…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:

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…

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.

Odds and trends: March 21 edition

RAVISH Kumar of NDTV reports that Modi’s “massive outreach” to chowkidars via an audio bridge (the point of which is not clear to me) was a bit of a sham – the people he was addressing were security staff drawn from the firm of RK Sinha, a BJP MLA. Meanwhile in Jharkhand, 10,000 actual chowkidars have not been paid:

For the past four months, these chowkidars across 24 districts — each of who monitors 10 villagers under one thana — have not been paid their salaries. Each chowkidar gets a salary of Rs 20,000.

The Wire, by the way, has been monitoring how our media treats various issues. Here is the roundup of how the “chowkidar” non-issue was covered. And here is Modi playing an oft-used, tired card: Pretending that the opposition wasn’t questioning him, but in actual fact questioning the integrity of actual security guards.

And in a facepalm moment there is this (just one example of the many such comments by journalists and opinion makers I could spam you with). Modi points to a rabbithole marked ‘chowkidar’; the entire media dives down it and can talk of nothing else; and the same media says Modi has succeeded in setting the agenda and the opposition is helpless to change it.  (And while on rabbitholes, TimesNow spent a precious half hour of prime time yesterday with this high-decibel “coverage”, complete with flashing graphics and pointing arrows, of how Priyanka Gandhi supposedly insulted Lal Bahadur Shastri.

ALL accused in the 2007 Samjhauta Express blast case have been acquitted. And the noise-making is well underway: the right wing argues that the charges were part of a bogus “Hindu terror” allegation floated by the Congress; the opposition’s line is that the acquittal is part of the BJP’s protective shield thrown over its own. And in the process, the real issue is given a go-by. To my mind, the question we should be asking is this:

A terrorist attack occurred in 2007. Twelve years down the line, we are back where we started; we are saying we have no idea who committed the terrorist act. What does this say to the world about our own will, and ability, to take action on terrorism on our soil? Now that we are back to square one in a case that involved the death of 60-plus Pakistan citizens twelve years ago, how do we insist that Pakistan carry out investigations and follow up action on terrorist acts committed on India by their nationals? (Predictably, Pakistan has already gone to town on the “travesty of justice”, and the volume will only increase. Why should we worry what Pakistan says? Because it weakens our case in international forums.)

From the archives of Caravan, this profile of main accused Aseemanand is mandatory reading – if only to understand what “travesty of justice” means.

EMPLOYMENT has been a recurring theme of these posts – and it will continue to be, through the elections and beyond. For reasons that should be obvious: the much-hyped demographic dividend is India’s opportunity to take its economy to the next level – and that “dividend” means nothing if (a) We are not providing proper education to our young and (b) If there are no jobs for those who are fortunate enough to actually get to study.

On that front, stories worth noting from the last 24 hours:

  • Hindustan Lever has begun to feel the heat of the GDP slowdown (which, potentially, translates into reduced investment, which in turn impacts on job creation).
  • Over 82 lakh people, a large majority of them hugely overqualified, have applied for 62,907 jobs as track maintenance staff and helpers in the Indian Railways.
  • IndiaSpend, one of the very few media outlets that seem to understand that coverage of issues, to be meaningful, cannot be a mile wide and a millimetre deep, is in the middle of a series on employment. Their stories thus far: On post demonetisation slow-down and how it affects Kerala’s labour hub; the growing death of jobs in Jaipur’s informal economy; the steadily worsening job crisis in Indore; the crippling lack of jobs in Ahmedabad. Read, because other than our growing scarcity of water, there is no issue as likely to impact our medium/long term future. Oh, and it matters from the point of view of the imminent elections, too: An opinion piece in The Print points to why employment is the silent killer of electoral prospects.

Reading List:

  • Rukmini S, one of the very few journalists in India capable of doing nuanced data-driven pieces, on why a prolonged, multi-phase election hurts the Congress
  • A recent report spoke of the Modi government’s proposed overhaul of the Indian Forest Act of 1927, and how the proposal will strip the commons of the very few protections that still remain. In that connection, IndiaSpend’s analysis of how tribal voters can affect electoral outcomes in 133 constituencies is worth reading.
  • Predictably, television channels toed the line that Nirav Modi’s arrest in London yesterday is tantamount to India getting him back and hopefully, recovering the money he looted. Not so fast, though – if Modi has applied for asylum, as is the understanding, then the extradition process, already long drawn out, is likely to be further delayed.
  • A story on how UIADI’s plan to link voter IDs and Aadhar likely cost millions their right to vote.
  • The NDA has firmed up its seat sharing agreements in Kerala, where there are 20 seats on offer.

