Scratchpad: April 12 edition

  • Round one of voting, covering 91 Lok Sabha seats, is over. Last evening, TV channels struggled, on prime time, to make sense of the voting percentages and what those numbers were telling us. So, as PSA, here is my favourite data journalist, Rukmini S, explaining how to read between the cliches. And while on Rukmini and data analysis, read her piece on how the “news media” is going out of its way to help Narendra Modi. In passing, one trend seen in the first phase of voting is not a happy sign: In AP, hundreds of EVMs did not work, needing hundreds of engineers to be summoned to fix them. Begs the question, somewhat: Aren’t EVMs tested before they are deployed? Why not? It is not as if the EC did not have sufficient time to prep.
  • Every time you think the BJP has sunk as low as it is possible to get, one of the party’s bigwigs reaches for a spade. And none so adept at digging down to previously unplumbed depths as Modi himself. While campaigning in Maharashtra, he asked first time voters to dedicate their votes to the ‘Balakot strike’ and to the victims of the Pulwama terrorist attacks. In how many ways is this egregious? Modi and his government are yet to address the question of the security lapses that led to Pulwama. Modi and his party continue to ignore the EC directive that the armed forces cannot be used for propaganda — the same directive Adityanath flouted the other day, and drew a “please be careful” caution from the EC. As an aside, 150 former serving officers (including four former chiefs of the Navy, three former Army chiefs and one former Air Force Chief) wrote to President Ram Nath Kovind asking that he direct “all political parties” to refrain from using the Indian Armed Forces for political propaganda. File this under #FWIW — there is nothing Kovind can do, and there is no reason why Modi, in the midst of a tough election where the party via its manifesto has clearly indicated that “national security” is the only appeal it has to peg its hopes on, would five a flying fish for any direction the President might give, assuming he gives it.
  • But why this desperation, that makes the BJP propel the conversation into the realm of bigotry, of hatred? Because what else is there? The BJP knows that unemployment is a burning issue. Every so often, one or the other minister claims that a very large number of jobs have been created. (Modi told a friendly media house that the problem was not lack of jobs, merely lack of data; earlier posts had looked at how various datasets produced by official agencies have been systematically suppressed because the news is not good.) So the latest in this lineup is Minister Dharmendra Pradhan, who claimed that 100 million jobs have been created. He was lying.
  • Speaking of lying, there is this beautiful Rohini Mohan profile of Smriti Irani which, among other things, dwells on the controversy over her educational qualifications. Was reminded of that because Irani’s affidavit went up yesterday, and — it was as if everyone was waiting for this — political twitter pounced on the fact that there was no mention of any degree she had earned. (How underconfident, unsure of yourself, do you have to be to lie blatantly about something that is so easily verifiable?)
  • Five years ago we got “good governance” and the “Gujarat Model” that will create previously unimagined economic prosperity. After five years of that, what are we left with? A ruling party whose president promises that the National Register of Citizens will be implemented all over the country. And “We will remove every single infiltrator from the country. And all the Hindu and Buddhist refugees…we will find each of them, give them Indian citizenship and make them residents here.” Read those words carefully. Adityanath, meanwhile, reverts to his line from the UP assembly elections, framing this as a battle between believers of Ali versus believers in Bajrang Bali; he says the Congress is infected with a “green virus“… It is pointless to even invoke the EC here. But in this connection I was reading this Gurcharan Das column in Foreign Affairs. Das was among the earliest of the “liberals” to toot the Modi-for-PM horn back in 2013-’14; he said then and says now that he was aware of Modi’s complicity — which is the most benign words you can find for his actions — in the 2002 Gujarat riots, but… “There was no denying that Modi was a sectarian and authoritarian figure,” says Das. But I knew that India’s democratic institutions were strong enough to prevail over those tendencies.” That is exactly what the wooly-headed section of the liberals keep repeating — we know he is a bigot, we know he is a thug, but… But what? India’s institutions will rise to the challenge? As must be abundantly clear by now, our institutions were not engineered to protect us from naked, open bigotry; for flagrant contempt of our courts; for wilful misuse of the law enforcement agencies, for the host of other sins that Modi and his minions have committed over the past five years. Which is why we need to think carefully, during this election cycle — not about Modi, or about the alternatives, but about ourselves, our sense of values. What do we stand for? Where do we draw our individual red lines? What does our moral North Star point to, and how far from true North are we prepared to veer and still live with ourselves? I’ll leave these questions with you; answer them as you will, and see if you are willing to live with your answers.
  • Still staying with Modi, a scandal — minor, compared with some other recent ones (more on this later) — during this election cycle relates to his inauguration spree — 157 projects inaugurated in 30 days — in the weeks before the election schedule was announced. Some of them were downright bizarre; all of them were excuses to conduct political propaganda under the guise of official business. Now this: Responding to an RTI query, the PMO says it does not maintain a record of the PM’s internal trips and the money spent on these. Make of this what you will.
