Religion and rabbitholes

THE big “news” while I was away was Rahul Gandhi announcing that he would contest the Wayanad Lok Sabha constituency, in addition to Amethi.

Analysts went into paroxysms of outrage, most of it on the lines of ‘Et tu Brutus? Then fall Opposition unity’. Their angst apparently stems from the fact that RG, by choosing Wayanad, is contesting directly against the Left, rather than against the BJP, and this is such a betrayal at a time when all good opposition parties should be working together towards a common goal.

This point of view has been promoted by the likes of Prakash Karat, who screamed “betrayal”. Which is rich, coming from Karat, who during UPA II was the lightning rod for anti-Manmohan angst, and even voted with the BJP against the Congress-led government.

But never mind that – we are talking of Kerala. Where, historically, elections both at the state and national level has been a straight contest between two groups: The Left Democratic Front and the United Democratic Front. Guess who’s who? And that is the essential idiocy of this “opposition unity” comment: Kerala is always a straight Left versus Congress contest, so how is Rahul Gandhi contesting against the Left an anomaly?

And then there is Narendra Modi who, campaigning today in Wardha, Maharashtra, seized on this news as his latest talking point — his spin being:

Firstly, this is a flat-out lie. (And I’d love to hear him repeat this in any part of Kerala, when he campaigns there next — they’ll laugh him out of the state. ) The Wayanad constituency has been held, since its inception in 2009, by the Congress. It’s component parts are Sultan’s Battery, Mananthavady and Kalpetta in the Western Ghats, both of which have sizeable Christian and Muslim populations but are dominated by Hindus; Thiruvambadi, which was earlier part of Kozhikode; Nilambur, Wandoor and Eranad, carved out of Malapurram. Of these, Eranad alone is predominantly Muslim; the rest are all Hindu-majority regions.

The “Hindu minority” charge, which has already been picked up and amplified by various members of the Modi Cabinet (and which, I’ll bet my bottom dollar, will drive debates on the friendly channels for the next day or two), is however the least of it — what is truly dangerous is the insidious way Modi linked that up with another trope — “Hindu anger”. (ADDED AT 9.15 PM: I wrote this bit at about 5 PM. Here you go: TimesNow, now. And Republic with its hashtag. It’s not that I am good at reading the signs; it is just that the propaganda play is a template, and the likes of TN, Republic and Zee News to name the three key players, plus ANI, follow it religiously.)

Why Hindu anger? Because, according to Modi, the Congress tried to paint Hindus as terrorists in the eyes of the world. How? Samjhauta blasts, remember? That is the narrative arc in full: The Congress tried to paint Hindus as terrorists. The court has cleared the accused. Hindus are angry. Ergo, Rahul Gandhi fled to a Muslim-dominated area.

This is Modi giving his official imprimatur to a narrative his minions have already floated, and friendly TV channels amplified. As for example, Amit Shah; Arun Jaitley, repeatedly.

Against that, read what special court judge Jagdeep Saini, who acquitted the accused, had to say. Also here. And here. Then read the coverage of the Samjhauta investigations in Caravan: How the blasts were planned; the role of the RSS; detailed transcripts of interviews with main accused Aseemanand (which, by the way, no one has refuted).

See how this works? Sections of the Hindutva brigade — Hindutva, not Hindu — create incidents in order to foment communal tensions. Friendly governments get the cases dragged on endlessly; friendly investigative agencies and prosecutors make sure that when the case is presented in court, vital evidence is either lost, or obfuscated, or not presented which in turn leads to the release of the accused; which in turn is used by Modi and the propaganda machine to target the opposition and further foment communal tensions.

In this connection, see what else happened in course of the last couple of days of campaigning: Those accused in the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri were featured in marquee seats at a rally addressed by Yogi Adityanath. Remember Ravi Sisodia, main accused in the lynching, who died in jail and who was “honoured” — illegally — with the national flag draping his coffin? Remember how, at his funeral, the speeches were about how the community would be “revenged” for his death? Back to where we started:

So in the above tweet — one statement of Modi, spanning 13 words — how many lies can you count? Now think about the nature of these lies, and ask yourself this: Just how dangerous is this man who will say anything for the sake of a couple of votes?

PS: Another part of this “Rahul ran to Wayanad” thing, that has been popping up in various parts of the echo chamber, is best exemplified in this tweet by RS Prasad:

Let’s see: At the height of the Modi wave, when the BJP and its allies swept 78 of 80 seats in Uttar Pradesh, how did the BJP do in Amethi?

