Vote Banks, Bigotry, Fake News: Indian Democracy Is Under Threat

Posted by siddharth sharma in Politics, Society, Staff Picks
August 15, 2017

The times that we live in are difficult, but beautiful nonetheless. There are disruptions happening in every field. Technology is playing the major role of being an agent of disruption. We, the youth of today, are known as the ‘millennial generation’. Till a decade ago, in popular discourse, this phenomenon was known as the ‘DotCom Age’; today, it is known as the ‘HashTag Age’. This itself implies the significant change that has occurred within the domain of technology, from the one-way street of ‘search engines’ to the two-way street of ‘social media’. In a sense, we are more empowered, and the medium itself has been democratized. Democracy thus leads to empowerment.

This ‘new media’ phenomenon was, till a few years ago, underestimated by the powers-that-be. But they did so at their own peril. It has now unleashed forces which have never been seen before. Digital trolls, heightened rumour-mongering, fake news, abuse, name-calling, and eventual violence – even murders – on the basis of such rumours. The intensity of these phenomena has reached such heights, that the Oxford English Dictionary has come up with a new term called ‘post-truth’ to describe it.

Recently, the spate of political violence in Kerala, which always existed, has intensified in magnitude. Clashes between the cadres of the RSS-BJP and the CPM have led to unfortunate killings. The CM of Kerala called for an all-party meet to resolve the issue. Interestingly, Mr Arun Jaitley, who is in charge of the two heavy portfolios of Finance and Defence, at a time of GST rollouts and volatile border situations with both China and Pakistan, somehow found the time to visit the state of Kerela to take cognizance of an issue of state law and order. Well, the effort is appreciated. The presence of a Senior Cabinet Minister will certainly boost the morale of the people and law enforcement agencies at a time of crisis.

However, he went on to comment on various TV channels about the silence of the “Award Waapsi Brigade”, as if the accountability lies with them and as if the whole purpose of his visit was to make this point. Well, the “Award Waapsi Brigade” is tired of government apathy. If the same alacrity could be shown by the likes of Mr Jaitley in cases of mob lynchings happening a few kilometres away from Delhi, certainly every “Award Waapsi” person would hail him with praise. But then, the Centre dismissed them by citing them as state law and order issues and called the “Award Waapsi Movement”  a manufactured one. Frankly, today we have reached a point where there are no more awards to be returned. Houses were torched and several people were killed in the recent Saharanpur Riots, a few miles away from Delhi, and there was not a single word from the centre. For a PM who tweets condolences about a fire in Portugal, I think this is not too much to ask for.

To be fair, I would like to say that PM Modi has come out with strong words of condemnation for the so called ‘gaurakshaks’ twice now. Although he did so only after considerable public pressure, it is a welcome step nonetheless. But then, ‘political survival’ is of utmost importance to any politician. Despite Mr Modi seemingly all set to become as successful a Prime Minister as Nehru or Indira, with no opposition on the horizon, he still went for that ‘Kabristan-Shamsan‘ jibe during the UP campaign.

These ‘vote-bank’ calculations unleash havoc in society, as has amply been shown by history. We had the Yadav-Muslim Gundaraaj in UP and Bihar during SP and RJD rule respectively, Muslim fundamentalism under Owaisi brothers in Hyderabad, Shiv Sainiks as rent collectors in Mumbai, Muslim fundamentalism under AIUDF in Assam, chauvinists under MNS in Maharashtra. The gaurakshaks are the latest manifestation of the same.

When PM Modi went about his ‘acche din’ campaign, it appealed to aspirational India. Today, foreign investors are reluctant to invest in India. Despite all the small and big economic reforms carried out by the government, which are commendable in their own right, the social climate is, unfortunately, a turn-off for foreign investors. I mean, at a time when we have the Union Cultural Minister Mahesh Sharma present during the funeral rites of a mob-lynching accused, when a BJP MP calls Nathuram Godse a patriot, when a Minister of State discriminates between ‘ramzada’ (those born of Ram) and ‘haramzada’ (those not born of Ram, ie, illegitimate), when Chattisgarh’s CM calls for ‘hanging’ for cow-slaughter, when someone with pet projects like ‘love jihad‘ is appointed the CM of UP, when lawyers go on a rampage to beat up a student outside a Court in the National Capital in full daylight and full media glare, one can very well extrapolate the situation in the mineral-rich Maoist areas, where foreign investors have set their sights.

I mean, what kind of an image does all of this present to the international media. Can one expect such situations in New York, Washington, London, Paris, Berlin and Vienna? How can we expect to achieve a similar status, when we present ourselves so poorly to the outside world? The PM works day in and day out for ease of trade and business in India. Perhaps he should recognize the major hurdles to the same, and deal with them effectively. People in 2014 voted for PM Modi, not Shakshi Maharaj or Niranjan Jyoti.

Political expediency, without exception, gives rise to Frankenstein’s monsters. In this case, it is evinced by the recently held ‘Hindu Rashtra’ conclave, where in Hindu outfits expressed disappointment with the BJP, which they felt was moving closer to ‘centrist policies’. Earlier, in 1985, succumbing to the pressures of Muslim fundamentalists, the Rajeev Gandhi government had overturned the historic Shah Bano judgement.