  • It was a news channel. Then it was an advertising channel. Both claims were made, about NaMo TV, by the government and its affiliates. In either case, it was publicised by Modi, Shah and various government ministers. Why the ambiguity? Because it was a clear end run around rules and regulations government broadcast content. (It never even applied for a broadcast license; TataSky called it a “special service” for which no license is required, which raises the pertinent question: Can I then book a channel, call it a “special service” and air whatever I like, without going through the licensing and regulatory procedures?) The questions kept proliferating to the point where the BJP finally admitted that the channel was run by the party’s IT Cell — and that has opened up a whole new can of worms with legal consequences, quite apart from the EC’s directive that all content going up on the channel has to be vetted and approved. The larger question in my mind is this: You are the government. You know the rules. You have an entire ministry devoted to regulating and enforcing these rules. So how did you imagine you could get away with flouting every single regulation? The only answer that comes back is: Because you have. Many times, in many ways. With impunity. And that in turn has bred a collective sense that the rules don’t apply to this one party.
  • While on the EC putting its foot down on the Modi channel (and also ordering that the Modi biopic cannot be released till after the elections — which almost guarantees that the movie will top the list of box office duds, by the way), it’s in the midst of a little showdown with the Department of Revenue, which comes under Arun Jaitley’s bailiwick. The last couple of weeks has seen a proliferation of IT raids, all of them targeting the BJP’s political opposition. (Noticeably, despite instances of BJP leaders being caught with cash, no raids appear to ever target them; a case in point is Hyderabad, where the police seized Rs 8 crore in cash, withdrawn in the name of the state president of the BJP). Anyway, the EC asked the Revenue Department to refrain from using raids to intimidate politicians, and said it should be kept informed before any raids are carried out. The department — which is basically Jaitley’s stick — blew a raspberry, and now the EC is distinctly unamused. And again, the question is: But what can the EC actually do? If it is the body mandated to ensure free and fair elections, should it not have the teeth to enforce its edicts? Think of this and of the many other instances of the government machinery being blatantly used by the government for partisan ends. Then, this: Do you remember a case where a person’s election was set aside for, among other things, carrying out campaign activities while being on the payroll of the government? Here it is. Might make you nostalgic for a time when rules could actually be enforced.
  • In the growing list of stories about economic distress, here is one more about the sugarcane farmers of UP, Maharashtra, Bihar, Punjab, Haryana and Karnataka — just picture that for a moment, by the way, and try to wrap your head around how wide this swathe of misery is — and of the sugar mills that collectively owe these farmers $4.38 billion in arrears. Farming in India is a hand to mouth existence at the best of times — you farm, you hope nature doesn’t mess up the cycle, you harvest, sell, and what you get is what you feed your family with besides buying all you need for the next harvest cycle. Think of the number of farmers involved here; the numbers of families living in misery, getting deeper into debt with each passing season… and then think of what the media tells you are the “real issues” of this election.
  • The other day in Gurugram, a bunch of thugs walked the streets in broad daylight, armed with sticks and swords, and forced shopkeepers to shut down meat shops because, Hindu festival. Then we were told they were part of a “fringe” Hindu group. While on which, just how much of the Hindutva brigade is “fringe”? Here is a short post you might find interesting. To get back to Gurugram, it turns out that the man who led this particular has an interesting history: “Assistant commissioner of police (ACP), Udyog Vihar, Birem Singh told the national daily that Rakesh is a history-sheeter with several criminal cases against him. A member of the Hindu Sena, Rakesh has 19 cases against him, including murder and attempt to murder. The ACP also added that Rakesh has been convicted in some cases and is out on bail in others.” One question: How does a history-sheeter who has been convicted on charges of murder and attempt to murder get to wander the streets on bail? (Then again, I keep forgetting that the country is governed by a party whose president is out on bail on charges of murder.)
  • A few pieces you might like to read, beginning with this one by Mihir Sharma on India’s “developed nation” fantasy.
  • A Forbes investigation into India’s most gerrymandered constituencies.
  • A story on the six election officials who traveled for two days to set up a polling booth just so one person could vote.
  • Rape charges have been filed against Franco Mulackal. And the court has ordered police protection for the main witness, Sister Lissy. Independent Kerala MLA PC George was among the “leading lights” who had accused the nun of being a prostitute. The news is, he has now joined the BJP. Make what you will of a party that seems to have space, in its tent, for every kind of thief, rapist, scamster, murderer, misogynist and other undesirable it can find and lure away.
  • Is Modi turning India into a superpower? Um, not so much.

