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)