Rahul Gandhi won 46.71% of the votes cast (408,651 votes). His nearest opponent, Smriti Zubin Irani, won 34.38% (300,748 votes). Repeat: this, at the height of the Modi wave. Predicting elections is a mug’s game but chalo, I’ll play: What odds Irani loses by a bigger margin this time?

Point being, there are many reasons why RG would have opted to contest from the south — but fear of defeat in his home constituency is not one of them, just as it wasn’t the reason Modi decided to contest Varanasi as his second constituency in 2014.

Postscript: It is not just that Modi’s religious gaslighting is obnoxious. It is also that it is illegal. Here is the 2017 Supreme Court judgment. Analysis by Alok Prasanna Kumar. And an NYT piece by Karuna Nundy that looks at what the judgment says, and also what it doesn’t.

Odds, trends

  • IndiaSpend, which has been doing some very good data-driven work around the elections, does a deep dive on voter priorities. The findings are eye-opening in themselves; they are even more of a revelation if you compare the concerns of the voter with what is being discussed on the stump. The top three priorities: Employment opportunities (46.8%), healthcare (34.6%) and drinking water (30.5%). This last is, as far as I can recall, a new entry in the list of voter concerns, and it speaks to the increasing stress, in both urban and rural areas, on water resources. But I’ll revert to the theme of water later — for now, stay with employment, the number one concern today.
  • The government knows this. It knows that the concern is widespread, that it spans geographies, and demographics, and it has been trying, as best it can, to defuse the angst. The official message (as in this example) seems to be that the government has created jobs by the millions, but it is just that the data is not available. Modi had previewed this argument earlier, when the job scarcity hit the limelight; he elaborated on that in yesterday’s “interview” with Arnab Goswami, and somehow made it the opposition’s fault.
  • The argument is specious. The first question that occurs is: When all these years we have had unemployment data updated annually, how did this big information hole materialise now? And related, what does it say about a government that has done nothing, if you take the no-data argument at face value, to measure such a crucial aspect of the economy, despite admitting that it is aware of the lacuna? (As Raghuram Rajan pointed out recently, jobs data is not only important in itself, but it casts light on the overall health of the economy.)
  • The thing though is, it is not a lacuna — the data exists, and has been systematically suppressed, as I’d pointed out in an earlier post. (This Twitter thread is interesting, in context). So this desperation to hide data, and to keep repeating the claim that jobs are available in plenty, merely understands the bind the government is in: It knows this is a crucial issue; it knows that this will resonate (more particularly with the young, with first time voters who in 2014 formed a sizeable chunk of BJP voters); it knows its record on this issue is abysmal — but short of Modi’s theatrics and the talking heads parroting the line about lack of data, it has no idea how to deal with this.
  • What is further underlining the BJP’s dilemma is that Rahul Gandhi appears to have shrewdly seized on this as a critical issue. In every interaction, he talks of jobs — starting, as far as I can see, with the townhall in Chennai’s Stella Maris College where he spoke of abolishing the angel tax in order to encourage young entrepreneurs, to as late as yesterday, when he drilled down further into the subject in course of his speeches, and put this out on his Twitter feed. Yogendra Yadav called unemployment a “silent killer” in elections and clearly, its shadow is now beginning to worry the ruling party.
  • In passing, a friend and I were discussing politics, and ex-RBI governor Rajan’s name came up. My friend’s argument was that Rajan’s recent vocal interventions were proof positive that he had been inclined towards the Congress all along; that this inclination had coloured his RBI stint and that, therefore, the BJP was right to be wary about him. As proof of his assertion, he pointed me to this story in Scroll, where Rajan says he had consulted with the Congress on the recently announced minimum income guarantee scheme. I guess it depends on how you look at it. If you had to pick between a guy who ignores all advice, doesn’t consult even bodies specifically set up for the purpose, overrides the RBI and announces demonetisation on a whim, or another guy who, according to reports, has been working on this income guarantee scheme for over two months, has consulted widely, and drawn on the expertise of acknowledged experts before deciding on a policy, which would you pick?

For personal reasons, this blog is on a break till Sunday. Have a nice weekend, folks. Meanwhile, go back to that IndiaSpend deep dive I began this post with — there is much in there that is of interest. And here is a telling cartoon to end this post with:

Politics as theatre

VERY funny. Also very indicative of a sad state of affairs.

The head of government announces that he will address the nation on a matter of national importance – and the first reaction is on the lines of ‘Oh my god what fresh hell is this?!’

It was not confined to the Twitter bubble. I quit my family WA group a long time ago because I was weary of fact-checking a bunch of educated, literate people, and repeatedly finding out that the facts didn’t matter. Today, I had assorted uncles and cousins calling: “Do you know what this is about?” “Should we worry?”

