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Why Deceit Exists in Public Life and is Hard to Fight

The politics of the current regime harnesses deception or benefits from it. Those who oppose deceptive methods must understand it as a condition, not write it off as a cunning strategy.
narendra modi and amit shah

Representational use only.Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Deceit in general was unacceptable in the past. It did not matter much if compulsion prompted a deception or if the contextual justification existed that duress, not a choice, drove it. Deceit was still reasonably unacceptable. People also knew deceitful business practices were par for the course. And it was an open secret, though unacknowledged, that politics was deceptive. If a politician was deceitful, it led us to question their intentions immediately. It was a signpost for the many other unacceptable aspects of political leadership.

This understanding may have changed in the present, considering the numerous occasions when leaders have acknowledged—with a twinkle in their eye—that they have been deceitful. Consider Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s response to queries about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s campaign promise of depositing Rs. 15 lakh in every bank account from the black money that would be collected from people in high places. Shah nonchalantly called it a “chunavi jumla—electoral gimmick”. Not long ago, someone in a position of responsibility would never have responded this way.

Ironically, the social democratisation in India has found articulation in an uncanny language of deceit. The heyday of Bollywood flicks like Deewar and Shakti had to laboriously justify deception as a coping mechanism to overcome being short-changed in life. Still, the deceitful character invariably met a tragic end, signifying disapproval of their methods. Yet we are a long way from the golden era of films today. In the nineties, the Govinda-David Dhawan combination trivialised deceit to justify the aspiration to be super rich. Deception turned into something celebratory, entertaining, a marker of smartness. Recent Bollywood releases like Good Luck Jerry use the underdog’s deceptive tactics to whip up dark humour. Such releases realistically narrate the source of deceit but are non-committal about whether trickery is the right means. For who will judge whether it is?

The affirmation of deceit may not have turned moralism on its head, but it is beginning to recognise its flip side. Deceit is not the antonym of moralism but a curious underside demanding a place. Discursively, the clever-by-half acceptance of deceitful behaviour recognises how much effort it takes to build trust. Where trust exists, there is always a possibility of being shortchanged. People may renege on promises in contractual relations. And then, it takes time to come to terms with the inevitable sense of betrayal. So, it may seem more persuasive to be prepared for deceit and come to terms with it. A pragmatic rather than moral or emotional approach towards everyday deceptions is less hurtful, even if it is harmful. While it does not promise the “no harm” principle, it preserves emotional well-being. Deceit leads to agnostic certainty; makes us feel less vulnerable.

In a digital world, deceit is entertaining while being good is bland, predictable, and requires self-restraint. There may be occasional flights of imagination in being good, but the good must be accompanied by a willingness to suffer. Gandhi’s moral exemplar is a case in point. Indeed, being good may be more fulfilling, but only when there is a sense of familiarity.

In contrast, deceit as humour can make life’s harshnesses tolerable, provided the dissimulation does not provoke the conscience. Its flashes of excitement can be short-lived and lead to unpleasant consequences but could help overcome monotony, boredom and anomie. In other words, deceit is speculative, not durable. It lacks meaningfulness, but that serves to admit the truth that meaning-making in the modern world is an arduous process. Deceit concedes and supplants the conceit of the singularity of spiritual pursuits. We can use deceit to recognise that anxiety accompanies the depths of intimacy we experience. Love is always accompanied with the fear of loss, while deceit is helps us unhitch it.

Politically, deceit carries the extra burden of concealing our fears and endemic inability to cope with rapid changes. Some of these changes include new surveillance technologies, the righteous lawlessness of bulldozer masculinity, the implication of citizens in crimes not committed, and public humiliation. Our deceptions dignify our meek acceptance of the views of those in power. They sidestep our fearfulness and indulge and delude us into believing. A deception never has us ask ourselves—‘Do we really believe something?’ Deceit internalises fear without having to negotiate with it, a process that would otherwise open us up to innumerable ethical dilemmas.

So in practising deception, we come to terms with a reality we don’t comprehend. We can deceptively pretend to understand it! In complex, fast-changing times, deceit is akin to a neutralised compulsion that makes sense of reality without completely losing any connection to it. We may know we don’t comprehend our world, but our surroundings have not grown distant because of our attributes or disabilities as individuals. Therefore, deceit offers a way to return to our collective predicament with our sense of self intact. It has become a compulsively retributive act, necessary for survival. In tone and tenor, the politics of the current regime reflects and responds to this changing sensibility, either consciously harnessing deception or becoming its default beneficiary.

Those who have a problem with deceitful practices, for they appear to take people for granted, must see it as a condition rather than a cunning strategy. Even if it is instrumentalised, it works because of the modern predicaments people confront. Those who don’t support deceit in public life need greater awareness of the conditions that allow insensitive jumlas and why people do not perceive them as insults against collective dignity. Such people must separate the grain from the chaff to reinvigorate ideas of good life and happiness (India has consistently dropped on ‘Happiness’ indices). But there is no guarantee awareness will succeed, given how complex the problem is and how quickly things are changing. Scale and speed will remain firm colonial cousins of deceit.

The author is an associate professor at the Center for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. His book, Politics, Ethics and Emotions in ‘New India’, will be published by Routledge, London, in 2022. The views are personal.

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