NB: To be updated as and when something comes up. Happy Holi, everybody, play safe.

When smoke gets in your eyes…

LAST night, for the second night in a row, the commentariat went apeshit about #MainBhiChowkidar.

Is that the right response? Will it “resonate” with the people? Is chowkidar the 2019 version of 2014’s chaiwallah? Can the BJP expect to gain momentum because of Modi’s response?

Such tone-deaf discussions are de rigueur for the propaganda channels whose raison d’être is to help the government of the day deflect attention from the issues concerning voters – farmer distress, say, or unemployment, or the decline in manufacturing, the slowdown in the economy, all of which and more effect the quality of our lives. But after the likes of TimesNow, Republic and various regional channels had done their bit the day before, last evening it was Barkha Dutt, one of the exemplars pointed to as an antidote to the prevalent noise.

Dutt’s program “decoded” the latest slogan;  one panellist spoke of how it was a reinforcement of Modi as the guardian of the country; another felt it was preposterous; someone else explained at length why he chose to prefix chowkidar in front of his name; another worthy had thoughts on what slogan the opposition could use to counter this one (which, in case it’s all getting confusing, is itself a counter to something the opposition came up with); and Dutt meanwhile used her extensive Rolodex to learn from BJP sources that this was entirely the PM’s idea, and that there would be a ‘grand unveiling’, and so on.

To refurbish the whole program with a coat of irony, Dutt is one of the senior journalists who constantly, and vocally, lament the “noise” that the right-leaning sections of the media produce.

The episode made me think (yet again) of one of my all-time favorite political books, by an all-time favorite essayist. In 1988 the New York Review of Books commissioned Joan Didion to write a series of reported essays on the presidential election that pitted incumbent vice-president George HW Bush (Republican) against the Democratic candidate, Governor Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts.

In these essays, since collated in the book Political Fictions, Didion argued that electoral politics was not a mechanism that enabled the citizens to make informed choices based on the real issues of the time, but “one designed by, and for, that handful of insiders who invent, year in and year out, the narrative of public life”.

She argued, further, that the citizen no longer owns, or has a say in, electoral politics which has been gradually shaped to serve the interests of a “permanent professional political class” made up of politicians, their operatives, and talking-head journalists, who together concoct for our national campaigns “a public narrative based at no point on observable reality.”

Even a cursory read of political commentary and a few minutes with the TV remote suffice to identify this emerging narrative, and its disconnect with what Didion calls observable reality. The narrative is built around a few tired tropes and electoral pieties. As, for instance:

#1. Narendra Modi is a presidential figure fighting a faceless, amorphous horde.

In actual fact, the “mahagatbandhan’ is a media fiction, a strawman set up only so it could be demolished. At no time did the combined opposition come together to announce a coming together.

Observable reality is that the election was always going to be local – each state figuring out the best combination to defeat the BJP on its particular turf, with the question of government formation left for after the votes are counted and there is clarity about which party or group has the most strength in the 17th Lok Sabha.

But that reality, by definition, forces the BJP into a state by state fight, each battle focused largely on local rather than national issues – a contest that doesn’t suit the BJP whose forte is coming up with one central message and amplifying it through constant repetition.

So, the fiction of the “mahagatbandhan”, which can then be attacked as a “mahamilawat”, to force the election back into 2014 mode. Ironically, this storyline omits one important fact: the single biggest gatbandhan in the upcoming election by far is the BJP-led NDA, a motely conglomerate of 32-odd parties and counting – an inconvenient fact that the commentariat, which has sold itself on the narrative that a coalition government equals weakness, ignores.

#2. The BJP, negotiating from strength, has stitched together a formidable network of local alliances. The Congress, through hubris and arrogance, has failed to match the BJP in this regard, and is therefore falling behind.

In Bihar, in Tamil Nadu, in Maharashtra, the BJP has had to give up seats to the allies. Assume for the sake of argument that the NDA wins all 127 seats on offer in these three states – the upshot is that in the newly constituted Parliament, the allies will be in a better bargaining position when it comes to portfolios, and even when it comes to policy decisions. Simple logic, no? So why is this network of alliances celebrated so breathlessly?