What does it say about a government, and about the trust people repose in it, when the first reaction even among those prone to supporting it is “oh shit what now”?

It turned out to be no big deal after all. And before you go all “What?! Don’t you have any respect for our scientists who…?”, let me explain.

I am no expert, but I understand enough to know that the ability to shoot down an enemy satellite could be a bit of a big deal strategically. How exactly, is for the experts and the scientists to explain, and hopefully that explanation will be forthcoming. But I also know that India acquired the capability way back in 2012 – or more accurately, announced that it had the capability back in 2012, which likely means we had it even earlier, because unlike publicity-hungry governments, scientists are prone to announcing some breakthrough only after rounds of rigorous testing. All that has happened today is that the capability was tested in actual conditions.

Which is not a bad thing at all. It is one thing to say we have a certain capability; it is quite another to demonstrate that capability in public. That said, the DRDO tests weapons systems all the time – it is kind of the agency’s day job. What therefore was unusual about this latest test is that the Prime Minister decided to use it as an excuse to make a speech to the nation.

Prima facie, there is nothing “wrong” with it, nor is there any identifiable violation of the Model Code of Conduct. Nothing about the MCC stops scientists from doing what they do; equally, nothing stops the prime minister from telling the nation about a breakthrough, assuming it is one of national significance.

In actual fact, though, this is a roundabout way of doing what the MCC prevents you from doing. The PM got a solid hour of air time – first the announcement that there will be an announcement that got everyone tuning in, then the delay from the scheduled 11.45-12 noon, which prolonged the airtime (risibly, it was put down to the need to videotape and to edit the message – no major address is scheduled for a particular time until everything has been readied), then the announcement itself, then various Cabinet worthies taking up more telecast time to tom-tom the achievement…

It is a propaganda play, pure and simple. How effective it proves to be depends on what exactly the BJP sought to accomplish with this.

Clearly, the attempt here is to reclaim the narrative — which raises the question of what problem the ruling party hoped to solve.

The reason Modi was successful in 2014 was that he constantly set the agenda, forcing the opposition into a passive, reactive mode. The reason the BJP is struggling now, and is forced to resort to such gimmickry, is that the shoe is now on the other foot, and it is pinching: it is the opposition, particularly the Congress, that has succeeded in setting the narrative, and it is Modi and the BJP that has been forced into reactive mode.

It has been brewing for a while, but it really began with the Main Bhi Chowkidar slogan Rahul Gandhi raised, and which seems to have stuck like a burr in the government’s notoriously thin skin.

Even a couple of years ago, it would have been unthinkable that a slogan denigrating Modi would be raised by spectators at an IPL ground – but times have changed, and namumkin bhi mumkin hai, to quote one of the BJP’s lame slogans of recent vintage. And in passing, it is also food for thought for the analysts who have been whining about the failure of the opposition/Congress to come up with a catchy slogan – it appears not to have occurred to them that the opposition already has one, and that it has the legs to last the duration of this election cycle.

Anyway. The BJP had to react, and the best the party could come up with is the weak “Main bhi chowkidar” comeback – but despite a bunch of party worthies and the band of monkey-see, monkey-do followers, the original “chor hai” slogan continues to resonate forcefully.

Even as the BJP was figuring out how to cope with that (an “address” to chowkidars around the country turned out to be a canned event where Modi spoke to security personnel from a company owned by one of his own party members; the next instalment of the response is supposed to be on March 31 with some event), Rahul switched the focus to the NYAY scheme, and painted the BJP into a tight corner – what is the party to do, say that giving the poorest of the poor a safety net is wrong?

So now the BJP is stuck with responses on the lines of “fiscal responsibility” – fodder for the talking heads on TV (who, by the way, seem unconcerned about where the money to pay an estimated Rs 19000 crore to farmers before the election is coming from, and how it maps to the notion of “fiscal responsibility”), but not the sort of macro economics you can sell on the stump.

What compounds Modi’s problem is Balakot – widely expected at least by pollsters and the commentariat to be a game changer, that narrative seems to have run its course: even the BJP campaigners have not been referring to it much in recent days. Couple that with the various polls that have been floating around and which, irrespective of the leaning of the media house in question, has been unanimous that farmer distress and unemployment are being identified as the key issues in this election cycle, while Balakot/national security scores in the low single digits. In this connection, I came across this perceptive tweet:

To my mind, this is what explains Modi’s address to the nation today – a desperate need to change the narrative, coupled with the paucity of actual achievements that can be talked up. And how lame the PM’s speech was today in terms of setting the agenda can be gauged by the gales of laughter – I wonder how much of that was sheer relief? – that greeted this latest performance. Laughter, by the way, that Rahul Gandhi did his best to help along with this:

WHY is the BJP so paranoid about black attire? Sometime back, I came across this post from Tamil Nadu, and had to check to make sure it wasn’t satire:

And then, earlier today, I read this long piece by Athar Khan, one of TimesNow’s late evening anchors, and not by any means a talking head known for any anti-BJP bias. An extended clip about what happened when Khan wore black to a BJP rally:

A group of seven to eight cops from the larger posse of about 15-20 practically surrounded me and asked me to leave immediately. I tried my best to reason with the senior cop and his associate.’ I am a TV journalist. With Times Now, same group as Times of India, I am on TV every day. I can show you on my mobile. I have met your MP last night.’