And finally Rafale, the “gift” that goes on giving. For those who came in late, here is a roundup of the events leading to the Supreme Court judgment of December 14, which the government touted as a “clean chit”. That judgment was based on documents submitted by the government in a sealed envelope. It then turned out that the documents — unsigned — contained many misrepresentations. This led to a review petition being filed, and heard in the Supreme Court — in course of which, the petitioners produced various documents that gave the lie to the government’s assertions. AG KK Venugopal said the documents could not be considered because they had been “stolen” from the defence ministry. The government realised only ipso facto that “stolen” was not a good claim to make, since it called into question the security of the key Indian ministry, so KKV went back to court and said the documents had merely been “photocopied”, not stolen — though how that makes anything better is best left to KKV’s imagination.

The question the SC had to answer, before it could get to the Rafale deal itself, was whether these “leaked” documents could be accepted as evidence. Yes they can, said the SC, which deserves three rousing cheers. Indira Jaising explains why this is a landmark judgment (Hint: Freedom of the press).

Arun Jaitley said the decision is no big deal — “a matter of procedure”, he called it. But it is, really — quite a big deal. Because now that the bar on the documents is lifted, the SC will begin hearing the original case, which is: Were there procedural lapses in the way the Modi government negotiated the Rafale deal? And this time, no sealed covers, no unsigned notes, no obfuscation, because the original documents are part of the case. Be interesting to see how that plays out, now that the government has run out of fig leafs.

For those interested, the best resource to follow the Rafale developments, and examine the documents in question, is via the Hindu’s comprehensive coverage, here.

And finally: This is long, but it is worth reading: The Carnegie Endowment’s deep dive, edited by Milan Vaishnav, into the BJP government and religious nationalism is now out in full.

More tomorrow.

…and the clocks were striking thirteen.

There are times when I suspect that more people cite Orwell than have actually read Orwell. (One of those times occurred during my recent trip, which is what put me in mind of this). Anyway. Consider this post the Cliffs Notes edition of Orwell’s 1984. And it begins with an extended passage that should remind you of a bitter, angry old man and his myriad minions currently going around the country making sulphurous speeches.

