'The Truth About Us': The politics of information, over the ages

A eye-opener about the historic importance of politics of information


The dangers of buying into fake news are all too well known; it is a big battle everyone is fighting at one's own level. But how does it affect the country at large? While there could be many prisms through which we see that, author Sanjoy Chakravorty focuses, among other things, on the way the information revolution may be catalysing “the demise of ideology-driven politics”.

In his new book, The Truth About Us Chakravorty deals with the politics of information from the times of Manu to that of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The information he picks up includes something as all-pervasive as Hinduism. Can we buy that Hinduism was, according to Brian K. Smith, “probably first imagined by the British in the early part of the 19th century”, given Harjot Oberoi mentions that the Vedas, Ramayana and the Bhagavad Gita never use the word Hindu? He avers that Hinduism as known today, may not have existed before colonisation, and suggests that there was “no shared consciousness of a Hindu identity or that there was a fragment consciousness”. All, the result of politics of information around the subject.

Same is the case with caste, argues Chakravorty. Caste, according to him, was created by the first five censuses generally and more particularly those of 1891,1901 and 1911.

Now with the controversy around GDP and other data, we would pretty much buy that numbers can lie. In the first half of the 20th century, the important numbers pertained to community. “This quantity (of Hindus) and its relationship with another quantity (of Muslims) became arguably the most important numbers in the political dynamics of the first half of the twentieth century”. The politics of information was used cleverly not only to divide and rule, but also led to the partition of India, it can thus be argued.

A wide range of issues altered by the politics of information around them have been dealt with. But interesting is how the abundance of information today has empowered “political actors who have the ability to reduce complexity into simple stories and solutions”. The “charismatic” politician with a known and admired “brand” can become synonymous with the political party, ushering in times when the messenger is the message—Modi to Mamata, Nitish to Kejriwal, and even Trump, Erdogan and Putin. Then begins the rewriting of history.

It is a serious subject, written for those interested in the historic importance of the politics of information. And no, it is not about the mischievous fake news in the form of forwards on social media. The book is the truth about us. It is a scholarly work, very readable but not light.

The Politics of Information from Manu to Modi: The Truth About Us

By Sanjoy Chakravorty

Published by Hachette

Pages 301; Price Rs 499