In Assam, where the BJP experimented with its patented brand of communal polarisation by using the “Bangladeshi infiltrator” bogey to justify the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016. Disgusted, its ally the Asom Gana Parishad quit the NDA, arguing that the bill was political suicide. Recently, the BJPs electoral compulsions led to the party persuading the AGP to rejoin the alliance. What was promised to make up for the angst relating to the bill. Will the push for the Bill still stand, or has it been given a quiet burial? Again, no one knows. But yay, alliance — and a further feather in the cap of the master strategist (If Amit Shah’s electoral record since 2014 is milestoned with more defeats than wins, that inconvenient fact is not allowed to disturb the perception.)

But the point should be self-evident – the BJP has been pursuing every possible alliance it can cobble together, cognitive dissonance be damned. That is the observable reality.

The narrative, though, is that the opposition is the one putting together opportunistic alliances even at the cost of forsaking previously stated positions. And the sizeable chunk of the media pushing this narrative seems completely oblivious of the cognitive dissonance of their position: On the one hand, you critique opposition parties for their opportunistic alliances, and in the very next breath you damn and blast the hubristic arrogance of the Congress and condemn that party’s failure to put together local alliances in various states. How does that work?

#3. The BJP has come up with slogans that resonate with the public; the opposition has failed to come up with a single resonant slogan.

Is the ability to come up with a catchphrase a testament to the ability to govern? Do people actual vote for a party because it has the better slogan? I’ve never seen any empirical evidence of this, but let that lie. The catchiest slogans in contemporary electoral memory — Roti Kapda Makaan, Garibi Hatao, Achche Din — have all singularly failed in translating promise to reality, but let that lie, too.

Anyone remember Acche Din? How about Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas? Now there is Namumkin Bhi Mumkin Hai, and its corollary Modi Hai To Mumkin Hai. Each of these was launched to considerable hype and extensive debates about effectiveness; most of them have been quietly shelved, and there is no telling what the shelf life of the latest formulation is.

But do even the most random scroll through social media, and you can fill a Rolodex with the number of “opinion makers” banging on about the effectiveness of the BJP’s slogan game, and the abysmal failure of the opposition – read Congress – to come up with a “winner”.

Yoked to this is the related thread about the ineptness of the Congress/Opposition on the campaign trail. This narrative goes: The BJP is everywhere; the Congress is nowhere. Modi is winning hearts and minds; Rahul Gandhi is absent and worse, Priyanka Gandhi has since her debutante ball at Sabarmati been making programs and cancelling them – why are they not campaigning, what are they doing, ohmygod how inefficient, maybe they don’t want to win…

It is nobody’s never mind that almost at the exact minute this conversation was going on, Rahul Gandhi was doing one of his town halls, this time in Bangalore with a group of small entrepreneurs. In this town hall, he among other things addressed the question of GST and discussed what the Congress planned to do if it came to power; he was asked about the angel tax on entrepreneurs and he said he would kill it if it became his call to make, and explained why… All of this is far more policy based statements than you have heard Modi make this year. But you can’t blame the commentariat for not knowing this because none of his events, or those of other opposition leaders, find air time on TV whereas every breath an Amit Shah takes and every trope a Narendra Modi fakes are covered live, then discussed in breathless detail during prime time.

You get the feeling, while reading the commentary and listening to these debates, that the media is no longer content to report what is in fact happening. They have fixed notions of how parties should run their campaigns, and they score the horse-race based on how well these parties execute the media’s idea of a good campaign.

But that is not even the point. It harks back to Didion’s thoughts – that electoral politics is not a mechanism to enable citizens to make informed choices, but a monopoly of “that handful of insiders who invent, year in and year out, the narrative of public life”; a narrative “based at no point on observable reality”.

In all of this, who loses? The citizen, who has been systematically infantilised by a media that believes that she has no inclination to delve into issues; that her attention span is so limited that she can only consume slogans; that what the voter wants in the lead-up to what everyone says is the most important election of our lives is platitudes rather than policy; tub-thumping rhetoric rather than a nuanced debate on ideas.

It’s not just that we get the government we deserve — we also get the media, and the narrative, that we deserve.