On a scarlet-draped platform an orator of the Inner Party, a small lean man with disproportionately long arms and a large bald skull over which a few lank locks straggled, was haranguing the crowd. A little Rumpeltstiltskin figure, contorted with hatred, he gripped the neck of the microphone with one hand while the other, enormous at the end of a bony arm, clawed the air menacingly above his head.

His voice, made metallic by the amplifiers, boomed forth an endless catalog of atrocities, massacres, deportations, lootings, rapings, torture of prisoners, bombing of civilians, lying propaganda, unjust aggressions, broken treaties.

It was almost impossible to listen to him without being first convinced and then maddened. At every few moments the fury of the crowd boiled over and the voice of the speaker was drowned by a wild beast-like roaring that rose uncontrollably from thousands of throats. The most savage yells of all came from the schoolchildren. The speech had been proceeding for perhaps twenty minutes when a messenger hurried on to the platform and a scrap of paper was slipped into the speaker’s hand.

He unrolled and read it without pausing in his speech. Nothing altered in his voice or manner, or in the content of what he was saying, but suddenly the names were different. Without words, a wave of understanding rippled through the crowd. Oceania was at war with Eastasia! The next moment there was a tremendous confusion. The banners and posters with which the square was decorated were all wrong! Quite half of them had the wrong faces on them. It was sabotage! The agents of Goldstein had been at work!

There was a riotous interlude while posters were ripped from the walls, banners torn to shreds and trampled underfoot. The Spies performed prodigies of activity in clambering over the rooftops and cutting the streamers that fluttered from the chimneys. But within two or three minutes it was all over. The orator, still gripping the neck of the microphone, his shoulders hunched forward, his free hand clawing at the air, had gone straight on with his speech. One minute more, and the feral roars of rage were again bursting from the crowd. The Hate continued exactly as before, except that the target had been changed.

That is a detailed description of the climax of Hate WeekOn March 13, 2019, what the Election Commission of India announced was not an election schedule, but a 72-day-long Hate Week led by a man who, five years ago, sold a message of hope, of rejuvenation, of regeneration and today, after five years in office, has nothing left to sell but hate; a man who has no snake oil left to offer, only distilled venom.

I met with a few folks during my travels. It was supposed to be down-time, after a hectic schedule and very little sleep: Just a group of friendly acquaintances drawn from diverse backgrounds, getting together over chilled beer in a cool, dark bar while outside, Bombay baked. And for about 20 minutes, that is exactly what it was: a refreshing interlude, a chance to catch up, to exchange notes on what we each had been up to. And then one asked, “So what do you make of the elections? Who do you think will win?” And with that, the evening turned poisonous.

The horrible thing abut the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but, on the contrary, that it was impossible to avoid joining in. Within thirty seconds any pretence was always unnecessary. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge-hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic. And yet the rage that one felt was an abstract, undirected emotion that could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowlamp.

In the earlier segment from 1984, note the reference to Goldstein? Orwell created, in Emmanuel Goldstein, the prototypical, infinitely malleable strawman for all seasons, for all reasons. Here he is:

As usual, the face of Emmanuel Goldstein, the Enemy of the People, had flashed onto the screen. There were hisses here and there among the audience. The little sandy-haired woman gave a squeak of mingled fear and disgust. Goldstein was the renegade and backslider who once, long ago (how long ago, nobody quite remembered), had been one of the leading figures of the Party, almost on a level with Big Brother himself, and then had engaged in counterrevolutionary activities, had been condemned to death, and had mysteriously escaped and disappeared. The programmes of the Two Minutes Hate varied from day to day, but there was none in which Goldstein was not the principal figure. He was the primal traitor, the earliest defiler of the Party’s purity. All subsequent crimes against the Party, all treacheries, acts of sabotage, heresies, deviations, sprang directly out of his teaching. Somewhere or other he was still alive and hatching his conspiracies: perhaps somewhere beyond the sea, under the protection of his foreign paymasters, perhaps even — so it was occasionally rumoured — in some hiding place in Oceania itself.

