News, views: April 8 edition

Kalpana Sharma, readers’ editor of Scroll.in, asks the media to go beyond the usual ‘Who will you vote for?’ type questions when out in the field. A clip from Sharma’s piece:

Elections give journalists a great chance to step outside their usual beats and get a sense of what is going on in the country. In the days before the internet, 24-hour television news and polls, print journalists were sent out to cover key constituencies as also the poorer regions of India, where politicians only appear before elections.


The exchanges with ordinary people recharged our batteries, gave us precious insights into and understanding about how people live and survive, and provided us the tools to separate the reality from the political bombast. Not all that we gathered featured in our stories. But we came back from our election journeys wiser and better informed about the state of the nation.

These epiphanies are becoming more frequent — and I suspect that one reason is the growing realisation that the view from the media bubbles of Delhi and Mumbai are not indicative of the thinking of the vast majority of the population. Here is Shekhar Gupta striking a similar note:

You have to get out of Delhi often if you want to understand that there are two ways of looking at India: Inside-out, that is, from Delhi and the heartland at the rest of the country; or outside-in, which is, looking at the heartland from beyond.


Essentially, when you look inside-out, it brainwashes you into seeing the picture purely in national party-national leader terms. If you give yourselves the gift of distance and an open mind, you might see the change in this new India. 

Well, duh!

To this, I’d add a couple of suggestions: One, don’t wait for elections to go out in the field — a periodic trip outside the confines of the newsroom will alter the way you see the events unfolding around you. And two, don’t go flashing the paraphernalia of the journalist: the car and driver, the fixer, the translator, the recording equipment, the notebook… If you go festooned with those appurtenances, you get canned answers; you never get to have free-wheeling conversations with the people you meet.

Around this time last year, I happened to spend some time in Punjab, then Rajasthan, as part of two-time Pulitzer-winner Paul Salopek’s Out of Eden Walk. Early days, I did exactly what I just cautioned against: The moment I met someone I took out my notebook and pen, opened up a fresh page… I was the stereotypical journalist. It took a while before I caught on; once I did, I learned to put the notebook away, to relax, to chat, to let the people I was meeting guide the conversation, and suddenly a whole new way of seeing opened up.

Kalpana’s piece came apropos: During my time on the road I was reading as much of election coverage as I could find, and was appalled by how much of it was framed from a Delhi-centric point of view. It is all about alliances, and caste equations, and whose zinger/slogan/poll promise is better… I am not saying these and similar factors won’t make any difference: Of course they will, they always have. But there is a whole lot more to how India votes than just these transactional elements, and barring a few honourable exceptions (Scroll is one such), there is lamentably little effort to get beneath the skin of the electorate.

If the results of elections both at the national and state level constantly surprise us, this is a large part of the reason why: Every result tells us that what we thought were the issues that would determine the outcome has no co-relation with what the actual voters are thinking about when they step into that booth and hit that button.

I’VE been collating and posting water-related links fairly frequently, because to my mind this is going to be the critical issue, affecting all segments of the population, in the years to come. On that note, a story in ToI says that water in the seven lakes supplying to the city is down to just 26% of capacity.

In its 2014 manifesto, the BJP promised to provide safe drinking water for all rural households. However, says this story in LiveMint, the BJP government has not only slashed funding for the scheme, it has also reduced the amounts actually released.

Now, in its 2019 manifesto, Modi has provided for a Jal Shakti Ministry to deal with the problem. That seems to be the go-to solution for any issue the BJP faces and doesn’t know how to deal with: create a ministry. (While on which, I heard Rahul Gandhi the other day say that he would create a ministry just for fishermen — and that is equally pointless). And while on this, we do have a ministry for water resources. It is currently headed by Nitin Gadkari. What exactly is another ministry going to accomplish, that this one couldn’t? (It creates a few more posts that can be given as reward to those outfits that cross the floor, certainly). Modi also had some boilerplate about ‘Jal se nal’ – but bottomline, the manifesto is as vague on the subject this time as it was last time.

Water, like employment, is a political tripwire lying in wait for the government during this election cycle. While pundits endlessly handicap elections in terms of personalities, alliances, slogans and such, people outside of the metros and cities vote on gut issues – and lack of water hits as close to the gut as it is possible to get.