Reading material:

  • A TimesNow poll finds, not surprisingly, that the NDA will return to power. What is notable is that this poll, in common with every single one thus far, gives the BJP no chance of replicating their 2014 performance and attaining majority on its own. In other words, the most optimistic of estimates is that we are in for a coalition government, no matter who wins.
  • Prem Shankar Jha believes Modi’s campaign is all theatre, and suggests that the Congress is not doing enough to challenge him on his lack of substance.
  • The most notable element in the DMK manifesto is the promise to do away with NEET, the cause of considerable heartburn among the TN student community.
  • Srinath Raghavan, one of the better-informed and sane voices on issues dealing with the army and national security, on why Modi’s desire to talk tough to impress his base has come in the way of good relations with China.
  • A Print report on how the JD(U) cut the BJP’s planned dalit outreach to size.
  • A Scroll investigation into how Rajya Sabha MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar took advantage of loopholes to hide the bulk of his fortune from electoral scrutiny. (The bits relating to the conflict of interest inherent in his defence deals is particularly noteworthy).
  • From The Wire, a piece that goes beyond the hagiography that inevitably accompanies a high-profile death, and examines the real legacy of the late Manohar Parikkar.
  • We voted a bunch of blokes into the 16th Lok Sabha. What did they do with this trust, with the time and money you invested in them? The Hindu has a nifty means of tracking the performance of individual MPs.

It’s your money. Do you care?

Scheme (noun): A large-scale systematic plan or announcement for attaining some particular object or putting a particular idea into effect

We learn from an NDTV report that in the month before the Election Commission announced polling dates for the 17th Lok Sabha, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made 28 trips across India in course of which he launched 157 schemes. This is in addition to 57 schemes launched between January 8 and February 7, making for a total of 214 schemes launched in 60 days.

A scheme, to mean anything, needs to tick a few boxes: A purpose, a plan, a roadmap and a budget (including a clear idea of where the money to pay for it will come from). None of the 200-plus schemes announced by the PM during this year tick all these boxes; some tick none. Which brings up the second definition of the word ‘scheme’:

Scheme (verb): make plans, especially in a devious way or with intent to do something illegal or wrong

The NDTV report cited above has certain points of interest in context of this definition. For instance:

Some of PM Modi’s launches appeared to be older projects re-launched as new. For instance, earlier this month, the Prime Minister dedicated to the nation a joint venture of Indo-Russian Rifles Pvt. Ltd, for a Kalashnikov Assault Rifle Production plant in Uttar Pradesh’s Amethi. But according to a government press release, the plant, inaugurated in 2007, began production of carbines, rifles, and INSAS machine guns in late 2010.

Note that the program was not billed as an “inauguration”, for obvious reasons — the PM was “dedicating” an existing facility to the nation — which is clearly specious. But the truly insidious nature of this public engagement lies in how the PM spun it during the rally that immediately followed:

Launching a Kalashnikov rifles manufacturing facility in Amethi – the Parliamentary constituency of Congress president Rahul Gandhi – Prime Minister Narendra Modi targeted the Congress saying this factory has been pending an opening for a decade under the previous regime.

Two elements worth noting: A “dedication” becomes a “launch”; chances are it is not deliberate distortion so much as a lazying buy-in to the way the government spins it. The second bit is, not only is the PM “dedicating” a factory that was inaugurated eleven years ago, he manages to blame the previous government, and the MP of Amethi, for delaying the opening by a decade. To repeat: It is billed as a “dedication”, but the accusation is that the “inauguration” hadn’t happened.

But here is the bit that strikes you most forcefully: While it is true that the plant was fully functional, and was manufacturing arms for the Services, it is equally true that the Indo-Russian joint venture to replace the AK-47 with the AK-203 is of recent vintage, an outcome of a meeting this February between PM Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin. That is what baffles you, repeatedly, about Modi: Even when he has an actual achievement, of whatever magnitude, he still feels the almost Pavlovian compulsion to surround it with hot air and to belittle any work in that space that was done before his time.

Also from the same story (emphasis mine):

In another instance, the Prime Minister laid the foundation stone for a sewage network at Karmalichak in Bihar on February 17. However, he had laid the foundation stone for the Karmalichak sewage treatment plant under the same project in October 2017. 

Besides dedicating fully functional facilities, the PM also lays one foundation stone on top of the one he had laid less than two years ago (which, among other things, means that nothing had been done since that foundation stone was laid in October 2017).

Why is any of this important? Because it is of a piece with the PM’s, and the government’s, egregious misuse of public funds to run party propaganda. Since these are technically billed as official functions, the government exchequer foots the bill for the PM’s trips around the country — with all the bells and security whistles attached to a head of government’s trip — to shill for votes.