Nothing seemed to convince them and with every word that came out of my mouth the hostility and aggression in the cops shot up. It was here that the associate cop asked for my ID and again I showed it to him.


At this point, the crowd to my right had started taking an interest in the commotion and I could feel thousands of eyes on me. Anyone who has ever been in such a situation will tell you, it is a chilling feeling, and I knew I was in danger.


The senior cop told me to either change my shirt or leave the spot because the crowd might not like it. ‘Like what?’’ The fact that you are dressed in black’, he replied. At this point, I had been literally boxed in between the bamboo dividers that separated the media aisle from the other end of the crown and I realised that the cops had literally gheraoed me and were insisting that I leave.


Before I could say anything, an extremely tall cop in uniform with a huge lathi in his hand, came from nowhere and started frisking me from the back without my consent. This happened as I was speaking to his superior. I immediately put my hands up and asked him… ‘aap kya kar rahe hain?’ What do you think you are doing? He ignored me and continued to pat me down and frisk me and check my pockets and lifting my kurta.


A member of the crowd tried to scale the bamboo divider and started tugging at my kurta. It ripped a little at the right pocket. Somebody in the crowd started pointing to my back belt, a spinal corrective orthopaedic belt that I wear because of my lower back disc problem and I realised the people on the stage were not holding the attention of the crowd anymore.

Everyone was looking directly at me and cops were becoming extremely and increasingly hostile towards me, ordering me to leave immediately.
Where will I go?’ I asked the officer …. I don’t have a change of clothes.’ He ordered me to go my car which in the parking lot, around a kilometre from the rally ground.  In an effort to calm the crowd down and allay whatever their suspicions regarding me might have been, I lifted my kurta, voluntarily this time, and showed them the belt I was wearing trying to explain that I wear it to ease my back pain.

So that is what it feels like. Khan ends his piece with questions for all and sundry: he asks politicians whether they now also decide what a person can wear, and where; he asks the police since when journalists became security threats; he asks his fellow journalists why they never spoke up when these things happened to them; he asks lawyers whether this is legal.

The one group he did not question was his own: TimesNow. Which, along with Republic, has spent months, years, gaslighting all and sundry; selling the trope that if you protest against Modi and the BJP you are somehow anti-national, part of the ‘tukde tukde gang’; that journalists are part of some vaguely defined “lobby” that has joined forces with others inimical to Modi and therefore to the nation; ignoring and at times actively encouraging politicians who presume to decide what we can where and where we can go and who we can go with…

Poison is like that. You can help sow it, you can actively disseminate it — but you cannot guarantee that one day, you won’t end up on the receiving end. So yeah, Khan, welcome to the world so many of us live in.

MEANWHILE, harking back to the DRDO test of this morning — within an hour, Republic and TimesNow were doing variants on “Opposition politicising DRDO Test” lines. And now I notice that ANI has gotten a former DRDO chief to say that the previous Congress regime showed no interest in conducting tests to prove this capability.

This Saraswat would be that Saraswat? The one who back in 2011 said this?:

Dr. Saraswat said the next test would be done later this year to intercept a 2000-km-range incoming missile at an altitude of 150 km. India’s plans for putting in place the first phase of the two-layered ballistic missile defence shield by 2012 and the second phase by 2016 were on course. This would be done by integrating it with the Air Defence System of the Indian Air Force and the Army.

A couple of points you might want to think about: First, this capability had already been tested and proved. (What is new about today’s test is basically the range). Second, Saraswat is talking of a schedule of tests that had been planned to be carried out, and a timeline. How does that resonate with his comment now that he was getting no joy from the UPA?

