“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”
That this frequently used quote is attributed to the presiding deity of antisemitism – Joseph Goebbels, without any proof of him saying it, is a fitting validation of its prophecy.
Could it be argued, however, that the converse is also true? Can deliberate and selective subversion of facts, irrespective of the frequency of their occurrence or the severity of their impact, lead to establishing a narrative contrary to reality? Is post-truth actually ‘forced-truth’?
But here’s the real deal. Picture a situation where lies about one side are ceaselessly repeated and inconvenient facts about the other are diligently suppressed. Can this be the potential force-multiplier that opens up a vast, permanent chasm between reality and perception? Can it create an artificial, alternate version of contemporary events suited to the interests of a cartel?
Evidently it can.
The Congress is Teflon-coated against ‘anti-minority’ branding despite 1984 and ‘jab bada ped girta hai…’, but the same tag sticks to the BJP for many events such as Ram Janm Bhumi movement and 2002 despite multiple courts having ruled the truth to be the polar opposite of perception.
Rahul Gandhi and Akhilesh Yadav are feted as young, progressive leaders breaking ‘neta’ stereotypes, and defying familial allegiances. Amit Shah gets questioned about dynasty politics in the BJP because legitimate, long-time cadre, who happen to be children of senior party leaders, are rewarded with assembly tickets.
The slapping of a director (upon opening fire on a peaceful protest) for allegedly bastardising Rajput history is Hindu terror, but stone-pelting on security forces conducting anti-terrorist operations can pass off as ‘peaceful protest’, without any liberal intellectuals protesting.
Yogi Adityanath is a polarising figure for highlighting the Kairana exodus, and the army chief is alienating Kashmiri youth by promising action against those disrupting security ops. Mulayam Singh Yadav pandering to a vote-bank by flaunting his ‘I-killed-kar-sevaks-to-save-masjid’ credentials is, however, political strategy the chattering classes deem legitimate, even smart.
Sharad Yadav and Digvijay Singh can make crass sexist comments and their fawning journalist groupies chime praises of ‘rustic humour’ almost on cue. Narendra Modi uses the potent weapon in parliamentary debates – wit, to ask how the ex-PM managed to maintain a squeaky clean image despite obnoxiously big scams unfolding under his watch, and gets rained on by the cabal for disrespect and undignified attack.
Obviously, the list goes on.
It is, therefore, safe to surmise that most of the perception binaries that exist today are a result of this virulent and evil dual-play of denying the truth and repeating lies. And many of India’s media mavens who strut about as fiercely independent voices, have built their entire careers on exactly this, as pointed out by Swapan Dasgupta recently.
Their practice has since been institutionalised in the form of corporate media houses fronting as professional propaganda machinery (recent tweets of senior ET journalists on UP elections are a case in point) in exchange for sops and freebies. They continue their fine-art with impunity. While at it, they dismiss those who question them or point out their hypocrisy as trolls and celebrate victory when private citizens are victimized through abuse of parliamentary privilege.
They do not see the need to change. Why? Because their success rate, despite social media (and sometimes, because of it), is phenomenal. While the larger industry struggles to pay salaries and arbitrarily sacks hundreds of bureau staff to remain afloat, the big guns remain unaffected, in the safety of their ivory towers. They are still in demand in the cocktail and lit fest circuits, their books continue to be released by Union Ministers, and they still adorn glitzy studios disguising their bias as expert opinion based on a reading of the ground situation and patronising conversations with cab drivers. Most importantly, they know that someone high up ‘has their back’.
It is no surprise that the principal sponsors and, by extension, beneficiaries of this practice are the Gandhis and their allies – both overt and covert. It has guaranteed the family positions of considerable power without any real experience, achievements, or expertise.
One may ask if it really is so. After all, isn’t the Congress down to 44 seats in Lok Sabha, and fast losing relevance in state after state? Isn’t it obvious that the BJP is ruling at the Centre with a historic majority and is on ascendancy nationally? Even his fiercest critics grudgingly admit that Modi’s popularity remains intact, despite a sustained vilification campaign, exponentially severe than what the incumbent POTUS continues to suffer.
True, these shenanigans may not have the potency to alter the eventual course of history, but can certainly delay them. They ensure that impressions such as Manmohan Singh’s honesty, Sonia Gandhi’s political chutzpah and Modi’s authoritarian ways – catch on, with long-term ramifications, given that public memory being notoriously fragile. More importantly, it is crucial in escaping scrutiny, avoiding accountability and running an opaque operation, leaving ample room for a bounce back. Has the longest-serving Congress President ever held a press conference? Has she been ever juxtaposed with the BJP President, who offers himself for hostile grilling ever so regularly?
The process is amoebic, ensuring new branding gets fomented. The notion that Rahul Gandhi’s ‘suit-boot-ki-sarkaar’ attack had begun to resonate was successfully built, thus making demonetization look like damage-control instead of a seminal economic decision. Arvind Kejriwal’s blatant embracing of terrorists and Khalistani sympathisers was ignored in the rush to project him as the face of change that is sweeping through Punjab.
So, what prevents the other side from creating a counter-narrative? One word – intent.
The BJP for instance, cannot hide behind naiveté any longer when it comes to realpolitik, because it has been around for 3 decades now. Neither can it keep claiming to be the victim of propaganda, without doing anything about it. There is no excuse for allowing blatant mistruths to be spread and the agenda hijacked.
But that’s precisely what happens, when the investment in an ecosystem has not been made, or sustained. Defamation suits are not the answer to offensive personal attacks, and insipid press conferences fronted by toothless spokespersons are hardly a match for the relentless, thick-skinned assault from the other end. See how Trump launched a frontal attack on what he believes is fake news without wasting a moment or getting ‘presidential’, irrespective of how big the media brand is. Closer home, even a relatively new player like Arvind Kejriwal ensured influence on airwaves by co-opting the existing system, and tossing the media around with contempt without it impacting his status as their poster boy.
For the BJP and the right-wing ecosystem, it is important to learn the art of digging in heels in and sticking to guns. Being persistent with a line of communication and keeping the story alive is important, as the party should have learnt by now. The complete silence on issues that haunt the Gandhis, such as Robert Vadra’s land deals, the National Herald case and Rahul’s academic qualifications are only few examples of a very timid counter attack, which allows them to simply fizzle away without making a mark on the national psyche. Note how despite ample evidence to the contrary, the Gandhis have avoided the tag of personal corruption in the mainstream media. The argument is not a moral one, and it is certainly not about doing to others as they have done to you. But one has to be able to avoid walking into traps, or giving in too easily.
The BJP is quick to disown its supporters (few recent exceptions notwithstanding), and loses no opportunity in condemning leaders that have for some reason upset the liberal ecosystem, or voiced uncomfortable truths. The BJP also appears to be giving the oxygen of access to those that viciously oppose, while hoping the support system that makes do with secondary information to survive.
On the other hand, the Congress and even the AAP go to any lengths to stand by their support system – whether it is other party leaders, social media supporters or even their media friends, and get puff-pieces and soft-pedalling on troubling issues, in return. Their access control is dynamic, strict and unforgiving. This explains why there is no outrage on a Chief Minister calling the Prime Minister a coward and psychopath, and getting away with it. It tells you why the principal opposition leader gets away with regular-vanishing acts while the PMs tightly scheduled official trips are painted as jaunts.
Thus, to have any hope of being the long-term primary pole of Indian politics the BJP needs a solid strategy to counter this well-oiled machinery of the anti-truth.