Here is an incident that should serve as a warning: In Maharashtra’s gathering when a boy yelled out that water had come – and the crowd emptied at once leaving the party, which has been trying to downplay the severe drought conditions in the state, red-faced. Elsewhere, in Marathwada, the situation is equally dire.

Related, in 2014 the BJP had promised 99 new irrigation projects.

Keep an eye on this: The extended election season takes us into peak summer, and things are only going to get worse. Five years later, “74 are still waiting for the construction of field canals and command area development. Other targets are also unachieved; the budget allocations, too, are less than originally planned.”

I’VE only glanced through the BJP manifesto (I need to find the time to read it in detail, and to compare it with its 2014 antecedent), released this morning in typical BJP fashion: Lots of breathless television coverage, lots of speeches by the top leadership, but not a single leader willing to take questions. Later this evening and in the days to come, various BJP worthies will appear on the usual channels to talk up the manifesto and respond to prefabricated questions — but the party leadership consistently ducks anything in the nature of unscripted interactions, and today was no exception.

But – admittedly based on that cursory speed-read — the impression I got was that the BJP doesn’t really take the exercise seriously. There is a palpable lack of thought; the document feels like the work of a kid rushing through his homework so he can go out and play. Not kidding — back in the day, one of the things we quickly figured out was that the more pages we filled in our ‘essays’ notebook for each assignment, the happier our teachers were. So we took to writing something on page one that we would repeat verbatim on page three and five and… Here is the BJP’s version of padding:

In its manifesto, the BJP says the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi Yojana (PM-KISAN), initially supposed to benefit 12 crore farming families, has been extended to all farmers. Clearly, the Congress party’s NYAY scheme is resonating, forcing the BJP to up the ante.

Here’s the thing, though: when Congress announced its scheme for the poorest of farmers the BJP, led by Arun Jaitley, and the friendly channels became economists overnight, angrily asking where the money would come from. The original PM-KISAN was budgeted at Rs 75,000 crore. To cover all farmers – almost half the population – will take at least four times that amount. Where is the money going to come from?

And while speaking of friendly channels and comments about the Congress manifesto, I happened to come across this earlier today:

This is a classic example of what is happening to those tasked with toeing the BJP line: You merely repeat anything that emanates from Modi, without pause for thought. Seriously, what does this even mean? How is the “common Indian”, whose plight occupied Modi’s sleepless nights these past five years, different from the “average Indian”, whose aspirations Modi hopes to fulfil in the next five? File this under #kuchbhi

IF you haven’t heard of the Kuki National Army, it is time you did. The armed insurgent group has threatened wholesale violence if 90% of the votes in the state don’t go to the BJP. Also:

Previously, two Manipur insurgent groups— Zomi Re-unification Organisation (ZRO) and Kuki National Organisation (KNO) (KNA is the armed wing of KNO) — in separate letters had requested the BJP party president Amit Shah to give its tickets to the insurgents’ favoured candidate HS Benjamin Mate for the outer Manipur parliamentary seat. The BJP had obliged the request, News18 reported.

Begs the question: Is the BJP ok with working hand in glove with insurgents, even as it accuses everyone else of tukde tukde intentions? Speaking of which (there is more on the tukde tukde gang in my previous post), even when participating in the release of the party manifesto Arun Jaitley — who, frankly, is becoming a total bore — couldn’t resist invoking that strawman:

I’ll likely have more thoughts on the BJP manifesto in the coming days (Mandir kab banaoge? Oh, and whatever happened to the 100 smart cities idea so grandly touted in 2014?) Meanwhile, some reading material, in no particular order:

THE Election Commission Sunday “strongly advised” the Finance Ministry that any action by its enforcement agencies during election time should be “neutral” and “non-discriminatory” and officials of the poll panel should be kept in loop about such actions. The EC’s advice came against the backdrop of Income Tax Department’s raids in Madhya Pradesh Sunday and in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh in the recent past on politicians and people connected to them. That would be this EC, right? That shining model of impartiality? I mean, how bad does something — in this case, the government’s use of enforcement agencies to bully its political opponents — have to be for even the EC to express concern?

WHILE the EC is issue its “strong” advisory, the Supreme Court has asked it to take strict action against political party representatives and spokespersons who make speeches or remarks on religious or caste lines. Good luck with that — what is the EC supposed to do to, say, the poisonous Adityanath? Or Modi, for that matter?