  • Remember why Abhisar Sharma quit the ABP group? Here is the story of how he is — again, via a carefully cut video — being accused of bribing villagers to speak ill of Modi. Goes to my earlier point about what happens to journalists who don’t toe the official line.
  • Arun Jaitley has been going to town about how dramatically the tax base has increased, and how somehow this is a win for demonetisation. Oops — it turns out the the revenue from direct taxes is set to fall well short of projections.
  • What Model Code of Conduct?
  • And while on Adityanath:

One model code of conduct. Two farmer support schemes. Two different standards. At least that is what the Biju Janata Dal, the party that is in power in Odisha, is arguing. The party claims that the Election Commission in Odisha has ordered the state government not to release any additional money under its Kalia scheme, an income support programme for small farmers. Yet the Central Election Commission has permitted the Union government to release as much as Rs 19,000 crore under the PM-Kisan scheme, in the middle of election season.

  • 107 crore worth of cash and booze have been seized in Tamil Nadu. Significant amounts from other states as well. In a corruption-free India, where is this money coming from, does anyone know?
  • Back to the MCC, tangentially: The wife of the judge hearing the Kathua rape case got a nice sinecure from the government. Thing is, no one even bothers to hide these acts anymore.

One thought to round off today with: Recent days have brought a slew of stories on the lines of Jayaprada joins BJP, Urmila Matondkar joins Congress… and of course, these newbies get tickets to contest virtually within minutes of joining. What does it say about political parties that they are forced to rely on Bollywood stars — using the word star loosely, since the two I named, and others understood to be in queue, are anachronisms — to win elections? Here is Hema Malini, MP from Mathura, telling you she has done a lot for her constituency, only, afsos, she doesn’t quite remember the details:

And that is my cue to remind you to check out the performance of your Parliamentarian before you decide whether to reelect him, or her. Here is where you can do this.

Fixed ideas

IN 2003 Joan Didion – who I have quoted before, and will likely quote many more times during this election cycle because there are few more insightful essayists on politics and propaganda – wrote an essay titled ‘Fixed Ideas’. It dealt with how the national narrative was shaped after the fall of 9/11, how the administration sold an entire nation the Kool Aid of a “patriotism” that equated the administration with the country and created a mindset where to question the former was to betray the latter.

That essay is now available in book form, with a preface (available here for NYRB subscribers) by New York Magazine’s writer-at-large Frank Rich, and it should be mandatory reading for anyone looking to navigate the smoke and mirrors world of contemporary politics. I wish I could just cut-paste the whole thing; since I can’t, here are a couple of clips I keep revisiting when the noise threatens to overwhelm me (The ellipses indicate where I have skipped paras to compress the point):

The movement to marginalize or mock any quibbles, however slight, with administration wisdom, to minimize unwanted news that might reflect ill on the competence or motives of its leaders, was the nearly spontaneous reaction of the press and television, needing only a nudge from the White House.

Meanwhile, the administration’s law enforcement excesses and failures – the roundup of thousands of immigrants who had nothing to do with al Qaeda, the inability to discover the source of the anthrax attacks – disappeared into the journalistic memory hole even faster than the White House’s bogus assertion that a credible threat against Air Force One had precipitated George W Bush’s disappearing act on September 11.
….
It (the administration) knows the power of narrative, especially a single narrative with clear-cut heroes and evildoers, and it knows how to drown out any distracting subplots before they undermine the main story.

The above are excerpts from Rich’s extensive preface. Read it slowly and think: What does it remind you of?

Think of Pathankot. Uri. Pulwama. Then read this clip from Didion’s essay:

As if overnight, the irreconcilable event had been made manageable, reduced to the sentimental, to protective talismans, totems, garlands of garlic, repeated pieties that would come to seem in some ways as destructive as the vent itself. We now had “the loved ones”, we had “the families”, we had the “heroes”.
 
In fact it was in the reflexive repetition of the word “hero” that we began to hear what would become in the year that followed an entrenched preference for ignoring the meaning of the event in favor of an impenetrably flattening celebration of its victims, and a troublingly belligerent idealization of historical ignorance. “Taste” and “sensitivity”, it was repeatedly suggested, demanded that we not examine what happened.

There are few differences – aside from increased decibel levels – between post-9/11 United States and the India we live in today. The one significant change is that there, the government actively stage-managed the narrative and the media went along – sections of it willingly, the others willy-nilly because it was deemed “unpatriotic” to ask questions. In India today, the media – or sections thereof – have taken on themselves the onus of framing and amplifying the narrative; the establishment mouthpieces allow, even actively encourage, the media’s activities, and play the role of amplifiers, appearing constantly on friendly channels for stage-managed interactions and avoiding any forum where awkward, unscripted questions are likely to be raised.

You have to admit, a friend said to me, that it is “brilliant political strategy”. I have to admit nothing of the kind, because governance is not about winning elections; national security is not a mise en scene to frame a leader’s aura, to add layers to his mythos. National security is measured not in votes gained and lost, but in coffins. And from that point of view:

We don’t know what led to the repeated intelligence failures that form the unexplored backstory to these repeated terrorist strikes (and by the way, this collective ignorance dates back even prior to NDA-II). We don’t know because we cannot ask; we cannot ask because no one in government allows such questioning.

