This morning, I saw a startling thread on my Twitter timeline. Joe Walsh, a Republican candidate for the 2020 Presidential elections in the United States, went for a Donald Trump rally in Iowa and asked some questions of those waiting in line to enter.
Does Trump lie, Walsh asked. “No”, was the answer. It was the wrong answer — as of mid-December, Trump has made 15,413 “false or misleading claims” — Newspeak for “lie”. That is an average of 14.6 lies for each day in office. He has lied more often in 2019 than in the previous two years put together.
Has Trump played golf while in office? No, Walsh was told, unlike Obama, Trump has never played golf while at work. Again, wrong answer. Trump has played golf so often, so visibly, that there is an actual site dedicated to tracking his golfing days, and what it is costing the taxpayers (a small matter of $125 million and counting). His last golfing day was February 2nd — literally two days before this Iowa rally.
Nobody knew, or cared, that the US fiscal deficit now exceeds $1 trillion. Nobody thought Trump had done something bad — impeachably bad — in Ukraine. Everyone thought it was China, not the US, suffering because of his trade tariffs.
Where do you get your news from? How aware are you of the vast gulf between what is happening and what you think is happening? How do you know what is real, any more? What, today, is “news”, anyway?
Back in the day, when JNU boiled over with the fabricated ‘tukde tukde‘ allegations, I started writing a series of posts on what ‘media’ is today, and how we got here. I started with Rajeev Chandrasekhar — who at the time was the primary investor in then then fledgling Republic TV channel — and his definition of news, and how to measure it.
The second piece in the series looks at how we got to this place, where we don’t even have a clear definition of news anymore. “We live,” I wrote at the outset, “in a world where it is increasingly impossible to differentiate between news and noise, to distinguish signal from surround sound, to differentiate real events from manufactured ones. And we did not get here overnight.”
The third in the series explores the question of when and how the deterioration accelerated — with the downgrading of the role of the editor, and the entry of excel jockeys who would hold newsrooms accountable not for facts, for truth, for deep reporting but for clicks, and page views, and unique users.
The fourth, borrowing from Daniel Boorstin’s seminal — and still relevant — book The Image, looked at how the media manufactures the things we unquestioningly believe are true. Then I looked at a discrete incident of how the media pushed a fake story — and how it triggered a tragedy. And at an egregious breach of journalistic norms and ethics from nearer home, centering on Kulbhushan Yadav (anyone remember him?). Also at a case study of how poison spreads, involving India Today and its much-feted anchor Shiv Aroor.
These pieces are long, your time is short, and I am not even sure if any of this matters any more. But these last 24 hours I — as a journalist now 32 years in the profession — have been thinking of the role of the journalist, of the media, in helping to create this dystopian world we live in today. And it seems others are, too: It came up in a totally unrelated phone call with a friend, and it came up right at the outset of a lunch yesterday with another friend, and that is just in the last 24 hours. It occurs to me that it is time to put the news back in “news”, and I intend to try. Finding people who see the need and are willing to back it is a challenge but what the hell, if not now, then when?
Are you following the Delhi election campaign at all? If you are, yesterday would have struck you as a particularly memorable day — in a Hall of Shame sort of way — in what has been a particularly execrable campaign. And that is only partly because the Prime Minister personally entered the fray, and through what he spoke about and what he refrained from speaking about clearly indicated the mindset of his party.
What he chose to speak about is, mostly, Shaheen Bagh which he characterised as vote bank politics. He said:
It begins with a blatant lie: There has not been a single “assurance” of substance from this government, barring sweeping declarations that “no one will be affected”. It then morphs — without any relevance whatsoever — into his much-touted, and ultimately ineffective, “surgical strikes” and makes “these people” the anti-national enemies who question him. And then, there it comes, the clear dog-whistle: He mentions three particular protests and sites to raise the bogey of some dark, shadowy, dangerous “politics behind this” — without specifying what it is that is dark and dangerous about it.
Here is the PM, in his own voice (and to large swathes of empty seats). Listen to him, and to how the crowd reacts as he hits the high spots:
Seelampur. Jamia. Shaheen Bagh. What is the commonality? See the map below:
An incomplete, crowd-sourced map of protests countrywide (one which does not even list the over sixty 24/7 non-stop, Shaheen Bagh-style protests across the country) shows, at last count, 458 anti-CAA protests in the country. It lists 17 in his home state of Gujarat. Hell, it lists 34 in Delhi alone. The map in its entirety — and again, remember this is incomplete — is a graphic, stunning indicator that what began as a protest has morphed into a revolution that encompasses the entire country in its sweep, leaving no corner untouched.
