The Overton Window and India 2019


The Overton Window is the range of opinions on a specific issue which is generally acceptable to the public. To provide an example, in the early 19th century, on the issue of female suffrage, very few people thought that women should have a right to vote. At that time the Overton Window was placed such that women should not get the vote was the ‘popular/sensible’ opinion. This means that if a politician were to campaign on no votes for women (assuming that it is the only election issue) in the early 19th century, there is a good chance he would win. In the same time period, the idea that women should be allowed to vote was outside the Overton Window, and was considered ‘radical’: a politician campaigning on this would most likely lose the election. At the same time there is an extreme ‘unthinkable’ opinion in this case which is that only women can vote and it is almost certain that no politician can campaign on that and win, neither then nor now.

The Overton window can also change. If we look at the course of the suffrage movement, if a politician was campaigning only on this issue in the early 20th century, the Overton window would be different. Both the opinion that women should get the vote and women should not get the vote were ‘sensible.’ It is not necessary that a politician using such an opinion as a campaign platform will necessarily win; it just means that they have a reasonable chance of winning and it is sensible for them to take such a stance in order to win. The other extreme of course still remains ‘unthinkable’- no one wants only women to vote. This phenomenon is the expansion of the window towards suffrage for women. It is not just a movement of opinion from no suffrage towards suffrage but an expansion of what all is sensible itself.

Now if we look at the present-day, or the early 21st century, we will see that the Overton Window has changed again. No politician can expect to campaign on the issue of women should not get the vote and win- it is ‘unthinkable.’ Only women should get the vote is ‘sensible’ and within the Overton Window. This is shrinkage of the window from the no suffrage for women side of the spectrum. ‘Sensible’ opinions for politicians were reduced. However if you look only at two points, the 19th and 21st centuries, you will find that there was a movement of the Overton Window. The ‘sensible’ opinion(/s) changed from women should not get the vote to women should get the vote.

The above is a brief explanation of the Overton Window as a concept and helps us understand how politicians change as opinions do. Before we apply it to India, let us look at the factors that lead to an expansion, shrinkage or a movement of the Overton Window.

The tools that can be used are: facts coupled with logic; propaganda, misinformation and lies; appeals to emotion and morality; and events. Several of these are interlinked and often can occur together. To use an example, let us look at totalitarian States. Hitler failed to gain a majority for the first 10 years of his career in politics. During this time, he conducted several rallies (events), spread hatred against enemies of the State- communists and Jews (propaganda and emotion) and made continuous harangues against the injustice faced by the German people (morality). It was these activities that helped expand the Window and bring him to power and allow his ideas to be ‘sensible’ to the German public.

Another important context is the position on the spectrum these tools are used. Propaganda can be spread regarding a ‘sensible’, ‘radical’, or ‘unthinkable’ idea. If it is spread on a ‘sensible’ idea, not much change will be brought about, perhaps it will only fortify what is already the position of the Window. If it is spread on a ‘radical’ idea, and is effective, the Overton Window will shift by a bit towards that direction. For example, on the issue of cow slaughter, if the ‘sensible’ opinion is reduce leather production through incentives, a ‘radical’ idea might be to ban slaughter of all cows that are not sick. When people attempt to use the tools to promote the radical idea, the shift in the Window is not likely to actually make what is ‘radical’ something ‘sensible,’ instead it will pull it in that direction such that a midway idea like slaughter cows only for beef and banning its use for leather becomes ‘sensible.’ If it is an ‘unthinkable’ idea and the propaganda is effective, it will actually shift it by a greater degree towards the idea. Using the same issue, if the ‘unthinkable’ idea is ban cow slaughter completely, then the ‘radical’ idea of banning slaughter of all cows that are not sick would perhaps become ‘sensible.’ The underlying premise is that the further away from the ‘sensible’ opinion-makers try to go, the higher intensity and influence they can have on changing the Overton Window. Hence the intensity of a shift in the Overton Window is determined not only by how effectively the tools are used but also how different the idea is from the Window.

