The power of narrative

A group of people holding an elected govt to ransom and a govt turning against its own citizens in the name of law and order are both instinctively troubling in a democracy, writes T N Ninan

T N Ninan, Business Standard
6th February

There is something instinctively troubling about a group of people holding an elected government to ransom, as much as when a government turns against its own citizens in the name of law and order. Both point to a breakdown of the normal democratic process of give and take through debate and discussion. People have the right to protest. But if the protestors insist on an all-or-nothing approach, and if governments start putting spikes on arterial highways and building concrete walls alongside serried ranks of barricades, then representative democracy has slipped into more problematic territory.

The government has been less rigid now than it was on new citizenship laws a year ago. However reluctantly, it has offered to hold in abeyance the new laws on agricultural marketing, till cool heads can discuss the points in dispute. But with the stand-off having acquired elements of international farce, the best course now would be to toss the issue back to Parliament, which is the right forum to debate new laws. The alternative is further escalation, which no one should want.

There is scope for finding middle ground. In many ways the new laws were overdue; indeed, the future of agricultural reform hinges on them. But when farmers worry that the laws might work against them in practice, their behaviour depends not on the “facts” presented but what they have come to believe. Calling them anti-national is not an answer.

Robert Shiller, the behavioural economist and Nobel laureate, published in 2019 a book titled Narrative Economics: How Stories Go Viral and Drive Major Economic Events. Shiller’s thesis is that while economists look at facts and data, it is the power of narrative that often influences people’s economic decisions. For instance, memories of the Great Depression encouraged people to save more in their later lives. The pandemic may have an equally long shelf-life, in influencing future economic behaviour.

With that insight, consider the narratives swirling around the farmers’ agitation. The first is of toiling farmers who feed the nation, fighting to save their meagre but threatened livelihood. This story line strikes a sympathetic chord at home and overseas. As is typical in such populist moments (remember Brexit), “disconnected experts” who defend the new laws are disregarded.

The second narrative is one that has come to dog the government, namely that it is in hock to “stigmatised capital”. The farmers suspect that tycoons want to take over agricultural markets, first by offering better prices and then squeezing them once a monopsony has been established. The sense of unequal power, and of not having been consulted, feeds such conspiracy theories.

The government’s response is also two-fold. First, that the protest is by misguided farmers around Delhi, while their counterparts elsewhere are quiet. That’s partly true, but then much of the action in the French Revolution was centred on Paris. And it is the ruling party that has peddled the narrative that the establishing of the Delhi Sultanate meant 800 years of alien rule — though the Cheras and Chalukyas still ruled in the south. Delhi is symbolic, and this battle will not be won in Thanjavur, the Godavari delta, or some other granary.

The second, more serious accusation put out by the government is that the movement has been penetrated by separatist elements, even as journalists face seemingly coordinated accusations of sedition. This takes the debate away from the specifics of the farm laws to nationalist terrain, which is always the government’s preferred battleground. But cricketers tweeting for unity will not win the absurd battle against three young women overseas. So it is the government that now risks being portrayed as the intransigent party.

If it wants to regain the initiative, it must regain credibility, just as the Manmohan Singh government needed to do in 2011-12 on corruption. And not just with farmers but also with other sections of the citizenry who have come to believe that those ruling in Delhi no longer represent them. That means the government must look for broader acceptance of its laws even if it can enact them without difficulty, since it now controls both houses of Parliament. This larger national narrative is what needs addressing.

A few links for further reading

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