When I watch certain news channels today, I feel like I am watching Pakistani channels. Every primetime show talks about the issues with Pakistan. I mean, these days, people are not even concerned about an India Vs Pakistan match, let alone the Pakistani army’s position vis-à-vis India. With the second highest population in the world, don’t we have anything else to show for ourselves? These were the same channels that called Umar Khalid an anti-national without even listening to his views. They claimed that he was a terrorist sympathiser, despite those reports being debunked. It was done solely on the basis of him being a Muslim. They were solely responsible for creating the entire JNU frenzy, maligning a university which has, year after year, received global recognition for its research credentials. So much so, that the Union Home Minister had alleged that the event in question at JNU had been funded by Hafiz Sayyed – a statement he later withdrew. But the damage had been done.

Despite all this, the Government’s own rankings have placed JNU at the top. This goes on to show how the media backed by the state, can ‘manufacture consent’, to borrow a term from Chomsky. This is a manifestation of the ‘post-truth’ world. To be clear, it existed earlier, as evinced by the Radia Tapes. Only, the intensity has magnified, due to the rise of social media.

To put things into perspective, when a common citizen like me raises these issues, they are called various names and are immediately sorted into certain categories. Let me define my categories. I am a ‘hyper liberal’, a ‘constitutionalist’, and a ‘Tagorean universalist’. Today, I am raising these issues because it is the BJP government which is in power. Those who know me can vouch for the fact that I raised issues relevant at the time against the Congress prior to 2014. Leaving the politicos aside, we as the citizenry must not fall into this trap of name-calling and labeling. We should look into the substance and nuance of the issues and policies, rather than questioning those critiquing them. Yes, we should point out the contradictions and hypocrisies of people saying contradictory things at different times, but we should deal with matters on an objective, case-by-case basis.

I, for one, support BJP’s initiative against triple talaq. I am in agreement with PM Modi’s foreign policy with a few reservations. I am a great cheerleader of the PM’s oratorical skills, personality, charm, capacity for hard work, and so on.  I dislike Mamata Banerjee, the late Jayalalitha, Arvind Kejriwal, the Badals, the Thackerays for their centralised mode of operation and culture of nepotism. I despise political dynasties. I despise political corruption, and I am irked by the arrogance of politicians in power. I am a great supporter of PM Modi’s banning of Lal-Battis (red beacons on cars).

But I would also like the BJP to come down heavily on groups like Shree Ram Sene and Bajrang Dal, who beat up pub going youngsters in the name of the cultural ethos. I would also like the BJP to come down heavily on its MPs and members who say that Hindu women must produce at least 10 children. I would also want the BJP to empower the LGBT community and decriminalize gay marriage.

I began by saying that we live in difficult times, but beautiful times nonetheless. To quote Arun Shourie, “Jo ‘Hyper-bole so nihaal (he who speaks in hyperbole, shall be fulfilled)” is the trend these days. So, it is now upon us liberals to speak in hyperboles and louder voices, especially in the absence of any opposition to Mr Modi, both in the parliament and on the streets, and definitely on social media. We have to do this for the sake of our nation, and not just to go against Mr Modi. A government without a political opposition is a government unchecked. So, it is the citizen’s primary duty to keep the government on its toes and hold it accountable. A disastrous decision like demonetisation and the direction the Aadhar Scheme is taking are self-evident examples of the government’s monopolistic tendencies. To invert a quote from Venkaiah Naidu, “The govt will have its way, but the opposition must have its say.

As a humble political observer, I can say this with full responsibility that without the Anna Movement, there would have been no political enthusiasm for the 2014 elections. It was the energy being unleashed by that movement which was captured by the current PM. This was because of the absence of a clear alternative vision or a charismatic leadership in the movement itself. This happens time and again. It was the RamJanamBhoomi movement in the 90’s, Indira Gandhi’s assassination in ’84, the Emergency and the JP Movement in the mid-70’s, and the Bangladesh Liberation War in ’71. Each time, the political landscape in India underwent a major shift.

Today, a movement is building. From the agrarian crisis, aggressive dalit self-assertion, lack of jobs in urban areas, to Trupti Desai’s religion for women movement, the citizens pouring out for #NotInMyName campaign, Narmada movement, Masuka Movement, student movements, and many more, these have the potential to shake up the establishment, if they merge. But, without the lack of credible leadership and an alternative vision, this might have disastrous consequences.

As I said earlier, these difficult times are also beautiful. To quote Yogendra Yadav, “I would rather want a misinformed but proactive (or reactive) citizenry than to have an indifferent citizenry.” I agree with this view because a misinformed but active citizenry with whom one can engage politically despite differences, have heated arguments and debates, will lead to the evolution of new and fresh ideas. But an indifferent citizenry is a menace to society, whose apathy towards governance and political issues creates a sense of unresponsiveness in the system which lays the breeding ground for corruption and for extremists of all hues and colours. However, fake news and post-truth are phenomena which should be dealt with strongly by each of us. Technology, for now, is doing a great job in trying to bring solutions for this through Artificial Intelligence mechanisms.

For now, I will end by quoting Rabindranath Tagore:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.