Politicians usually follow the Overton Window as Civil Society moves it. NGOs, protest groups and lobbies attempt to change the Window and politicians play a game of catch-up. However, the greatest politicians who are remembered are usually exceptions to this. They are true leaders in the sense that rather than simply follow the Overton Window, they make the effort to change it towards the direction they want. Examples of such leaders are Roosevelt, Hitler, Indira Gandhi and Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

In India, the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party is riding the shift in the Overton Window facilitated by its affiliated groups. Groups such as the RSS, VHP and other Hindu fringe groups have been vehemently spreading propaganda of a Hindu Rashtra, the greatness of ancient Hindu “science” and respect for the cow. To most of the population of India, the idea of a Hindu Rashtra is definitely ‘unthinkable.’ But that’s not the real goal of the BJP. It only allows them to push a soft Hindutva agenda- to remove Haj subsidies, for example. While lynchings occur in the name of the cow, it allows them to make the setting up of a “Cow Ministry” in Rajasthan seem sensible. This phenomenon is very easily noticeable in many of the BJP’s key election issues. By spreading propaganda and awareness about persecuted Hindus like in the case of the Kashmir Pandits, the BJP has also managed to shift the Overton Window such that ideas like accepting persecuted Hindu minorities from other countries but not Muslim minorities has been made ‘sensible’, an issue which has gained relevance with the issue of Rohingya refugees and the NRC exercise in Assam.

However, it is worthy to note that the 2014 election cycle was not dominated by such tactics. The 2014 election was focused on corruption and development most of all as there was an intense anti-incumbency for the Congress after its blatant errors in its second term. The attempt to shift the Overton Window definitely began much earlier, possibly traced back to the Hindu Mahasabha in the early 20th century, up till the RSS activities during the Partition and the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992. These efforts have indeed managed to shift the Window to a degree. However, after 2014, since the BJP came to power, at a time when they were on the very edge of the Window, the affiliated groups have been given greater strength and voice. This makes their use of the tools far more effective than it was before, thereby increasing the intensity of the shift. Over the past 4 years, the BJP has inched its way towards Hindutva and followed the Overton Window’s expansion in that direction, pulled primarily by its own ancillaries.

Notably, as 2019 approaches, not only has the BJP expanded the Window, it has also helped shrink it from the other side, to some degree. This is apparent from the new strategies adopted by the Congress of ‘soft Hindutva.’ It is clear that the Congress believes the Window has shifted such that to survive they must shift along with it. In Madhya Pradesh, they have pledged to make 23006 gaushalas to tackle the BJP. Recently, Rahul Gandhi, the Congress President, was on a Kailash Yatra to portray an image of a devout Hindu, even willing to say “Shiva is the universe” in a tweet. The Congress which has previously chosen to use the non-Hindutva side of the Overton Window believes that it is no longer tenable to remain there. By moving their campaign strategies towards the Hindutva side, the idea that the Window has shrunk to make opinions on the non-Hindutva side no longer ‘sensible’ has been virtually confirmed.

All of this suggests a radical shift in the 2019 election that is to come in India. The issues that will be brought up will be completely different as the Overton Window has shifted. However, this is only a theory- it may also be true that the Congress has misread the Window and failed to realise a growing anti-Hindutva sentiment. Either way, the fact that the two major parties believe that the Window has shifted means that the politics of the 2019 elections has definitely shifted.

The question that must be asked to Civil Society right now is whether it is suitable to let it remain here or should the toolbox be opened to stretch the Window back to where it was?

 

 

Links for further information and sources:
More on The Overton Window (Please note that the creators of the Overton Window theory linked to here are explicitly right-wing)
Vox’s video on Trump’s use of the Window (Vox is also known to be explicitly left-wing in American terms)
BJP’s key 2019 pushes
Rajasthan’s Cow Ministry
Congress pledges gaushalas (cow shelters)
Rahul Gandhi’s twitter

 

 

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Does the Kingdom of Freedom Begin Where the Kingdom of Necessity Ends?


To begin with, we must first understand what the phrases ‘Kingdom of Freedom’ and ‘Kingdom of Necessity’ mean. Let us begin with the latter, as it is more straightforward.

Necessity refers to a state in which people lack something that they require to survive. ‘Need’ in a psychological sense may include various human requirements such as love and friendship. However, in the context of what the State can provide, let us stick to necessities such as food, water, shelter, clothing, financial security and health, which can be defined as Physiological and Safety Needs. The reason we will stick so such definitions is because although the State definitely can have some influence over the attainment of other abstract needs, the impact is not as direct. Moreover, the State’s role in addressing physical needs, which is easier to comprehend can be applied to other needs as well.