Absent such knowledge, we can only speculate: That there are broken links in the chain between the formulation of hard intelligence and the acting on it. That Pathankot’s lessons were not learned, because the same storyline played out in Uri. That Uri’s lessons weren’t learned, because Pulwama. Logically, therefore, an establishment busy selling a flattened narrative of the all-powerful hero versus the perfidious villains both without and within is an establishment with neither the inclination, nor the ability, to set things right.

What does that lead to? Or to borrow from Bob Dylan, “How many deaths will it take…?”

THIS Twitter thread by Nikhil Mehra, a Supreme Court advocate and by no stretch a “left liberal” with an anti-Modi bias — is worth a read.

Here is the full thread. And the reason it caught my eye is that it is a far more nuanced take on possibilities than either the manufactured Modi-wave propagated by the likes of TimesNow and Republic, or the breast-beating “What is the Congress doing, oh my god our feature” chorus of the soi disant ‘balanced analyst’, a tribe whose increased querulousness stems from a discomfort that the Congress is not following the script the analyst community had written for them.

I agree with Nikhil’s take to a very large extent. I also, like him, am very wary of forecasts — lessons learnt from covering five major national elections and a few assembly polls. That said, I like political strategy, I’ve been carefully monitoring the game board and everything else being equal between now and the last date of polling, I think this election will play out almost exactly as Nikhil said, ending with (remember the “all else being equal” caveat) the NDA (not the BJP, the entire 39-member alliance) will end up around the 210 (+- 10) mark and therefore unable to buy up enough elected MPs to make up the deficit. Equally, I think the Congress gameplan is to end up as the party with the most seats from among the opposition. The key part of Nikhil’s analysis (which happens to resonate somewhat with the way I see it too) is laid out in these three tweets in the middle of his thread:

Whether by accident or design, the opposition (I use the term loosely, because for all the artificial attempts to create a “Mahagatbandhan” strongman, the only maha alliance this time round is the NDA) has figured out that the BJP’s only game is to create the atmosphere of a presidential-style contest that pits Modi against a singular figure from the other side.

Such a contest makes it possible for the NDA to sideslip issues, to harp on the ‘TINA factor’, and to make it about personalities — a strategy that is right in their wheelhouse. By sidestepping such a gladiatorial contest and setting up 2019 as a series of battles against different individuals and/or partnerships on different fronts, and also by shifting the conversation from the emotive, but largely meaningless, tropes of “patriotism” and “international stature” and suchlike shibboleths, to actual bread and butter issues pertaining to each region, the opposition is seeking to shift the focus from the Modi mythos to the NDA’s fairly pathetic track record.

Net net, Nikhil nails it — for all the best efforts of the naysayers, I think the Congress knows what it is doing. I also think, FWIW, that there are the odd glitches and missteps — but that has been true for every party and grouping thus far.

SPEAKING of manufactured narratives, a particularly egregious example caught my eye recently. Here is how this story opens:

Chaos in Malda ahead of Rahul Gandhi’s rally, Republic headlined. So did the rally actually take place? How did it go? If you followed that channel, or TimesNow, you would never know. In contrast, there is this:

Priyanka is a Congress spokesperson, and the image could be massaged, who knows? But there is also this, via one of the BJP’s most important allies:

Who knew? Elsewhere, I saw this — one of many such; I picked this example because the poster is not known for any anti-Congress bias, and hence for me is an exemplar of how even the bystander is seduced by the massaged narrative doing the rounds:

Good point. So: Rahul Gandhi and demonetisation. On GST, in West Bengal, in the very same rally on the sidelines of which the interview Chowdhury cites took place; and elsewhere. (And this on Angel Tax).

I could go on, but the point should be self-evident: There is what is actually happening, and then there is what we are led to believe is happening, by a noisy section of the media that blanks out every speech, every press conference, not merely of Rahul Gandhi but of every single opposition leader, even as the same channels cover live, then discuss at length, every rally and speech of Modi, Shah, Adityanath et al, while various members of the Cabinet such as Irani, Jaitley and Rajnath Singh spend more time in these studios than in their respective ministries. The fault, dear Brutus…

So what’s your beef?

