Republic of Spin

“The Titanic had an iceberg problem. It did not have a communications problem.”

I was reminded of that pithy take by political consultant Paul Begala when I woke up to the news that the GoI, stung by the opposition to the CAA, has planned a “fresh multimedia campaign“. From the story:

A top source in the government said a need was felt for a fresh round of publicity because the government has received a lot of bad press due to the nationwide protests against the CAA and the proposed National Register of Citizens, and the attacks on students at two central universities in the capital — Jamia Millia Islamia and Jawaharlal Nehru University. …

Although a name for the campaign has not been finalised yet, one of the suggestions is to call it ‘Har kaam desh ke naam’ (all work in the country’s name).

I also happened to see this: The GoI has apparently brought out a booklet telling the stories of Hindus etc who have come over from Pakistan because of religious persecution. Only, it turns out that at least some of the stories are faked.

‘Fake news’, ‘propaganda’, ‘spin’ — call it what you will, it is big business today. Then Minister for Information and Broadcasting Rajyavardhan Rathore told the Lok Sabha that between 2014, when Modi took over as Prime Minister for his first term, and December 2018, when Rathore was responding to a question, the government had spent over Rs 5,200 crore on advertisements. Another official response gave a different figure.

Rs 5,200 crore. Imagine what you could do with that money. When the Statue of Unity was being inaugurated, IndiaSpend had done a piece comparing the cost of the statue with what else the same amount could have been used for:

We could have had two new IITs or AIIMS campuses; or five new IIMs, or five new solar power plants each producing 75 megawatts of power; the amount expended on the statue could have funded, twice over, the schemes the government had grandiosely announced for the relief of farming communities. And when reading this, remember that the cost of the statue is half of what the government says it spent on advertising and publicity.

In a nutshell: We could have done so much with the money; instead we spent the money to say we have done so much.

All of this is why I was reminded of Begala’s words. The government does not have a communication problem; what it has is a bigotry problem; it has a problem of rising, multiplying dissatisfactions across a wide spectrum of society. And the only response it knows is more advertising, more publicity, more propaganda.

Late evening yesterday I saw a Twitter post that, in reference to the GoI’s attempts to browbeat Jeff Bezos into getting his Washington Post to back off on criticism of the government, said India needs its own version of the First Amendment which, in the US, specifically prohibits (among other things) the imposition of any restrictions on the media’s right to speak, report, freely.

India does not have provisions in its Constitution that specifically uphold the freedom of the press; that freedom is implicit in a sub-set of Article 19 of the Constitution which guarantees the right to freedom of speech and expression.

Do we need a Constitutional amendment that expressly protects the media’s right to free expression? Is the absence of that law the reason why so much of the media today is suspect, why the credibility of the media is eroding? I’ve been a full-time journalist since 1990, and a freelance journalist for five years before that — and in all that time, I don’t recall an instance where the lack of such a specific law hindered our reporting. And I certainly don’t think that is the reason today’s media is so compromised.

I started with a Begala quote, so it seems appropriate to bring in something the man Begala advised, then US President Bill Clinton, said during his presidential campaign: “It’s the economy, stupid!”

That is what it boils down to — the press is hamstrung financially, and its various egregious acts of commission and omission stems from that simple fact. Couple it with the vast amounts the government is spending on publicity, and what do you get? This. (A small Twitter thread I wrote last night to explain why the media has become an instrument of propaganda).

I’ll leave you with this for the day (I have places to be, things to do) unless something really urgent breaks. And on my way out, here are two little items worth your notice. The first is a thread by journalist M Rajshekhar collating all the protests happening in India across a period of approximately one day:

And the second is a statement by Prime Minister Narendra Modi:

Really? That explains why the PM has, in little over a month, refrained from uttering a single word on the ongoing, widespread protests, on the resulting deaths, on the dozens who have been incarcerated for little or no reason, on his refusal to meet with a single one of those protesting groups, on his almost comical avoidance of going anyplace where he might be forced to confront protests?