Further, anyone who gets print papers will note that over the last couple of weeks, their newspaper of choice has been bloated with full page ads, all touting this scheme or that. A HuffPost story sourced from Reuters says three newspapers — Times of India, Hindustan Times and Indian Express carried 162 government ads between March 1-10, of which 93 were full page ads.

The day after the polling schedule was announced, none of the three papers carried any ads, which accords with the provisions of the model code of conduct, which says:

No advertisements shall be issued in electronic and print media highlighting the achievements of the government at the cost of public exchequer.

The sting is in the tail — using public money to hype the “achievements” of a government is an egregious breach of norms — the government, clearly aware of the imminence of the EC announcement, rushed to get in as much of such advertisements as possible.

Misuse of public funds for electioneering apart, there is this: For the publishing houses concerned, the flood of advertising has been a windfall (doubly so at a time when revenues are otherwise declining or flat). It is a stretch to imagine that the media houses that benefited from this will not, in return, ensure that the NDA gets maximum publicity. (Addendum: The carrot of big-ticket advertising can, and is, also used as a stick: the GoI, without any official explanation, instituted a ban on advertisements in two leading Kashmir dailies. Rewards for compliance; punishment for taking a questioning position — and both, using public funds for party/political purposes).

Anecdotal evidence supports this point. The other day, a group of professionals in Bangalore invited me for an informal q & a session on contemporary politics. One of the questions that came up was about the strange silence of the Opposition in general and Rahul Gandhi in particular which, I was told, contrasts with Modi and the rest of the BJP hierarchy who are constantly traveling, holding rallies, making speeches.

In response, I asked them to check the social media page of the Congress, to see what exactly Gandhi was up to. One of them surfed over to the party’s Facebook page — and it turned out that the Congress president has been traveling across the country, addressing rallies, meeting with various groups — which is what the assembled group complained he wasn’t doing.

That raises the question: How is it that every appearance of Modi, every utterance, is reported live and then retransmitted endlessly on television channels, while the events of Rahul Gandhi and other opposition leaders are as invariably blanked out — or used only to underline a line, a statement, that can then be attacked?

The BJP has been benefitting from the enormous amounts of oxygen — free publicity worth crores of rupees — willingly provided not only by openly compliant media channels, but even the supposedly neutral ones who get sucked into the thinking that because he is the PM, his every utterance should make headlines (the trap CNN and others fell into during Donald Trump’s presidential campaign). A news story from May last year is worth a re-read in context (emphasis mine):

The Bureau of Outreach Communication under the Ministry said the government spent ₹4,343.26 crore on advertising its programmes across media platforms.

This included ₹1732.15 crore on advertisements in the print media (from June 1, 2014, to December 7, 2017) and ₹2079.87 crore in the electronic media (from June 1, 2014, to March 31, 2018). A sum of ₹531.24 crore was spent on outdoor publicity (June 2014 to January 2018), it said.

Note that these figures do not account for the recent publicity blitz detailed above. Note that the amount spent on hoardings etc is only a fraction of what has been spent on print and electronic media — because a hoarding is not going to do any special favours for you, whereas media houses can, and will. Note, too, that all is being purchased with taxpayer money. I’ll leave you with this thought for now.

PS: Alongside the occasional longer posts, I’ll try and do a daily round-up of stories from the media that I think are worth reading. The first such roundup will be with you tomorrow morning.

Media matters: The Kulbhushan Jadhav episode

Of the many noteworthy events that occurred while I was away following the cricket, the one that sticks to my mind like a burr is the case of Quint and its story on Kulbushan Jadhav.

Briefly, Quint under the byline of one Chandan Nandy published a story citing two former heads of the Research and Analysis Wing to the effect that they were opposed to the recruitment of Jadhav, a former Naval officer, as a spy for the RAW. The story led to an outcry following which Quint took down the story. “The Quint is rechecking the Kulbhushan Jadhav story”, ran the headline over the website’s statement.

Since then, the story remains down. The statement has also vanished. And it is like nothing happened, nothing to see here, folks, move on.

But something did happen, and it should leave a sorry aftertaste in the mouths of anyone who is invested in ensuring that we get the media we deserve. The Quint-Jadhav story is one of editorial failure at multiple levels, with potentially dangerous consequences. And the subsequent silence of the website only compounds its initial complicity.

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