Freedom on the other hand, is a more disputed quality among philosophers. It can be regarded in an almost spiritual sense as described by Hegel in which ‘true freedom’ involves the surrender of personal liberty to attain the ‘higher’ collective freedom of the State. But such a conception of freedom is often derived from a twisting of language to defy it’s own purpose, hence let us try to look at freedom in a sense closer to it’s intention- one of individual freedom.

Isaiah Berlin separates such freedom into two basic concepts- negative liberty and positive liberty. The former, he contends, can be summed up by John Stuart Mill’s original idea of liberty as being in a state free of coercion, except those that restrict one from impinging upon the personal liberty of another. This restriction is often summed up by the adage: ‘the right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.’ Negative Liberty is thus summed up as having an inviolable personal domain in which one can exercise their liberty, protected from infringement by authority. However, Laski, as well as Mill himself, also characterises freedom as ‘the atmosphere in which [people] have the opportunity to be their best selves.’ This idea of freedom cannot be achieved by Negative Liberty alone. Firstly, pure negative liberty would suggest that one person can directly harm another; however, as discussed, most modern thinkers would agree that liberty must be taken in a limited measure, restricted by law to prevent say the chaining of one person to restrict their liberty. Secondly, and more significantly negative liberty, even after its restriction by law, may not provide everyone with the latter notion of freedom or the opportunity to be one’s best self.

Let us consider two situations to explore the contradiction of negative liberties- John and Jane. John is born to a rich family and is given an inheritance which affords him all the needs we have considered- health, food as well as financial security to explore his own path freely. Jane on the other hand is born to a poor family. Without having the appropriate resources, she falls sick often due to malnutrition and is often weak. Her parents could not afford to send her to school either which means she would be less advantaged in comparison to an educated person in competition for a higher-paying job, placing her in a situation of financial insecurity. But for the sake of simplicity, let us say both John and Jane have the same dream: both of them aim to make and sell carpets. John has very little to worry about- he can freely invest money in purchasing equipment to make these carpets; Jane on the other hand, faces several problems. Besides the obvious lack of capital to obtain materials to make carpets, she may not have the energy or the complete know-how of production since she lacks nutrition and education. Once again, John has the upper hand in both of these cases as he has ample food and support and even has the education to be able to read more on the processes of carpet-manufacturing.

There are two things to note from this above scenario:

Firstly, while both of them may face some problems in common, such as whether the carpet design will sell in the market, John and Jane are placed in different situations such that John has more opportunity than Jane to be able to sell his carpets in the marketplace in the first place. Therefore, it can be said that Jane is not as free as John because she has a necessity for things that are required before she can achieve her dream. These necessities are virtually obstacles- they are abstract shackles in her exercise of freedom.

Secondly, the situations into which John and Jane are born are not attained by them by their own actions. They have been placed upon them by birth and society’s eagerness to maintain the status quo- they are socially reproduced across generations. This means that Jane is uneducated in most probability because of her parents being uneducated. Social attributes like education, social standing, etc. tend to be reproduced as parents have to break the convention to change it, which entails a greater effort on their part. Although there are exceptions to this, they are highlighted as cases of extraordinary individual effort, something which another individual born with better social attributes may not have required.

It is clear that the idea of freedom as having the opportunity to be the best version of one’s self cannot be granted by negative liberty alone. This is where positive liberty comes in. Positive liberty is having the opportunity and the basic necessities required in order to make the freedom so desired something that is achievable to the individual. It is freedom from want in the sense that it is freedom from those conditions of illiteracy, penury, malnutrition, etc. which restrict one’s exercise of personal liberty.  If Jane from our above hypothetical was provided food, for example, then she might find that her health is in good condition and the amount of resources going towards her nutrition could instead be directed at something like vocational training, helping her to acquire the skills that provide her the opportunity to make carpets. It is on this notion of positive liberty that a State can justify its infringement of personal and negative liberty. In order to assure every individual’s freedom, the State must take up the role of ensuring justice by providing those opportunities which social conditions deprive some of it citizens of.