This cannot be said too forcefully: The man is a fraud. And a coward.

News clips: Feb 13 edition

With the model code of conduct kicking in, attention turns to enforcement-related questions: Does the EC have the manpower to monitor the various parties and their proxies and detect violations? If it does detect something that is not kosher, what can it do about it if anything? On that note, the EC advised all political parties to desist from using images of serving army personnel in propaganda material; a day later, it has asked Facebook to delete two posts bearing images of Wing Commander Abhinandan posted by a BJP MLA from Delhi.

In order to make the process of spotting violations easier, the EC has launched a cVigil app that enables the lay citizen to report violations. ToI has a list of 15 types of violations that the citizen can report, and how; more details via The Hindu. So, since this service is now available, a hypothetical for you: Would you report this?

The Index of Industrial Production has bad news for the government just as it was beginning to talk up productivity and employment as major achievements of the last five years: Manufacturing plummeted from 8.7 in January 2018 to 1.3 in January 2019. The Telegraph story details those areas that are doing well, and those that are showing signs of being on life support.

The government’s attempts to suppress, or obfuscate, data that does not fit with its narrative will form the subject for a larger essay later. But for now, a few recent pieces are worth reading/re-visiting in context of the IIP figures: RTI Venkatesh Nayak, in HuffPost, talks of his efforts to use RTI to get behind the scenes of the key RBI board meeting where the demonetisation decision was supposedly taken (Hint: It wasn’t). The article links profusely to the actual minutes of the board meeting, and related stories.

While on demonetisation, here’s a link from the past: Modi’s smoke and mirrors act

Economic growth for the period October-December 2018 fell to its lowest mark across the last six quarters, and early indications are that the first quarter of 2019 continues to see decline. Author and commentator Vivek Kaul explains, via four charts, the key indicators that point at this slowdown. Elsewhere Scroll, also through charts, has more bad news: GDP is down, the government is unable to rein in the fiscal deficit, there is decline in investments in new projects, foreign investors are leaving the country and inevitably, as corollary to all of the above, the unemployment rate continues to climb. And to round it all off (for now), there’s this from HuffPost:

Desperate to show progress in the poorly defined, but much-ballyhooed, Digital India initiative, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party-led government inflated e-governance data by designating previously uncategorized services such as railway bookings, debit card and credit card transactions, NEFT, RTGS bank transfers, Aadhar authentication and e-KYC transactions with private vendors as “e-governance”.
 
The government also massively ramped up the weather and crop updates delivered over SMS to millions of farmers in a bid to show rural Indians were embracing so-called digital services.

In political news the AGP, which had earlier cut ties with the NDA over the issue of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016, has returned to the government fold. In Kerala, the Left Front has announced candidates for all 20 Lok Sabha seats, while the Congress and the BJP are still sharpening their pencils.

Arvind Kejriwal, meanwhile, wants an alliance with the Congress in Haryana. The commentariat was all sneer-y when the Congress “contemptuously” turned down an alliance with AAP in Delhi — and I am not sure I get why. AAP came into being on the wings of the Anna Hazare/Kejriwal-led agitation against Congress corruption; that agitation in turn provided the BJP the talking points, and the oxygen, for the 2014 campaign. Why would the Congress go out of its way to ally with the AAP now? If it did, both parties would have their previous accusations about each other hanging around their neck. (Not that such considerations have stopped various parties allying with erstwhile enemies, but still.)

The LDF has named only two women, however, with its spokespersons arguing that the focus was on winnability rather than gender. The Front has made a big punt with CPM state executive member C Divakaran named for the Thiruvananthapuram seat against, in all likelihood, Shashi Tharoor for the Congress and whoever the BJP choses to name. Equally, it has named film actor and sitting MP Innocent to the Chalakudy  seat – which, as Scroll points out, is problematic.

NB: As elections kick into high gear, the clips will become more comprehensive and be updated more frequently. Meanwhile, readers, help: Ping links to interesting news stories/analysis via comments, please?