We have our ‘Party’ — it is called Hindutva. We have our Two Minutes Hate — the speeches of Modi and Shah and the channels that relentlessly broadcast them; the ‘Prime Time’ hate fest underwritten by members of the ‘Party’ and carried out by the loyal foot soldiers.

And we have our own Emmanuel Goldstein, plural — a revolving cast of characters who sometimes wear the Muslim skull cap and at other times the ‘Nehru cap’; who are rumoured to be lurking in ‘Lutyens’ and at other times can be found in the ‘lobby’. They shape-shift endlessly, sometimes appearing on your screens during prime Hate Hour as pseudo-intellectuals, sometimes as ‘sickulars’ or ‘urban naxals’, and when passion needs to be raised to fever pitch, as anti-nationals, traitors, the award wapsi gang, intolerance brigade,tukde-tukde gang…

Here is the Prime Minister suggesting that Rahul Gandhi is contesting from Wayanad because? Muslims. Here is Adityanath talking of the green flags waving in Wayanad. Here is one of the many tone-deaf, brain-dead amplifiers of the PM’s ‘message’, suggesting that Pakistan flags were waved at the constituency when Rahul Gandhi went there to file his nomination papers.

The ‘master’ will not tell you what, if anything, is wrong with contesting from a constituency with a particular demographic, assuming that is true and also assuming that is the intent. His ‘voice’ is ignorant that the flags in the image are those of the Indian Union Muslim League, an officially recognised party that spun off from the All India Muslim League at the time of Partition, and has existed as IUML since 1947. Who cares for facts, when the intent is to throw petrol and strike a match?

Here is Adityanath, a few days after the EC asked him to be “careful”, saying that a vote for TRS is a vote for the MIM and a vote for Congress is a vote for terrorists. Here is Modi saying the Congress is fighting this election in order to give a free hand to terrorists. Here is the PM suggesting that Rahul Gandhi is trying to wash away the sins of his father. Here he is again, suggesting that the Congress manifesto will benefit Pakistan, not India. Here, Modi again, saying Mamta Bannerjee sided with the mythical ‘bharat ke tukde’ gang.

The Indian Express asked Arun Jaitley about hateful remarks by a BJP minister. This is what he had to say:

Was he referring to Modi, to Adityanath, when he regretted people speaking “out of turn”?

An aside on this ‘tukde tukde gang‘. Just in time for the election cycle, the Delhi police filed an FIR naming Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid etc in the JNU incident. That FIR was “accessed” by Republic TV which, it is no secret, is just another version of NaMo TV, and splattered all over Hate Hour. Now the Delhi government tells the court that the chargesheet has been filed in “a hasty and secretive manner” without taking proper sanctions. And here are former ABVP office bearers from JNU saying what has been whispered around for a long time: that the whole thing was a set up, that the slogans were shouted by ABVP members in order to cause a controversy that would distract from the Rohit Vemula suicide. No surprise really, when you consider that it was Smriti Irani at the centre of the Vemula case, and that an aide of Irani’s was found sharing fake videos of the JNU incident. Also consider that Republic TV’s Arnab Goswami, then with TimesNow, was the one who first aired the fake videos and gave it the oxygen of publicity.

See how it works? You create the JNU version of Goldstein; conspire to make it appear as though they had asked for the dismemberment of the country, use state machinery to hound them with charges, use the publicity machinery to amplify those charges, and then the PM and his henchmen use those fake charges to smear anyone and everyone as being part of this mythical, seditionist, gang. The Delhi government meanwhile has sought a month’s time to decide on whether to file charges; it says it needs to determine whether the speeches were in fact seditious. If even that basic determination has not yet been made, then why is the charge of sedition hanging over the heads of those students? What tukde-tukde gang, when the government is not even sure whether anything happened? The incident happened in 2016 — why does it take more time? Because that is one more month they can extend this fake story, and provide ammunition for Modi and his cohort to continue rabble-rousing in the name of a case they know is a fake.

