Let’s Frame This: How Conservatives Hijacked Social Discourse in India and what Liberals can do to take it back

“All Muslims are not terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims”. These pearls of wisdom were expressed by an Indian woman who was in the audience at an event to celebrate the victory of our Conservative leader and Prime Minister of India. The venue was Madison Square Garden in New York City. As a first-hand witness to this utterance at the event, I felt a strong need to respond and dispute this lady’s statement — who was standing next to me outside the Madison Square Garden. However, the sheer shock, confusion and chaos in thought that is usually the consequence of hearing Indian politicians address their supporters in varied platitudes, paralyzed me at that moment and I missed the opportunity. I went back home that evening and got further drowned in the debates and media circus that followed the “historic” speech at Madison Square. The memory of those awfully flawed words uttered by that lady got relegated to another familiar “data point” in my exponentially growing database of conservative transgressions.

A transgression it was, for it articulated the issue of terrorism and radical Islam’s role in it as a stereotype. “All terrorists are Muslims”. Was this a factually correct position? No, it wasn’t. The set of all known terrorists are not Muslims. I could have presented this factual argument — referring data and facts from history, referred to religious texts, but in my experience; none of that would have made any difference to her beliefs. I could have even recommended to her the logical conclusion that I usually arrive at when I reflect on religion and its role in propagating violence: Your religion is what you bring to it. If you bring violence in your desires and thought, you will find sufficient references to justify acts of violence in any religion. But experience has also taught me that presenting that particular argument would probably not have made any difference to the lady’s position either. She would likely dismiss me as an intellectual. Unlike this particular instance where I missed the opportunity to engage in a discussion, in many other instances where I have engaged with conservatives or “moderates” on similar topics, I have been labeled as an “intellectual” in rather derogatory tones. This has happened to me over and over again. One disheartening conclusion that I have drawn from such experiences is that there is no point in citing historical, religious, policy and political data to conservatives. It just doesn’t work. Why? One fundamental explanation could be the way liberals and conservatives conceptualize the world, nation, and government. I will address this in a detailed blog post in the near future.

As a “liberal” (a term I have issues with), I believe that the reason we often fail to convince moderates and to some extent, the conservatives is because we are not proactive in formulating and framing the arguments and often are reactionary — thereby responding to terms, frames, boundaries and contours of the debate that are smartly and proactively set by the conservatives. How are the conservatives doing it and why could this be an issue for liberals?

In social sciences, there is a phenomenon called “framing” that describes a set of concepts and theories about how individuals and groups perceive, comprehend and communicate about their surrounding reality. Let’s take an example. If I said the word “buy”, what frame/context does that invoke? It most likely invokes a context of a commercial transaction that has a buyer, seller, goods/services and money. Every word has a context, frame and a background from which it derives its meaning. Similarly, the word “Sell” would invoke a frame of a commercial transaction with a buyer, a seller, goods/services and money. The difference in the frames that the two words invoke lies in what perspective they make salient and bring to your focus of thought. The word, “buy” invokes a buyer’s perspective where the primary focus is on the “what” you’re buying. While the word, “sell” invokes a seller’s perspective where the key focus is on “how much” you are going to get paid for it. Let us apply this example to the types of frames that are invoked by newspaper headlines. Imagine one headline that reads “India buys defense equipment from Russia” and a second headline that reads “Russia sells defense equipment to India”. In the case of both headlines, we understand that there is probably a reference being made to the same commercial transaction between India and Russia in which India is the buyer and Russia the seller of defense equipment. However, the two headlines are distinct in the way they invoke different frames in the mind of the reader. They are distinct in the way they evoke certain questions after you read them. In the case of the first headline, your logical response is likely to be: What is India buying? In the case of the second headline, the logical response is likely to be: How much is Russia selling it for? There is another level of intricacy to this phenomenon. The first headline is more likely to appear in an Indian newspaper and the second one in a Russian Newspaper. Why? Because Indians are more likely to be concerned with what they are buying and less likely to be concerned with how much they are paying for it. Only when they know the details on what the government is buying can they evaluate it in terms of the amount spent for the goods acquired. In the case of the Russian newspaper headline, people are more likely to be concerned with the profits/money earned from the sale and less concerned with what was sold. Only when they know the amount earned would they evaluate whether the goods sold were worth the amount earned. Framing, therefore plays a big role in how people think and evaluate issues to the extent that it frames your reflections and questions generated in your thought.

