfully with their interests. In doing so, they hope to harness the routine exercises of everyday life to counter deceptive narratives by building common ground.

Conspiring for Democracy

As half the world is scheduled to hold national elections in 2024, watchdogs are apprehensive about the global state of democracy. With barely half of these polls expected to meet the criteria of being free and fair, the translation of popular will in electoral verdicts is bound to be contested, generating anxiety among the commentariat about the vulnerability of electoral integrity to devious misinformation campaigns. Rather than dismissing these disputes as necessarily driven by ulterior motives, we may do well to recognize that “conspiracy theory,” like social theory, attempts to connect apparently unrelated cultural phenomena and explain the hidden mechanisms of power.

Instead of searching for ways to reliably identify “conspiracy theories” so as to swiftly condemn them, it may be more fruitful to explore their implications for enabling certain kinds of political practice. In our case, the attribution of deception keeps the issue of legitimate political representation open as a question, refusing to let it be settled by elections. It allows activists to introduce a gap between the desires of the people and their interests—what they want versus what benefits them. Within this gap, activist work locates an opportunity to mold aspirations in alignment with well-being. At a time when people around the world appear vulnerable to demagogic persuasion, deception offers a valuable heuristic for thinking about how to combat political lies and misinformation, and ultimately revitalize democracy. 

Authors

Nomaan Hasan

Nomaan Hasan is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at Brown University. Based on ethnographic research in northern India, his work examines modes of political (dis)appearance that evade state scrutiny.

Cite as

Hasan, Nomaan. 2024. “A Conspiracy of Democratic Repair.” Anthropology News website, April 30, 2024.

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