IN the ongoing series of links to schemes that Modi and his minions talk up on the stump, but which when examined appear to have no substance, here is one more:

A new study from the Research Institute for Compassionate Economics (r.i.c.e) shows that 85% of Ujjwala beneficiaries in rural Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan still use solid fuels for cooking, due to financial reasons as well as gender inequalities. The resultant indoor air pollution can lead to infant deaths and harm child development, as well as contribute to heart and lung disease among adults, especially the women, cooking on these chulhas.

MUKUL Kesavan is one of our sharpest, most eloquent columnists — a delight to read, on any subject he choses to write about. Here he is, on Advani’s recent epiphany:

No, the real lesson of Advani’s post and his political career isn’t his hypocrisy about civility and diversity, the real lesson is twofold. First, that there is no floor to the pit of majoritarian politics: there are lower depths to its lower depths.

CARAVAN does a deep dive into the violence that has roiled Kerala politics. It resonates — and goes deep into — a problem I had pointed to in this post. And this follow up.

SCHEMES“, redux: Remember One District One Product? Chittoor, in AP, was one of the districts picked for this project. The situation on the ground is not good.

IF you are looking for a metaphor for government (actually, any government), here it is: The PM Matru Vandana Yojana spent about five times more money distributing largesse to the beneficiaries, than the actual beneficiaries got.

I happened to read this piece in LiveMint, and now I wish I hadn’t. It’s on Modi’s poetry.

In one of his poems, Narendra Modi is a kite, who is soaring with “the grace of the sky”, towards the sun, held back “only by the string”. In another poem, he is a honeybee who is very busy, joyful, free, and his life a burst of colours. In his poems, he is often happy and in good places. Also, he is an energetic lover, “an ocean that leaps with energy”, a man who is as “upright as a mountain” and as “pure as the river”.

It set my mind wandering through promising fields of speculation, until I got to the point where I wondered how Modi, who according to all accounts abandoned his wife without ever consummating their marriage, and has spent his lifetime in a kind of sanyas, discovered his energetic properties as a lover. ‘Upright as a mountain…’ — at that point, I had to disengage my mind from its wanderings, and call it back to order.

Update, 10.00 PM: That point I was making earlier, about there being a kid-rushing-homework feel to this BJP manifesto? Here you go (emphasis mine):

“We have constituted the Women’s Security Division in the Home Ministry, and have made strict provisions for transferring the laws in order to commit crimes against women.”

On the surface, one of those ha-ha moments, and social media is having the predictable ball at the BJP’s expense. But what bugs me is how very lackadaisical the BJP is about its manifestos, both for state and national level elections. Like it is just one of those formalities to be completed, not the one single document that allows the voter to know what they are getting in terms of governance.

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…

Yeh lo ji, 2G

FIVE years ago, the 2G scam was the centrepiece of the Modi-led BJP’s relentless campaign against the Congress – a campaign that received initial propulsion courtesy the combination of Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal. Those guilty will be behind bars within six months of our coming to power, Modi promised then.

In the intervening period, the story line has morphed; contemporary mythology says that it was the efforts of Modi and the BJP that put the culprits in the dock. The story ignores the fact that the charges were first framed, and some of the main actors arrested, way back in 2011, three years before the BJP even came to power – just another example of how perception always trumps facts. (This timeline might help to refresh fading memories).

But never mind that, focus instead on the campaign promise of bringing the culprits to book. On December 21, 2017, Judge OP Saini of the CBI Special Court acquitted all accused and, inter alia, said:

I have absolutely no hesitation in holding that the prosecution has miserably failed to prove any charge against any of the accused, made in its well-choreographed charge sheet.

On LiveLaw, find the full judgment, and an explainer for how the judge ruled on the various charges, and reached the conclusions set out in his judgment.

The CBI appealed, and then dragged its feet until, in March 2018, a miffed Supreme Court directed the CBI and the Enforcement Directorate to complete the probe within six months.

The (Supreme Court) bench observed that the investigation had been going on for a long time, and (the) people of this country cannot be kept in the dark on a sensitive matter like this.

Six months, the Supreme Court said — twelve months ago. In October, the Delhi High Court said it would hear the CBI’s appeal against the acquittals on a daily basis. Since then, all that has emerged is some guff about the number of trees to be planted as punishment for being late with a response.