Contemporary liberalism in democracies suffers from a lack of ability to frame issues in a way that can convince bi-conceptuals or moderates to understand liberal positions and empathize with them. The outcome of this lack of ability means that conservatives have framed social and political issues in ways that not only undermine liberal positions, but also vilify any liberal stating such positions. It is therefore not surprising that liberals in countries such as India are now referred to as “fiberals”, “sickulars” and many other euphemisms that ultimately translate into one simple concept: impostors. In India, liberals haven’t understood how they got to this state. The answer is very simple: They simply haven’t paid enough attention towards framing. The conservatives on the other hand, have relentlessly been at it. Even taking simple newsworthy occurrences and framing them in ways that not only appeal to core voting groups, but also appeal to bi-conceptuals (erroneously referred to as moderates). Let’s take two examples from recent memory to illustrate this phenomenon.

1) Sedition in the JNU case: A literal translation of sedition means “rajdroh” or rebellion against the state. However, in debate after debate on primetime television, the term “rajdroh” was conveniently replaced with the word “deshdroh”. Activities by the JNU students that preceded the arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar were called “anti-national” and not “seditious”. Instead of using the word ”seditious”, all BJP spokespersons and the social media team of the BJP used the term “anti-national”. Remember, there is no law in India that classifies any act as anti-national or “deshdroh.” This was one instance where the BJP and its conservative ideologues got ahead of the liberals and framed the debate using terminology that benefited them. In framing the debate on their terms, they also managed to catch the attention of the moderates on the issue. And yet, liberal voices never bothered to correct these anomalies and responded to the BJP spokespersons using the terms that were actually articulated by their opponents. In doing so, they were drawn into a trap set by the BJP (or conservatives) and no matter how well they argued their case, they were bound to come out looking like impostors. When we use the term “deshdroh”, the mind automatically separates the term “desh” or country from “droh” or rebellion. Every conservative, as indeed every liberal has a conception of country (desh). Where does this come from? There is a theory in cognitive science that says that we tend to understand nation metaphorically in terms of a family. We have founding fathers, mother India, Sons of the soil and so on. Any criticism, critique or act of rebellion against the country is therefore metaphorically perceived as a rebellion against; or a critique of our conceptions of family. When you replace the term “rajdroh” with “deshdroh”, you are metaphorically framing the debate in terms of “parivardroh” (rebellion against the family). When the conservatives used anti-national instead of seditious, they framed the debate to suit their agenda again. What does the term seditious invoke? For most people, nothing. The term anti-national on the other hand invokes an image of opposition to the ideals of the nation. Metaphorically speaking, anti-national means someone who is opposed to the ideal of a family. So, a debate that ought to have been won with logic and reason about the relevance of a legal statute that is against our democratic principles became a debate where liberals came out looking like apologists. In the process, they also lost the confidence of the moderates and ended up putting a great institution in jeopardy.

2) Equality for the LGBTQ community: On this issue, liberals have gained wide public support over the past few years. But this support has not gathered enough strength to convince our elected representatives to pass a well-crafted law sanctifying homosexual unions and granting them the freedom to marry. Conservatives on the other hand, have carefully chosen to limit the framing of the issue in ways that are detrimental towards the ideal outcome the liberal activists want. But what does framing have to do with this? Well, turns out it does. Let’s see how.

a) By framing the issue in purely legal terms as “Section 377”: By framing the issue in purely legal terms, we invoke fear in the mind of people who conceive laws as a strict set of already evolved and articulated regulations essential for the functioning of a society. In addition, they also see any proposed changes to such laws as a challenge to the status quo where outcomes can be uncertain, but procedures certain (albeit delayed). People also intuitively understand that designing and enacting any new legislation involves negotiations and concessions. This process of negotiations and concessions involves uncertainty of outcomes. Any change in existing laws or the repealing of existing laws and enacting completely new ones involves uncertainty. Uncertainty causes anxiety. This is because one probability with such a change is that it will cause widespread chaos since it challenges family structures as articulated in traditional definitions of the family (mother-father-son-daughter; man-woman-child).

b) By framing the issue as an issue of Gay rights: Firstly, the word Gay or LGBT has a frame. That frame is of someone breaking traditional boundaries of gender roles common in the societal set-up and articulated in religious traditions. This frame evokes feelings of both fear and uncertainty. Fear of losing one’s place in the traditional gender hierarchy (man above woman; man as the head of the family) and uncertainty about where one’s place in the newly defined gender and family hierarchy will be. Secondly, the word “rights” in the Indian context has a connotation. We “fight” for our rights. We never “persuade” anyone to allow us our rights. The word “rights” therefore presupposes the imagery of aggression and challenge to norms. This invokes fear in the minds of some. What is the outcome of fear? The outcome is uncertainty and probable defeat.