Addendum: One reason I like to collate links whenever I blog is that over time, isolated stories begin to add up, linkages become visible and bigger pictures emerge.

On that note, a story that caught my eye during a surf-break just now:

On March 8, the government approved a Bulk Data Sharing policy, enabling it to monetise a database of vehicle registration certificates, citing benefits to the “transport and automobile industry”, even as the issue of privacy and data protection looms large over such sharing.

Basically, the government here finds another way of making money off of your personal data, never mind consent.

The data shared will be the vehicle’s registration number and other details (including financing and insurance), and will not have the owner’s name. In all, 28 fields of data for each vehicle will be shared.

That’s all right, then — your name, and therefore details linked to your name, is not being sold. But then again:

However, the policy itself admits that “there is a possibility of triangulation” or matching the data with other publicly available databases to identify. That’s because the Vahan app, also run by the ministry, maps registration details against names.

I’ll leave this here for now and link it up in a subsequent post.

Elsewhere, the Times of India confidently says Twitter executives could face jail time, forcing the government to scramble to clarify.

The report, as published, appears to be exaggerated, stemming from a misunderstanding of the established legal procedure.

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.

Continue reading

Beggars, losers

The image above is about a story dated October 2009. It could have been done today, about this story.

As Ivanka Trump’s visit to India nears, the south Indian city of Hyderabad is getting ready to dazzle its foreign guests — by locking its homeless and destitute people out of sight in prison rehabilitation centers.

I wrote this in October 2009. It could be written today.

That’s more thought and effort — and money — going into hiding poverty than ever went into alleviating it. While on which, I really really loved the ‘bushes’ idea. Take a leaf from Macbeth, do — get the slum dwellers and beggars to squat in front of the unsightly huts; Delhi turned Dunsinane. Solves two problems in one shot, by hiding the slums and their unsightly inhabitants in one shot.

The story of our life — governments come and go, but the sores on our social fabric continue to fester. Our poor are not human beings, they are merely an optics problem; their homes are to hidden from the august gaze, as happened earlier this year when Modi took Shinzo Abe to Ahmedabad for a road show, the poor themselves are to be locked out of sight when august personages come visiting, only to be freed and left to their own devices once the photo-op is over.

We live in a world where “looking poor” is a crime. These are the things that should shame us as a society. These are also the things we never speak of as a society.

 

“Minimum governance”

Khichdi, India’s ultimate comfort food, is set to be designated as the national food.

According to a Navbharat Times report, food ministry headed by Union Minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal had proposed khichdi’s name for national dish to the Centre, which was duly approved.

Such joy, to see a government that is so decisive and takes such swift action, on matters of national importance.

How naming khichdi the national dish will double the income of farmers is unclear at the time of going to press.

WTF just happened: Sept 24

Three days into this WTFJH series that I started as a means to find/reclaim my voice, and I find that the feedback alone has been worth it.

I’ve been getting mails suggesting what I should write about (and also what I should not); mails asking what prompted me to return to blogging at a time when the trend is to move away from the format, and – this is by far the majority – what have I to say, what am I prepared to disclose, about my own biases.

Taking these in order: first, why emails? This will work much better, for both of us, if the conversation surrounding my posts is appended to the posts themselves. I’ve not asked for sign-ins before you comment; I have placed no bar on your commenting anonymously, so there really is no reason to flood my mailbox rather than speak your piece right here. Or am I missing something?

Two: re the question of whether I will write about this or that. This is a work in progress and I am still trying to work out a system, a rhythm, that suits me. I don’t intend to write about every single thing that happens – I am an individual, not a news site, and I don’t have the resources for such blanket coverage. My focus for now (remember “work in progress”?) is to connect up the dots; to examine an issue that catches my eye and see if it is part of a larger pattern – in other words, to go beyond capturing the headlines du jour. (So yeah, you will find one incident highlighted and elaborated upon and other incidents, bearing at least a superficial similarity, ignored.) Continue reading