But: Seelampur. Jamia. Shaheen Bagh. A clear dog-whistle for the dogs of war primed to listen, and to act — as three men with guns have acted thus far; as a Hindu Sabha mob, held back by a three-layered barricade and a very strong police contingent, acted. And as, even as I was writing this, a crowd at Jamia acted:
Modi’s appearance on the campaign trail was in the role of accelerant; his job was both to give official imprimatur to the intense communal rhetoric that has characterised this election cycle, and to kick it into a higher gear.
The program of incitement was premiered as early as December 20, when Kapil Mishra led a pro-CAA rally in dally to the chants of goli maro saalon ko. That first appearance of the slogan prompted considerable outrage — except within the BJP, which rewarded Mishra with a ticket to contest the Delhi elections. (That is how the BJP finds its candidates — from the dregs. Remember Tajinder Bagga?)
It was Home Minister Amit Shah — the man, in case it needs reminding, who is responsible for the maintenance of law and order in this country — who kicked it off with his February 26 rally, where the goli maro saalon ko slogan was raised and where Shah turned the heat on Shaheen Bagh. Buses were burnt, cars were burnt, if “these people” come back Delhi will not be safe, the always fact-free Shah told the crowd.
Something happened that day that we neither noticed, nor remember today:
However, the party has distanced itself from such sloganeering. The party president in Delhi, Manoj Tiwari said that neither he or BJP supports such remarks. He also asserted that BJP was contesting elections along the lines of developmental issues like health, water, and cleanliness of Yamuna.
On the very next day, February 27, Union minister Anurag Thakur — in a vivid demonstration of just how far the party had “distanced itself” from that murderous slogan — actually led the crowd in the chant.
Did the party “distance itself” from Thakur? No. Despite the fact that no less than three former chief election commissioners pointing out that his actions were deserving of criminal proceedings. In fact, the party upped the ante the very next day:
In one of the most brazen acts even by the standards of a party that has taken brazenness to unimagined levels, when the EC banned Verma from campaigning for his incendiary remarks, the BJP promptly nominated him to speak on the motion of thanks for the President’s pre-Budget address. And Verma used his speech not to talk of the budget, but to do this:
“Shaheen Bagh protest against the CAA is anti-national as the protesters demand for separation of Assam and Jammu and Kashmir from India. They want Jinnah’s azadi… This is not Rajiv Feroze Khan’s government. It is Narendra Modi’s government… CAA will not be rolled back.”
That is a Parliamentarian, son of a former chief minister of Delhi and also a minister in the Union cabinet, referring to a fellow Parliamentarian, tainting his parentage, and implying that his father was a Muslim. (Which, even granting for the sake of argument is true, which it isn’t, is not a crime or a fault — at least, not yet.)
Another Union minister, Prakash Javadekar, calls Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal a terrorist. Kejriwal walks straight into the unsubtle trap and in course of a town hall, talks of how he has built schools, tell me, am I a terrorist?; how he has built mohalla clinics, tell me, am I a terrorist?, and so on in that vein.
Rookie mistake, because he merely amplified an allegation so ridiculous it deserved to be mocked, not taken seriously and responded to. And that sprung the trap — Javadekar got to expand on his earlier throwaway statement, to run with it (while flanked by the state BJP chief and the sloganeering Thakur):
TimesNow, one of the BJP’s leading propaganda channels, was outraged by the use of the word “terrorist”. Not over Javadekar, though:
We have “proof”, says Javadekar, secure in the knowledge even in what is ostensibly a press conference, no one will ask him why in that case the Central government has taken no action, why it is allowing a proven terrorist to occupy the office of chief minister of the national capital. Not one reporter asked that blindingly obvious question — the statement, however, was carried in every paper, every site, on every channel.
It shouldn’t surprise you, though. Remember this? At a 2017 election rally in Palanpur, Gujarat, the Prime Minister of this country no less accused his predecessor of participating in a shadowy meeting with various senior Pakistani officials, and raised the bogey of a conspiracy. And Amit Shah promptly upped the ante and named Hamid Ansari — see the unsubtle dog whistle there? — as the vice president the PM did not name.
The sequel is equally worth recalling. The Congress raised its customary “uproar” in Parliament. The PM chose not to attend. And the speaker said this:
“All elections are over, the things that are said on the roads shall not come to Parliament…I am not allowing you to raise the issue,” Mahajan said
Yeah, sure, the PM said something that falls squarely within the definition of criminal defamation of a former PM, but hey, raat gayi baat gayi, come on now.
Meanwhile the party which, its chief claimed, was fighting on the planks of development, and security, and education, and health, kicked off February with the release of its second campaign video — one that raises, through clever juxtaposition of words and images, all the old bogeys: urban Naxals, rioting by Muslims, Pakistan… Scroll breaks it down for you frame by frame to underline the hate, the incitement.
