On the 4th and 5th of February, I was at the Vidharbha Literary Festival, held at the Chitnavis Centre in Nagpur — on the metaphorical doorstep of the RSS headquarters.
There was, I learned after reaching the city the night before, considerable right-wing angst about some of the invited speakers — people like Aakar Patel, Josy Joseph etc. Indirect pressure was applied on the organizers. Four speakers who were on the RSS shit list dropped out at the request of the organizers (which meant that I had to do a couple of impromptu sessions to fill gaps in the schedule, but that is a different story for another time).
More recently, I learned that the RSS had planted people at the event to monitor the sessions and report on the content. A contact sent me a smuggled copy of the report. It is an interesting document if only because it shows that the right wing does not want any discussion at all about almost anything at all — the report criticizes every single session from a right wing/Hindutva lens.
One line in the report jumped out at me:
Offensive and derogatory statements for Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh by Prem Panickar (my surname is spelt with an ‘e’, but never mind that) as he stated the term ‘Sanghi Chaddiwale’ for Swayamsewaks.From a report submitted to RSS HQ on the Vidharba Lit Fest
As an example of how the right-wing ecosystem will twist anything to its own advantage, I’ve never seen a better. (Actually, I have, but I haven’t experienced it personally). Here’s what actually happened: There was a panel discussion on why the left and right have drifted so far apart, and whether we would ever be able to bridge the gap.
At one point, I said that we had to stop talking past each other and start talking to each other. And that becomes impossible if we stick labels on each other, call each other names.
I asked the audience for a show of hands: How many like jam on their toast? A few hands went up. I picked one and asked him whether he makes jam at home or buys it off the shelf. When he said he usually bought jam from the store and named his favorite flavor, I asked him if he could list all the ingredients. He couldn’t.
That, I argued, was the crux of the problem. Labels obviate the need for you to think for yourself. Thus, if you stick labels like ‘liberandu’ or ‘pseudo-intellectual’ or ‘commie’, whatever, on the left, or ‘sanghi’, ‘chaddiwala’ and such on the right, you don’t see an individual as a human being, but as a type; you put him or her in a box that suits you. And you can’t have a conversation with a ‘type’. So, I argued, the first step towards bridging the gap is to see each human being as an individual in his or her own right. (The audience — in Nagpur — applauded, to my considerable surprise and delight.)
That was what actually happened. In light of that, see how the report — written, my source tells me, by a ‘journalist’ — frames it.
In passing, think for a moment of the RSS plants in the audience, and the journalist who compiled that report. You know what the organization you work for wants and what its mindset is (In this case, lit fest equals right-bashing). So you provide what your org needs — reasons to take offense. And you pocket your two pieces of silver…
And all of that brings me to Savarkar, and to Rahul Gandhi’s recent press conference. “My name is not Savarkar, it is Gandhi — and a Gandhi does not apologize” might get him plaudits from the peanut gallery, but it is just bad strategy.
Firstly, to say you will never apologize smacks of arrogance — we are all human, prone to mistakes. When you make one, you apologize and, if possible, try to put it right.
More importantly from a realpolitik angle, you don’t go out of your way to give your opponent a chance to take back the conversation.
Throughout the 40-odd minutes that interaction lasted, RG kept turning every question back to his main point: Who gave Adani the Rs 20,000 crore. Perfect — that is what you do, stay on message. But he lapsed twice, and lost most of what he had gained.
The first was when he needled a reporter about being a BJP shill. He was right, as far as that goes — “insulted OBCs”, the BJP talking point, kept getting thrown at him. But what his irritated response did was give the media an excuse to take the high ground, such as it is. ‘Reporters will ask questions, you cannot insult them’ became the talking point — not merely for the captive sections of the media, but also for the likes of Rajdeep Sardesai, whose striving for “balance” only ends up with him doing awkward splits while straddling a barbed wire fence topped with broken glass.
The second was the Savarkar reference. What did he accomplish? The BJP latched on to it; sundry trolls with Cabinet posts hammered away at him over it; Eknath Shinde says the party will launch a state-wide yatra to celebrate ‘Maharashtra’s hero’; Savarkar’s grandson threatens to file an FIR… (Um, while on that, someone tell him it is the police that files FIRs.)
The net result is that in the days following the press conference, not a single media report or social media ‘influencer’ needed to mention the Adani question — they had two handy distractions handed to them, gift-wrapped. Pity.
The Opposition needs to keep the conversation in the here and now, stay focussed on the questions of today. Stay on message. And they need to decide what that message is that they all agree on, first.
PS: This Twitter thread is… everything.