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Slippery Year

Slippery Year

Post Truth is a term tossed about rather frequently in popular discourse and analysis of socio-political events. At its core it relates to circumstances in which facts become less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief. We saw Post Truth come into play in the United States when Donald Trump was voted President and logic eluded the electorate which exercised its franchise driven by irrational emotions and a misplaced sense of patriotism.

In 2016, we too witnessed several Post Truth moments. Emotive and irrational narratives falsifying history and culture while promising a glorious economic revival were peddled as the truth by the people in power and were accepted by the public at large.  This disturbing trend manifested itself in a rash of fake news, tweets, Facebook posts and manipulated statistics packaged as reality. In fact, the spin given to news was more important than the news itself.

As a result, Prime Minister Narendra Modi who set a new style of governance by not interacting with the media managed to hog the headlines through his tweets, radio programmes and speeches at public rallies. The media unquestioningly reported whatever he said. It forgot the maxim that truth is often what people in the establishment want to hide; the rest is advertising. 

Unfortunately, whatever appeared in the media was accepted as the gospel truth by a nation that willingly suspended its disbelief. Propaganda was thus passed off as news.  In 2015, Congress leader Anand Sharma had said: “Insulting and belittling political opponents, pursuing politics of vendetta and selective targeting would justifiably lead one to the inference that this government does not believe in bipartisan consensus on issues that concern India’s national interests.” What he said then became all the more relevant in 2016.

Maybe, many got carried away by Modi the leader and the personality cult that was carefully crafted around him. Remember the public had after many years seen an aggressive leader who articulated eloquently and seemed in total control. Here was a Prime Minister who was shaking hands with powerful foreign leaders with a frequency unheard of. By doing so he made many an Indian believe that his country was on the top of the world. The media played along by reinforcing this myth. It too was bedazzled with all the hype and hoopla.

Ever since he came to power in 2014, Modi projected himself as the agent of change for a nation desperate to get a move on. Many Indians wanted the country’s economy to grow by leaps. They wanted to see jobs being created which would ensure a future for the educated young. More importantly, the citizens wanted to see the emergence of a new corruption free and dynamic nation. 

Modi promised this brave new India and his rhetoric never failed him. He said what everyone wanted to hear. So, his chest thumping theatrics, sarcasm and inverted humour had its appeal. It became the new reality for a nation starved of hope. That is why when experts initially expressed their doubts about demonetization their concerns were summarily dismissed. However, many have since then begun to see the light and can now discern the darker side of Modi’s currency culling operation. But, more on that later....  

As we rewind the year that went by, several events confirm how Post Truth paralysis dominated popular Indian thinking and mindsets. Take the concerted attack on Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). There were even demands to close it down as the government did not like the independent stand that its students took on several issues. Moreover, it was seen as a left bastion that was anti-national and the breeding ground of dissent.

Sedition charges were slapped on student leaders for participating in an “anti-India” programme within the JNU campus. Doctored videos were presented as proof that pro-Azadi slogans demanding freedom for Kashmir were mouthed by the arrested leaders. Sections of the media justified the police action in JNU as one that was required to check anti-nationalism that had grown roots within a campus run on taxpayers of the country. Those who stood up for the students were painted as misguided liberals and pseudo-intellectuals backed by political parties afflicted with Modi-phobia.  

In reality what transpired in JNU was reflective of a larger game plan of controlling and belittling institutions which functioned independently and promoted free speech. So, instead of choosing someone with a track record of being associated with good cinema to head the prestigious Film and Television Institute of India in Pune, Gajendra Chauhan, a TV actor and a B-Grade film star was chosen as its chairperson. Students naturally protested and there was a police crackdown. Threats were held out by the government that the institute would be wound up if the protests persisted.

A similar modus operandi was used for other institutions like the Censor Board and the National Institute of Fashion Technology where friends of the government landed top jobs they were not qualified to handle. The HRD Ministry also wanted to control appointments to two sterling institutions--the Indian Institute of Technology and the Indian Institute of Management. The idea was to undermine their authority and get saffron enthusiasts to head it. The Modi government wanted a cultural revolution that would replace liberals with champions of Hindutva in educational and cultural institutions.  

Given this backdrop, fringe right wing groups became increasingly active. Some launched a campaign against what they labelled as love jehad.  It was alleged that innocent Hindus, mainly women, were being lured by Muslim men into marriage merely to convert them to Islam.  Suddenly couples in love were visited by goons, threatened and very often pressured to break up. Those who were already married were harassed and mocked at.

Then there was the cow protection mafia fanning out across the country taking law into their hands and extorting money even from those who were merely transporting cattle from one place to another. Persons suspected of consuming beef were humiliated and assaulted. NDTV was the only television channel that took the gau rakshaks head on and exposed their excesses and the targeting of innocents. The government on its part conveniently ignored what was happening or at best made half-hearted statements condemning incidents where minorities and dalits were targeted.  

