June 23, 2021

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‘Re-formed’ semantics of politics

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Uday Deb
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That whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent. — Ludwig Wittgenstein

If Alice’s Humpty Dumpty had emerged from behind the looking-glass and were witness to the Indian farmers’ agitation which has virtually brought the country to a standstill and created waves of stormy protest as far afield as the UK, the US, Australia, and Canada, he’d be able to identify the single verbal spark that seems to have ignited the conflagration.

The farmers are up in arms – or rather, up in ploughshares – against the BJP-led government’s three proposed changes in India’s agri laws which date back to the colonial era.

The main sticking point is the government guaranteed Minimum Support Price (MSP) for food grains which provides a safety net for farmers.

The government’s proposal to supplement the state-run mandis with a two-tier system by which farmers can opt for any buyer of their choice or continue selling their produce in the mandis has raised apprehension among agriculturists, despite assurances to the contrary, that this could be a first step in doing away with the MSP. The confrontation is one between free market choice and a dirigiste economic state-sponsored structure. And the one word which kindled the flashfire of turbulent dissent is ‘reforms’, a rubric under which the legislation has been clubbed.

The dictionary definition of ‘reform’ is to change something, a law or a system, to make it better for the general good.

However, in India’s one-step-forward-one-step-sideways narrative from a command economy to liberalisation, ‘reform’ has become a bone of contention – or a bane of conflict – between status quoists, or state quoists, and advocates of change.

Exercises such as the unannounced overnight demonetisation and the precipitate introduction of the GST, both billed as watershed reforms by the government, and vigorously assailed by critics, have invested the term with irreconcilably opposite meanings.

To opponents, reforms are a weasel word for social and economic Darwinism in which the strong prosper at the expense of the weak, while its proponent’s tom-tom it as a shibboleth, a password which will free us from the shackles of the prohibitory protocols of the past. The ‘reformation’, or ‘re-formation’ of ‘reforms’ is just one instance of the manipulation, or misappropriation, of semantics in the political lexicon, not just in India but everywhere.

The classic example of such lingual somersaulting is Orwell’s Newspeak, derived from Doublethink, in which ideological oxymorons hijack the language of public discourse. In the Orwellian dystopia of Oceania in which the novel 1984 is set, citizens hold mass rallies in which they chant the paradoxical mantras of ‘War is Peace! Freedom is slavery! Ignorance is Strength!’

India’s current domain of public proclamations resounds with echoes of Orwellian Newspeak. The 1960s ‘Flower Power’ unifying anthem of ‘Make love, not war’ directed at the US military intervention in Vietnam, finds a mocking travesty in the deeply divisive catechism of ‘love jihad’, an omnibus amalgam that equates war with love and makes them one.

Similarly, dissidence, the heartbeat of any democracy worth the name, becomes a synonym for anti-nationalism, subversion, and sedition, a desire to overthrow the state.

The state itself, bedrocked on the permanency of interlocking yet independent Constitutional institutions, is etymologically transfigured to mean the elected – and by definition transient of tenure – the government of the day, which by this verbal legerdemain assumes an overriding authority far exceeding its remit. Ideological rifts are widened instead of being bridged when the language of negotiation loses common meaning. Communication, with the hope it holds of eventual consensus, falls victim to confrontation in a literal war of words in which the combatants employ a common language composed of a conflicting vocabulary, be it ‘reform’ which can be taken to mean ‘progress’ or ‘persecution’, or ‘secular’ invariably hyphenated with ‘pseudo’, and ‘migrant’ with ‘illegal’.

The result is a semantic solipsism only too familiar to Orwell. Or to Humpty Dumpty.

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Disclaimer

Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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Disclaimer

Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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