Therefore, in order to achieve the desired outcome of giving the LGBT community the freedom of choice to live a life a dignity, the issue itself has to be framed in terms of “freedom to a life of dignity” or “freedom to marry”. Unless the issue is framed in such terms (and there can be better articulations of the issue) no political party will honestly and earnestly put its weight behind the issue.

In addition to these major issues, the conservatives have been successful in framing a number of small, fleeting issues through carefully crafted remarks that become a part of our relentless news cycle and are then forgotten after a few days. Such remarks not only end up consolidating the conservative vote base but also end up gradually shifting the moderate vote base towards the conservative side over a period of time. Let me illustrate it with a few examples:

1) The “50 Crore ki girlfriend “remark: To a liberal, this remark signifies misogyny and sexism in the guise of political adversarialism. To the conservative, it means something else altogether. How? Look carefully at the words in this phrase. 50 crore is a reference to a transaction which involved some kind of alleged quid-pro-quo between a minister from a rival party and another business house. The word “Girlfriend” however is used deliberately. This remark was made during an election campaign rally in Mandi, Himachal Pradesh. This speech was delivered in Hindi by a Gujarati in Himachal Pradesh. Yet, instead of using the word “premika” the word “girlfriend” was used. Why? Turns out, the word “girlfriend” has a connotation and a frame too. To a social conservative, the word “girlfriend” evokes an image of a westernized young woman, not the coy girl-next-door that the word “premika” evokes. To a conservative, the westernized young woman, the “girlfriend” is an affront to the traditional values where women are supposed to be premikas, dharm-patnis or sanginis. What is the image we have in our brains for the sangini and the premika and the patni vs the image we have of the girlfriend? The word “Girlfriend” is deliberately used to evoke an image of traditional values coming under threat from westernized concepts such as dating. The word “Girlfriend” becomes an instrument to evoke feelings of traditional values coming under attack.

2) Gau Raksha: This term is used over and over again in our television debates and on social media. The conservatives have carefully chosen the word “raksha” over the term “seva.” The term raksha invokes a frame where the act of raksha needs to be performed as a duty as the cow is deemed to be under attack. In contrast, the term “seva” invokes a frame where the cow needs to be taken care of as a service. Notice how the frame of seva does not involve an adversary or the concept of duty whereas the frame of raksha does. Service is voluntary, but duty needs to be performed at all costs. The frame of raksha also involves a villain. What are you protecting the cow from? The beef eating villain.

3) Ghar Wapsi: This term was used to signify the reconversion of those Dalits or untouchables who had converted to other faiths. This conversion was on account of the discrimination they faced in the Hindu society. This issue again, was deliberately framed by the conservatives to suit their political agenda. “Wapsi” means return. It is a historical fact that that by reconverting to Hinduism, the Dalits were returning to the faith they were born into. But why was the term “Ghar” used? The word “Ghar” translates into home. Home itself evokes a frame. The frame consists of both a physical structure which makes you feel physically secure and; a social structure where hierarchies don’t exist. The word Ghar is devoid of gender and role hierarchies. Interestingly, the word “parivar”, a favourite word of the conservatives was deliberately not used. It was not used because a “parivar” (family) has an internal social hierarchy. There’s the patriarch at the top, followed by the mother, followed by sons who are followed by daughters. If the campaign were to be called “parivar wapsi”, it would have evoked the frame of a structure where hierarchies persist. In a “ghar” there isn’t any social hierarchy. By framing the issue as a wapsi (return) to ghar (home), the conservatives deftly avoided one of the key questions: What will be the position of these reconverted individuals in the social hierarchy of the Hindu society? Though this issue was brought up by the liberals in some television debates, the conservatives deftly avoided it by diverting the conversation in a direction where the discussion became a rhetorical exchange centered on the history of Christian and Islamic evangelism in India.

Conservatives have managed to metaphorize the very word “Liberal” and construct a frame around it. This frame evokes emotions of disgust and hatred amongst conservatives and to some extent, the moderates. They have been fairly successful in painting liberals as hypocritical, dishonest and elitist. How do the liberals address this structured attack on their identity? Well, stop calling ourselves liberals. What we need to do is to construct a new term that frames progressive and democratic values. This should be the first thing the liberals need to do.

Finally, if we have to challenge the conservatives, we need to frame issues in ways where the contours and boundaries of the issues are constructed around liberal and progressive values. Only when we do this over and over again before the conservatives do so, can we bring the discourse in line with our values and ideals.