“Teach a lesson to those who fear the rise of India,” the song says. “Give an answer, Delhi, to those who love Shaheen Bagh.”
The local unit of the BJP added another layer of vilification:
Consider those lines: “Why are the rapist-killers of Nirbhaya smiling/Who is it who is saving them?” Consider the calculated cynicism of a party that, knowing fully well that the rapists are running out the clock with appeal after appeal, and that the state government and its CM Kejriwal have no role to play in the process, still chose to peddle that line. (You could argue that the words don’t explicitly point to Kejriwal — they don’t have to, the always reliable, and reliably insane, Javadekar already made the connection:
And here, in the final lap of the election campaign, is the BJP’s ultimate weapon — a man who rose to power on the back of riots, a man whose first act on being gifted the chief minister’s post by Modi himself was to cancel approximately 20,000 criminal cases against himself and his fellow travellers, has entered the field to connect the dots: Shaheen Bagh. Biriyani (What on earth is Bisht’s obsession with biriyani anyway?). Riots. Rahul Gandhi. Pakistan. Terrorism. (All spliced in with misquotations and lies about what Dr Ambedkar said, and lies about what Modi’s government has accomplished):
Pakistan, which for the BJP is a much more reliable vote-getter than “development”, “education”, “health”, “peace” and all the rest of it, gets 7 mentions in the space of just 44 seconds (and then gets linked to Shaheen Bagh, and Kejriwal):
‘Is this the most communal campaign ever?’ is the theme of several editorials and opeds in the last few days. No. Every single campaign run by this party has been on these same, predictable lines: ratchet up the fear of some unnamed “others”; invoke a grab-bag of “enemies” including but not restricted to Muslims, urban Naxals and Pakistan; slander the opposition with allegations up to and including treason, all supposedly backed by “proof”…
What does it tell you about a party that, just three days after presenting a budget in the midst of a failing economy, has nothing to say about its plans to reverse the slowdown, its plans to create employment, to promote health and education, to raise farmers’ incomes, to address any of the multitude of ills the country faces today? What does it tell you of a party whose only message, its singular appeal to voters, rests on hate of some unnamed but terrifying “other”?
Speaking of journalism, here is an outstanding example of what depths it has sunk to. At a town hall, a journalist actually thinks this is worth asking. And — what is even worse — a politician, a sitting chief minister, instead of asking the journalist what this has to do with his fitness as a candidate and telling him that religion should not be misused for performative politics, actually obliges:
Remember how Modi and the rest keep harping on how the protests are “despite the government’s assurances”? Here is the latest: In Parliament today, the Home Ministry announced that there are no plans for a nationwide NRC till now. Watch Amit Shah, introducing the CAB, on the floor of the Rajya Sabha:
It will come, he says here. Not yet, says his ministry today — an assurance that means absolutely nothing because the NPR, with the additional questions as distinct from the 2011 form has already been rolled out (and the budget presented on February 1 has set aside Rs 4,568 crore for the exercise. And the NPR is the precursor of the NRC, vide the Citizenship Act of 2003, and vide Shah himself.
The only reason for this seeming “clarification” just now is to buttress the government’s claims that the concerns have been addressed, and also, importantly, because Kerala, West Bengal, Rajasthan, and Maharashtra have already announced that they will not permit NPR within those states, and other states are also preparing similar announcements.
A government that does not know how to admit, let alone correct, an error is using the Delhi election campaign for two interconnected reasons: To use the smoke and mirrors of multiple statements to somehow validate its intentions, and by demonising the opponents of the CAA/NPR/NRC, to polarise the electorate and somehow hope that this polarisation will crystallise into success at the polls.
Will it work? I don’t know. I’d hope not — because “working”, in the sense of translating polarisation into electoral success, will mean a validation of the tactic, and we have far too many examples already of the immense harm such polarisation, industrialised and weaponised — as it is, and will continue to be — has caused.
I want to end this, though, with some things I found. Like this moment at Shaheen Bagh, when a Sikh group that has been actively engaged in helping the people of Kashmir showed up at the protest site in solidarity:
Or this enormous, response crowd at a rally in Madhubani, in Bihar, that turned out to protest the CAA/NPR/NRC:
Or this crowd that turned up at Kodungallur, a temple town in the Thrissur District of Kerala, to hear Bhim Army chief Chandrasekhar Azad speak (in Hindi, a language largely alien to the average Malayali, thus necessitating translation):
And then this speech, by TMC MP Mahua Moitra, in Parliament yesterday where she opposed the motion of thanks for the president’s pre-Budget speech. Click on the link, listen to the speech, it is worth your while:
I’ll leave you with this thought from Moitra’s speech:
“…because the people of India are on the streets today, and they are beyond your ability to silence”