It follows from the above logic that indeed the Kingdom of Freedom begins where the Kingdom of Necessity ends.

 

The real problem arises however when we try to implement provisions to ensure positive liberty. Ideas like progressive taxation and labour laws today have been broadly accepted. However, the State may also try to adopt more coercive measures. There is, for example, the Hobbesian State which provides the Leviathan, a supreme authority,  with complete power in order to provide individuals with freedom from the state of war and chaos. Constant also points out that Rousseau’s solution is not very different as it too provides complete control, albeit to a popular government. Rousseau’s General Will(his principle of plural government) holds the will of the majority as the will of all and often this can lead to suppression of the minority by the majority. Hence in a bid to provide people with the opportunity to flourish , the State can often suppress the individual in the name of common good.

The question may thus come to whether positive liberties are superior to negative liberties, pursuant to which such models of complete control are justified. As all things in politics go, the answer lies in-between: there is a requirement of a mindful division between what is right to intervene in and what is wrong. This process can only be deemed to be fair and free, if the people it applies to are consulted and hence a Kingdom of Freedom requires a Kingdom of Limitations- constitutional(or structural) limitations on the State, to be precise.

Such a conclusion may seem like an escape, but with the above principles kept in mind, the greatest degree of freedom can be ensured. Let us analyse three such broad principles and why they are required.

The first is a system of democracy. A representative democracy is one in which there are periodic free and fair elections held to choose representatives who will hold positions of power. The reason this is essential is because a government can derive it’s legitimacy only from the people. No person, in a modern, secular society, can stake any claim of sovereignty over another unless the other grants the same to him/her. Without this consent, a person has a logical right to protest against any sovereign. Hence, if a government should exist to make decisions on what is the boundary of their influence, then they certainly must legitimize this decision by being democratic.

The second is a respect for minority interests. This is generally encapsualted by the principle of constituional democracy. A pure democracy entails decision by numbers, but a constitutional democracy enforces some restrictions even on the majority. The recent Indian Supreme Court judgement under Navtej Singh Johar v Union of India has highlighted this by making a distinction between constitutional morality and social morality. These are distinctly separate- the former includes a caveat(in most well-written constitutions) that minorities are to be given a greater say than their numbers because otherwise the majority will simply become the dictatorship. This ensures that when decisions on negative and positive liberties are made, even the minorities are indeed heard and this will allow for a system where rights are not given only for the benefit of the majority.

The third is carving out the path of least disturbance, which is the most vital test to be followed. It is essentialy a cost-benefit analysis where the benefits of the positive liberties granted are weighed against the costs of the infringement on the negative liberties therein. The general rule to be followed is to ensure maximum positives while ensuring minimal disturbance.

 

As this essay ends, hopefully, the reader has gained some insight into the problems of ensuring true freedom in a society where essential needs are unfulfilled as well as some methods to arrive at a solution for the same. It would be apposite to conclude with a succinct one-line answer to the titular concern in the words of Laski: “Where there are rich and poor, educated and uneducated, we find always masters and servants.”

 

(Do consider perusing the foundational essay on which this is based: Two Concepts of Liberty by Isaiah Berlin)

Another article on the Navtej Johar judgement(Sec 377) is in the works, especially with regard to the concept of constitutional morality superceding social morality.

Works Cited

All quotations and references to other philosophers and thinkers have been double-checked from the following sources and can be depended upon for its reliability.
  1. Appadorai, A. (1975). The Substance of Politics. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
  2. Berlin, I. (1958). Two Concepts of Liberty. 
  3. Khan Academy Medicine. (2015, March 27). Social reproduction | Social Inequality | MCAT | Khan Academy. 
  4. Marx, K. (1999). Economic Manuscripts: Capital, Vol. 3, Chapter 48. (F. Engels, T. Delaney, & M. Griffin, Editors) 
  5. Maslow, A. H. (1943). A Theory of Human Motivation. Psychological Review , 370-396.
  6. Richey, T. (2016, Febuary 29). Positive and Negative Liberty (Isaiah Berlin – Two Concepts of Liberty). 