There is no sign of closure; the people of the country remain in the dark. And the real tragedy here is this: there is little doubt that there were procedural irregularities. What is in dispute is the nature of these irregularities and the damage they caused. By blowing it up into something it wasn’t, the investigative machinery and the politicians have effectively ensured that we will likely never get to the bottom of what it really is.  (In this connection, an excerpt from Vinod Rai’s book is worth your time).

Significantly, where the BJP’s diatribes about Congress corruption used to be about specifics – 2G, CWG, Aadhar – the party and its leader have now steered clear of itemizing and speak in general terms about “corruption”, hoping the muck of 2014 will resurface in the voter’s mind.

Meanwhile, there is this: UPA-II earned Rs 1,31,712 crore through the sale of mobile spectrum. Against that, NDA-II has earned Rs 64,811 crore – that is, less than half.

These are government figures, accessed by one Renjith Thomas through an RTI application.

Let that sink in. Also note that in 2017 and 2018 the government held no auctions at all – and ask yourself why.

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.

A fable for our times

Two men set off on a journey. One was a chronic liar, the other was a habitual truth-teller. Their journey led them to the land of monkeys, whose leader noticed the travellers and ordered his minions to detain them.

The leader commanded all the monkeys in the land to line up. He had a throne — replica of one he had seen once when, as a young monkey, he had wandered into the palace of an emperor — placed in their midst, and he sat on it in state.

He asked the first man to step up. “Who am I?”, the leader asked. “You are the emperor, mightiest of all emperors on earth!”, the man responded.

“And the ones you see standing on either side of me, who are they?”

“They are your noble, faithful companions, your ministers, your efficient officials and the invincible commanders of your army.”

The leader of the monkeys was pleased, and ordered that the man be showered with presents (land at throwaway prices, defence contracts, you know the sort of thing – no, Aesop didn’t say this, I tacked it on). He then asked the other man to step up.

“Tell me, who am I, and who do you see standing in line on either side of me?”

“You are a monkey, and the ones standing in line on either side are your simian sycophants,” the second man, habituated to truth telling, replied.

The enraged leader of the monkeys ordered his followers (the IT cell, the sycophants who depended on him for morsels of favour, such as a Rajya Sabha seat or a prime post-retirement posting, the news channels whose owners were part of the rent-seeking machinery… no no, not Aesop, I added this bit) to fall on the second man and rend him limb from limb.

NB: Yeah, this blog is live again. Or will be, starting next week — like the Election Commission that’s been dragging its feet on announcing the dates for polling to elect the 17th Lok Sabha, I’ve been a bit tardy. But this will be remedied, and normal service will resume, from Monday March 11. See you in this space.

Of demonetization. And magic. And Modi

Demonetisation__The_Greatest_Magic_Act_Ever_Performed

Image courtesy BuzzFeed

(NB: This is the uncut version of an article originally published on BuzzFeed on November 7)

At 8 PM on the 8th of November 2016, the curtain rose on the greatest magic act of all time.

That evening, one man stepped onstage in front of the largest captive audience ever assembled for a performance and, in a speech spanning 2423 words that took 25:04 minutes to deliver, converted most of the currency of one of the largest economies in the world into so much worthless paper.

It was intended, he said, to usher in a Swachch economic Bharat. It was audacious in concept and ambitious in scale, even as it flew in the face of received wisdom that you cannot fool all the people all the time.

The ace mentalist Nakul Shenoy told me that a magician can, and often does, stumble during a performance. Modi’s stumble came four days into his essay in mass hypnotism when, in a November 12 speech to the NRI community in Kobe, Japan, he laughed at the hapless victims of his newest trick. “Ghar pe shaadi hai,” he smirked at one point, “lekin paisa nahin hai.” (There’s a wedding at home, but there’s no money.)

Continue reading

Media magic

The advantage of having a friend — in this case, Nakul Shenoy — who is adept at magic (though he, all the while, denies that there is anything called magic) is that you can over time learn to spot the moves even as the magician makes them.

Take cups-and-balls, a trick that dates back over 2000 years. It is one of the most ubiquitous of magic acts. Watch the legendary Penn and Teller perform the act:

Continue reading