IF Kerala has a focal point for the Hindu faith it has to be Thrissur — home to the Vadukkunathan temple complex that hosts the annual Pooram; to other storied temples such as Thiruvambady, Paramekavu, Koodalmanikyam, Arattupuzha, Kodungalur, and Ponkunnam to name just the most obvious of dozens of pilgrim centres, and a way station for Guruvayur and for Sabarimala, epicentre of the women’s entry storm earlier this year and, in the minds of political pundits, the wedge the BJP will use to prise open the hitherto inhospitable state. With that background, read this news report:

The Thrissur district unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party has launched a co-operative society to produce, process and market meat and fish. The venture – Thrissur, Fish and Meat Producing, Processing and Marketing Society – had received approval from the registrar of co-operative societies six months ago.


The bylaw of the society said it will rear and sell cattle and fish products. “We haven’t started processing or selling of meat,” BJP Thrissur district president A Nagesh, who has also been elected the president of the society, told Scroll.in. “But I cannot say whether we will venture into the meat processing market or not.”

But then there is this: In the 2017 Assembly elections, a BJP candidate promised to set up quality abattoirs and ensure good quality beef if he was elected. Elsewhere, RSS and BJP functionaries formed a cooperative to sell beef. On his first day as a BJP minister, KJ Alphons said:

On the first day in his new office as tourism minister, bureaucrat-turned-politician Alphons Kannanthanam touched upon the controversial issue of beef, saying it would continue to be consumed in Kerala.

“The BJP does not mandate that beef cannot be eaten. We don’t dictate food habits in any place. It is for the people to decide,” he said.

The various affiliates of the BJP also said that Kerala should receive no help in the aftermath of the the 2018 floods; that the flood was a sign of god punishing Kerala because the state consumes beef; a ‘sadhvi’ called for the killing of those who kill cows and eat beef and, to crown the hypocrisy, Modi — who has the right wing leader’s habit of accusing others of exactly what he is guilty of — said this:

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Sunday said cheating was in the blood of the Congress party.

….

“Is it the same Congress which praises the cow in Madhya Pradesh and mentions some schemes in its poll manifesto, but slaughters calves on the streets of Kerala and eats beef?” Modi asked the crowd.

It is a different matter that for all of Modi’s gaslighting, the voters of MP dumped the BJP in the Assembly elections. To go back to the point of the BJP’s hypocrisy when it comes to its signature issue: In 2017, then Goa CM Manohar Parikkar was assuring the state assembly that he will ensure there is no shortage of beef in the state; said that over 2000 kg of beef was being slaughtered in the state’s legal abattoir and that any shortfall would be made up by importing beef from Karnataka; and in January 2018, warned that anyone interfering with the import of beef would be punished. (Here’s a detailed, and more recent, story on the ongoing tug of war between gau rakshaks and the beef industry in the state).

Also in 2017 ahead of Assembly polls in the north-east, the BJP not only asserted that there would be no beef ban in Meghalaya if the party came to power, beef would actually be cheaper under the BJP rule. Last year the CM of Manipur was assuring his people that the BJP had never asked for a beef ban and never would, and that the BJP had no problem with the people eating beef. A senior BJP leader last year said there would be no beef ban in Tripura or any of the other states in the north-east.

That is the BJP. Led by the man who, during the 2014 campaign, repeatedly raised the bogey of a “pink revolution” if the Congress came to power. The man, and the party, that has stood by and, by their silence, given the nod to “cow vigilantes” — murderers, to call things as they are — to run riot across the Hindi heartland and, where necessary, to actively provide aid and comfort to the murderers; a party whose minister garlanded accused lynchers who were let out on bail and senior leaders condoled the death of a jailed lyncher, promised compensation to the family of the dead man, and stood by as, in violation of all norms, the coffin was draped with the national flag… And, in areas where they know their “gaumata” BS won’t work, a party that will, without the slightest twitch of hesitation, guarantee you the very beef they talk of banning.

I believe that people should have the right to eat what they want; that it is not the business of polity or the government to interfere in an individual’s private life. That said, I’d appreciate a party that, at the least, had the courage of its own convictions. The BJP — and this is true for the entirety of its existence — is a party of, and for, hypocrites who will do anything, say anything, be anything as long as it leads to power.

It’s Sunday. For reasons of work, I have to watch, and make notes on, the two IPL games scheduled today. So I’ll leave you with this post — and this topical, timely musical comment:

Ghar mein ghuske…

THE Caravan’s story on the BS Yedyurappa diaries, the full version of which is here outside the paywall, is intriguing — as much for what it reveals of the media, as for what it actually contains. But I’ll circle back to that early next week; for now, read the story.

While television (with the honourable exception of NDTV) was not merely ignoring the story but working assiduously to distract attention from it, I was intrigued by a small conversation I stumbled into on Twitter.