 

 

 

 

Today


  Bed, sweater, blanket. Warmth. The bleak wind comes to numb my nose and I pull up my blanket to shield it from it’s biting menace. Sleep had been tough the previous night. Although I hadn’t much to do- or rather, though I had much to do, I hadn’t much I wanted to do- yet my eyes would rather blush red than let the light fade out. The blurry slither of outdoors visible to me has a fairly bright glow for winter- it appears it’s already past the chilliest morning hours. Flitting between the day and night, my mind is held in an anodyne limbo.

  The heaviness of the previous night enters my heart in a flood. I feel my chest hoist up a bucket. I could try and characterise this heaviness for you- sadness? guilt? pain? embarrassment? longing? I don’t know. I feel too tired to go into the dripping pool in my breast and take a few sips of the water. Or perhaps that’s what I say to convince myself that I’m not afraid; that the dark bottom of the pool doesn’t make me think of monsters, thieves and murderers that made me wee when I was seven.

 

  But the sun is being frustrating. It points its long fingers at the dust in the corners of my eye and provokes my swollen eyelids to break from their embrace. You see that’s the problem with mornings. It’s always trying to get you to move. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that if the morning were cast  into a deity, it would definitely be a dog that chases you out of your comfort, much to your annoyance.

  I breathe all the dampness out of my lungs. It heaves out like a steaming pressure cooker, rumbling out of my nostrils with a careless warmth. Sighing with my lips apart into the comforting insulation of my blanket, I give in to the Dog God and let the light into my eyes.

  Like in a mist kissed by the sun, my room materialises, layer by layer. The other bed, typically occupied by my presently absentee brother, lies neat and unruffled, almost like its been put under an iron. The dusty blue curtains are drawn apart, throwing the small room open to the sight of a thousand green, inert leaves. They almost seem frozen in place despite the faint, dying breeze that works its way towards my bare skin.

  The shelves are all ordered with books arranged by subject, size and frequency of use- in that order. The small polished wooden cupboard in the corner basks itself in daylight, almost mocking me in my cocooned blanket.

  I close my eyes.

 

  Shoes, bag, phone. Rush. A layer of sweat graces my furrowed brow, glistening in the sun. Blinkers on, my vision flies past the broken cobblestones and teetering road signs to the building draped in technicolour signage beyond. My feet jump off loose tiles into muddy shallows, tap-dancing to the rhythm of cars and scooters honking in tandem with the shrill ringing of a coterie of quaint little bicycles and the wailing of disintegrating buses. Under my step, I can feel the shifting of pebbles as the little mounds melt into each other and hide themselves.

  As I step onto the tar, my ears perk up to the rising sound of a monstrous bellow that nears with a frightening velocity. I flick my head right with a crack of my neck. My muscles freeze as I see a hefty, red motorbike zip towards me. The sweat has beaded up by now and my fist clutches at the strap of my bag, enough to crush it if it were glass. I scrunch my eyes close and hear a screech coupled with a gust of wind against my face, blowing back my jeans and shirt. Immediately, a volley of abuses sputter out of the rider’s mouth.

  Bruised by the incident, I slink away once the fury dies down and the momentary kindling of public interest fades away. The monster’s bellow floats away down the road, leaving a tinge of smoky apprehension in its wake. My armpits are damp and I can feel the blood in my veins slow down to an ooze. My destination is facing me, its cracking walls veiled by the swirling shades of paint.

  My heart seemed to have lurched out of place in that moment. I can feel it’s throb emanate from an alien location. Now, it’s slowly sliding back, smoothly settling itself in place, like a button being pushed through a hole.  I sense a new weight on my heels, anchoring my body. It roots me to the side of the pavement as I take a cursory glance back at the road- it’s chaos, its cacophony.

 But I tear myself away.

 

  Sofa, chips, tubelight. Sloth. My baggy clothes fall against my skin. Shoulders drooped and eyes mistily gazing at the blue-lit television screen show a fighting couple, distraught. A dramatic score kicks in, marked by sombre tones. A successful artist can take you by the heart and pull you into the emotion of the moment. On screen, pearlescent tears freefall, glinting in the foreground of a dim white light.

  From inside the kitchen, I hear the knife hit the chopping board. Routinely: tuk-tuk-tuk-tuk. It stops and I hear the flame of the stove alight, its ever so light tumble of a sound persisting as I look over to the window where twilight is sapping away the blue.