Modi did not use the power he commands to send a strong message to those who were raiding houses in their search for beef and killing innocents. Neither did he rein in divisive elements within his party and the larger Sangh parivar spreading communal hatred and instigating clashes. Modi could have stopped the madness but he did not. He chose not to because communal polarization was a crucial factor that helped him transition from Gujarat chief minister to the CEO of the nation.

NGOs were targeted one by one as they were underlining what was going wrong with the system in terms of human rights, corruption, deteriorating public services, health dangers, lopsided priorities like cutting down on budgets for education and other vital sectors and so on. Their funding which invariably came from developed countries was stopped. They were branded anti-national.

The year that went by was not one in which objective reportage took centre stage. On the contrary journalists allowed themselves to become veritable stenographers taking notes from government press releases to frame stories.  The spin to news events given by leaders of the ruling dispensation was passed off as analysis. In fact, the press even used Modi’s tweets to report on critical decisions and views of the government. The press became spokespersons of the government.

As the government’s highly publicised diplomatic moves with Pakistan floundered with numerous attacks like the deadly ones in Pathankot and Uri, questions on the poor security at some of India’s leading military bases, arose. Those who raised it were attacked with trolls. India’s move to add the name of Masood Azhar, the chief of the JeM in the United Nations list as a proscribed terrorist, fell through as China threw in the spanner into the works. India-Pak relations also plummeted hitting a rocky bottom as infiltration increased, frequent firing on the line of control and trouble by Pakistani trained militants in Kashmir. Talks between the two countries had got paralysed.

We saw several senior journalists on television mouthing government propaganda and refusing to take an independent stand. Those who did not fall in line were taunted for being anti-national or being part of the pseudo-liberal minority. Minister of State for Home Affairs, Kiren Rijiju, even went to the extent of saying that it was not in our culture to ask questions and the media should refrain questioning everything the authorities did! If journalists do not ask questions, who will?

However, demonetization has, at least momentarily, forced the media to see the writing on the wall.  Public anger and frustration was perhaps too prominent to ignore. The pink papers which drooled at the Prime Minister’s promises of economic nirvana for the last two years have now begun to suspect the logic of demonetization. With the economy taking a severe hit and rural India going through a prolonged crisis the alarm bells could not be ignored. 

And to think that we were told that demonetization was Modi’s grand plan to get rid of corruption and black money!  For a while the public believed him. They were even willing to give him a chance even after the first few weeks of standing in queues outside ATMs and banks to withdraw their own money. But soon patience began to run out as demonetization began to negatively impact their lives.

For the first time, the media started asking the government inconvenient questions. The pink papers have now started carrying pieces that questioned the logic of demonetization and the hidden costs it involved as the business world started taking a hit. All of a sudden, mandis bustling with activity fell silent because of the cash crunch. Marketplaces both in urban and rural India fall a steep fall in buyers. Agriculture was also hit. It was the rabi crop sowing season. Farmers were struggling to buy seeds, fertilizer and diesel to power their water pumps. Real estate grinded to a halt as no one wanted to invest in it. Construction slowed down dramatically as workers could not be paid in cash. Poor villagers who had migrated from Odisha, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar were going back home unable to pay their rent and scrounge for food with no cash on hand. Small vegetable, fruit and provision vendors who dealt with cash transactions, collapsed as buyers started buying it from big stores that accepted card payments. The idea of a cashless economy cannot be incubated all of a sudden. The government had no plan in place before they announced it. That is why there were cashless ATMs everywhere. Going digital in India which is one of the most populated countries in the world, needs a well thought of orchestrated plan.

We were told that demonetization was Modi’s grand plan to get rid of corruption that strangulated India and it would get rid of black money. The majority of India believed that. As each of us has been a victim of corruption at some point or other, it felt good. Finally, we were getting round it, we thought. And who likes the idea of black money? We all know what it has done to the Indian system. So, we did not mind the hardships that followed, long queues, empty ATM’s, losses of daily wage earners, et al. But soon, we saw how the government was swindled by the rich and powerful who laundered their money swiftly with the help of bankers and touts. While the common man could withdraw just Rs. 2000 from an ATM if it had cash, there were numerous others who were found with new currency worth crores at home, in their lockers, in their vehicles and in every possible place one could imagine! It took time for people to finally realize that this was a ruse to save the sinking banking sector which was labouring under the weight of Non-Performing Assets (NPAs) as India’s high and mighty industrialists and entrepreneurs had defaulted on their loans. Suddenly, after demonetization, the banking sector is flush with funds. Economists and analysts were saying this, but no one was earlier listening. Now, it has started to make sense.

Reality came as a slap. Not once, but many times. One hopes that it wakes us all up from the slumber induced by the sedative called Post Truth.... 

[Ramesh Menon has been in active journalism for nearly four decades. He authored, “Modi-Demystified-The Making of a Prime Minister” (HarperCollins) and is a recipient of the Ramnath Goenka Award for Excellence in Journalism.]

(Published on 02nd January 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 1)#