The issue is simple enough: The Indian government said it was boycotting Pakistan’s National Day celebrations. Fair enough, though it does raise the question of why, if this boycott had to do with Pulwama, the government was holding talks on the opening of the Kartarpur Corridor, and why an official delegation is scheduled to visit Pakistan for more talks on April 2.

The MEA, aware of the cognitive dissonance in its actions, tied itself in knots to explain that the talks are not “a resumption of dialogue” — which means what, exactly? We are talking, but it is not a dialogue? Reminds you of that classic Sir Humphrey line from Yes Minister: “A clarification is not to clear things up, it is to put you in the clear.”

But that aside, revert to the main storyline: India boycotts Pakistan’s National Day. And its officials, in a show devoid of grace, stop people in front of the Pak Embassy in New Delhi to harangue them. (Former diplomat MK Bhadrakumar, who has served in the Indian Embassy in Pakistan, was underwhelmed — here is why). And then it turned out that PM Modi had sent greetings to his Pak counterpart Imran Khan on the occasion.

There was a scramble to explain this — and one of the first such explanations that caught my eye came from journalist Aditya Raj Kaul, who said Imran Khan had “twisted the words to suit his narrative”. I pointed out that Khan had actually put the words within quotations, so either IK had deliberately put words in Modi’s mouth, or Kaul was in damage-control mode. The exchange that followed was bizarre.

The thread is here, but briefly it goes like this: The text is in quotes. “Not the entire letter”. May I see the part that is left out? “Please ask the one you tagged”. That would be Imran Khan — and that would be a deliberate distortion because it was Kaul, not I, who tagged IK (and Modi before that). Kaul also suggested that I ask the MEA, the PMO, the man in the moon, everyone but him, though it was he whose statement I was questioning. And then said he had posted the relevant bit on his Twitter feed — only, he hasn’t; all there is, is his personal declaration of what he says the statement contained. And the crowning irony? This. Check the time of Kaul’s post, and ANI’s. And the similarity of the words. And, in passing, read this Caravan cover on how ANI carries water for the government.

The episode, brief as it was, reminded me of a long-standing discomfort with how the media — okay, a sizeable section of it — has abdicated its primary role of questioning, of speaking truth to power, and is busying itself with defending a government that will not speak for itself, when it is not coming up with distractions to divert attention from the government’s failings (Ask yourself this: If a BSY type scandal, whatever the provenance, had surfaced about ANY non-BJP politician, what would have been the subject of prime time debates last night?).

Distractions reminds me — read this piece by Mitali Saran (in fact, read every piece she writes). Among other things, that ‘chidiya dekho‘ phrase is a perfect fit for what journalism has, by and large, been reduced to.

By May 24, the counting will be done and dusted, and we will have a new government, of whatever stripe, in place. But the damage that has been done to the media in the interim is like poison — it ingested into the blood stream very rapidly, but it’s going to take a very long time to flush out.

ELSEWHERE: A group of some 25 men armed with sticks and swords attacked kids playing cricket, barged into their home, and beat up family members. Just because. See why I gave this post the headline I did?

A mob chanting ‘Har Har Modi’ assaults dalits in Farrukhabad. Just because they can.

A dalit student en route to an exam hall was tied to a tree and beaten, in Gujarat. The assaulters told him he had no business studying, and should instead find some work to do.

All of this happened in a span of around 30 hours or so. And all of this, and the dozens of such instances happening across large parts of the country on a daily basis, is — or should be — the central issue of this election. Rahul Gandhi may be a “pappu” to the paparazzi, but he got that right: This election is about the fabric, the soul, of this country.

Added at 10.45 PM: While watching what purports to be a cricket match at the MA Chidambaram Stadium, I was browsing headlines and such and came across this:

Really? “Fight over cricket”? This is how you subtly shade your language to normalise behaviour that should be unacceptable in any civilised society. And it has become so common, we barely notice any more.

PostScript: Does anyone know a smart, innovative WordPress developer? Someone who understands media and can work with me to extend the feature sets, give this thing a different look and feel? I am happy to pay for the work, but I need someone good. Any suggestions/tips most appreciated, thank you.

Happy Holi

Due to some family preoccupations, the blog is on a break today. I’ll catch up tomorrow, and backfill as we go along.

Happy Holi, folks, enjoy the long weekend.

PS: I had a question for you. As you likely know, this blog is not a “journalistic” exercise — in the sense, I am not looking at traffic numbers, nor publicising posts via social media, or in any form looking to make this an official thing. For me, this is a scratch pad; a place to collect and collate things I notice, thoughts I have, questions that occur to me. And that is how I intend to keep it – as a quiet, safe place to think aloud. My question is, is this of any use to you? What if anything would you look to see more of? What am I missing? Any thoughts on these questions hugely appreciated.