To return to that list of the PM and his henchmen going around with a forked tongue, here is the PM listing the many scams of the TMC regime in Bengal. Then TMC leader Mukul Roy, under CBI investigation in the Saradha scam, joined the BJP and the investigation eased off. Himanta Biswa Sarma, accused in the Saradha Chit Fund case, joined the BJP and, presto, the probe eased off.

Here is the PM… no, never mind. Roughly six months ago, as an experiment, I began saving string from the Twitter accounts of Modi, Jaitley, Irani and other prominent members of this government, as also from TimesNow, the Republic, ANI and suchlike amplifiers of government propaganda. Try it for yourself. Start now. Do it for just a week. Then step back and see what you have collected, what picture it forms.

We’ve had contentious, polarising, deeply divisive elections before — but we’ve never had one like this: an election where pretenders to high office go around the country spreading poison with a flamethrower. Yeah, I know, the imagery is a bit garbled — but then, we never needed a word for the mass dissemination of poison, before, so the vocabulary tends to be a bit handicapped.

I’ll leave these thoughts here for now, and be back later in the day. In passing, I have an image to leave you with:

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.

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.

Double, double, toil and trouble…

Fire burn, and cauldron bubble

2018 is likely to be one long round of electioneering — besides the north-eastern states, assembly elections are due in Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh and Rajasthan where the BJP is incumbent, and in Karnataka that the BJP is trying to wrest from the ruling Congress party. And it is all shaping up into the sort of witches’ brew that Shakespeare provided the recipe for.

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The BJP distances itself

Yesterday I learned that the BJP has distanced itself from Sangeet Som’s remarks on the Taj Mahal. That is nice. Firm and decisive. Just like always.

Back in May 2015, a row erupted when Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi commented that those who want to eat beef should go to Pakistan or some Arab country. Kiren Rijiju, his Cabinet colleague, said no restrictions can be placed on what you eat.

Party president Amit Shah distanced the BJP from both views — which begs the question somewhat: What then is the BJP’s official position on beef if it is distanced equally from “can eat” and “cannot eat”? That it is okay to chew but not swallow, in emulation of Bill Clinton’s ‘I did not inhale’ formulation on smoking dope?

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WTFJH: Random links and an open thread

Today’s post is not thematic, but more in the nature of a scratch-pad, a compilation of stories that caught my eye over the past 24 hours.

#1. Muslims in Hyderabad set a temple on fire; dead cows were later found on the floor. The whole was captured on video, which was spread widely through social media channels. Only, none of this happened — the video, says Hyderabad police, is a fake. Ask yourself why this keeps happening. In this connection, here is a story out of West Bengal that talks of systematic plans to spread terror during the Navratri season. I haven’t seen this on other media platforms yet, and I can’t vouch for its accuracy — I saved it to my files only because the broad outlines seem familiar, part of a well-thumbed playbook.

#2. Bofors, that periodic preoccupation of the media, is back in the headlines at least in certain quarters. The latest on this is that the PAC has asked the Defense Ministry to trace and share all missing files related to the case. I just set a reminder on my calendar to check back on this in a month, the reminder to recur monthly, because for a long time now Bofors has felt to me more like a red herring to be kept on ice and periodically dragged across the media space whenever the narrative needs to be changed, whenever a distraction feels necessary. Like most people who have followed this story since 1990, I think it is time for some kind of closure. And what better time than now — the government, after all, has no stake in a cover-up; in fact, the reverse is true. So the case should move forward to a conclusion fairly soon. No?

And while on that, big news: the ED says it will summon Amitabh Bachchan, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Ajay Devgan and others on some unspecified date to probe their involvement in what is known as the Panama Papers scandal (A Guardian backgrounder, for those who came in late). It is good to see the ED move lightning fast on a major scam — after all, the story only broke in April 2016, and if some backward nations (Pakistan, to name one) have completed their probe and even sacked some of their highest office-bearers/politicians, what of that?

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