  Dinner is an uneventful affair. With a single fork, I assail the meat, separate it and swallow it. The curtains are drawn as outside the night has swallowed us whole. The speaker seems to be broken- a dull, vexatious white noise emanates from it, adding a vintage tinge to the words coming out of the television. Irresponsible, uncommitted- nothing can come out of your false promises!

  Restless, I walk into my bedroom. There’s sheets of paper on the desk. The cupboard is half open and the shelves are in disarray. One by one, I walk across the room, taking items in my hand and placing them in their little boxes and platforms. In the end, I pull out my sweater and lay it out on the bed.  

  I pull out my phone and stare at it.

 

  

 

Khwaabon ke parindey- translated


Khwaabon ke parindey is a song featured in the Hindi film Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara. The lyrics are written by virtuoso poet Javed Akhtar. (Note that this is a free translation and does not adhere to metre or exact transliterations)

 

Fly,

Fly oh white-winged aspirations

Into the open, guileless  blue skies

Through green pastures of the heart-

Fly to where a grey mind does not go.

 

With those wings unfurling

We are finally coaxed awake,

Shedding burden like snake-skin,

We rise lighter, far brighter and

Our lives dance in the swirls of wind,

Celebrating – oh, let it be.

 

A stranger’s simple touch sets us off

As we wander, ambrosial and free-

Till we lose ourselves in a foreign tongue;

In this realm, we feel our hearts melt-

And lo, in that moment we are changed.

Now, let it be.

 

The sun peeks out to shower us warmly,

And its love adorns our path like drizzle

Life brings its happiness and rains it over

Us- finally we learn to love these clouds.

 

Do you remember that moment?

When a magic descended on us,

Crafting us anew, a fresh brew-

What a moment that was!

The heart pulls us in, inveigles us-

Follow the road paved by dreams.

Let it be, let it be.

 

 

*Lyrics transcript sourced from: LyricsMint*

 

 

Gauri Lankesh- haikus in tribute.


 

 

She broke away, a

distributary at the gap-

ing mouth of Ganga.

 

White snow flowing down,

from mountain pedestal to

burning plains’ grassroots.

 

Her blood, now a river:

tributary to the quiet

trickle of dissent.

 

 

I do not particularly adore Gauri Lankesh- she is a journalist and a member of civil society. This triad is dedicated to what her assassination represents: a blatant disregard for freedom of speech. The unfurling plot behind her assassination only goes to confirm that majoritarian tendencies have gone out of hand.

Ref: http://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/bangalore/the-brutal-murder-of-a-firebrand-journalist/article19628762.ece

Floral Floundering


 

identity(#3 of 3)

I hope one day to hold a rose and kiss it,

to kiss the thorns on its stem and cut my lips- blood

tastes good.
I wear roses on my body-

I wear roses to hide my insolent hips from swaying too wide;
I adorn my long, droopy arms with sunflowers and yellow

if my blood isn’t warm enough at least its flowers are;
My back is laced with lilies and jasmine-

its scent masks the trace of fear that blows

like a wanton wind;
My chest is the mantle to the tulips that rise into my throat,

stifling thought, stifling expression,

isn’t it beautiful to look at?

 

Masquerading Liberty


The poem is to be read along with the image.

Photography by the author.
Hide!
Let dulcet music ride through the tawny

bells that cling like indifferent babies to

the waves of paper that mother it.

Evade all the feces floating in the canals,

by wearing masks like the water:

a shade of diluted moss or snowy lapis,

with vibrant flowers of apple and rose

Or apricot and marigold or banana and corn

floating silently like humble spectacles.

Embellish the superficial reflection of

a cherry-or-cobalt-lipsticked woman with

a baroque, gold embossment that steals

away the light of flickering tongues, rising

from bronzed mouths with ashen teeth held

by black-eyed men with quivering shoulders

but stiff hands, and spits it onto the shadowy

knolls and valleys of the dynamic acqua.

Follow the masquerade along the

fondamenta and watch faces drawn by

gods in candlelight-glow along rugas.

Let the plucked and spruced feathers from

squawking birds that had their wings clipped-

That proudly adorns your head like the dome of

St Mark- bring a tailwind under your arms and

help you grow the wings of pigeons that fell

on the ancient squares of masegni in the Piazza.