Right now, the BJP is in power at the Center, with a massive 303 seats in the Lok Sabha. At the same time, media professionals seen as BJP-leaning, even household names, are being picked up for interrogation by opposition state governments or arrested on a whim. Their economic viability is being seriously threatened: One leg of the plan is to intimidate advertisers, another leg of the plan is to destroy the system of TRPs altogether.
In opposition ruled states, the secular ecosystem is able to follow up these tactics with extensive “direct action” on the ground. There is of course Bengal where high profile dissenters are shot in full public view. In Bengal, workers from opposition parties are murdered and hung from trees and poles so that everyone can see. On their shirts, the death squads write clearly that this the punishment for joining BJP. In another state, storm troopers showed up in jackboots at the house of a Navy veteran who dared forward a cartoon.
An A-list Bollywood celebrity said a word against a secular government. The next day, they showed up at her house with bulldozers.
Again, this is when the BJP is in power at Centre. Imagine what would happen if the Congress were to somehow come back to power. Whether or not you would like that is another matter. The question is this: if Congress comes back to power tomorrow, do you think you as a citizen will be able to utter a word against them?
You might be wondering. So what if Congress comes back? They have ruled India so many times. With one terrifying exception in 1975, democracy has mostly been fine.
True. But this time it is different. Let me explain why.
Because technology. A decade ago, when technology took off as a medium of political communication in India, a senior establishment leader had remarked that the internet is an ungovernable sphere. Back then, the opportunities seemed limitless. Anyone could go online and say anything. And it could spread anywhere, depending on how much attention it got.
That’s changed. From this utopian vision of a free and ungovernable realm of ideas, technology has become a machine that can be used for totalitarian thought control. We are putting everything online: our shopping habits, our tastes in food, drink and travel. And of course our personal and professional communication. And the pandemic turbocharged this phenomenon.
For the first time in history, common people are talking to each other in writing. I remember that a hardcore leftist journo had observed this astutely in 2012. Each one of us now has a digital footprint, with all our thoughts on record. The personal has become public.
Take the case of that Navy veteran who was beaten up because he forwarded a cartoon. Ten years ago, the old man would have made the joke orally to a small circle of friends. And nobody would have known. But now, he posted it on social media. The storm troopers got to know.
Never in history, not even under the worst of dictators, has such targeted micro level action against dissenters been possible. Now, it is. Today, it is possible for a government to target literally every dissenter. Do you think Congress is not going to use it if they get a chance at power?
What does ‘targeting’ mean? Jackboots at the door? Not necessarily. Even though the dissenting Navy veteran was identified by the power of technology, he was targeted in a rather primitive way. This could never work on a large scale. In India, there would be literally hundreds of millions of dissenters. How many doors would the storm troopers break down?
Again, technology has a much more chilling solution to tackle this problem on a large scale. There’s no need to beat up dissenters individually. With one line of code, the dissenters can all be placed on a blacklist, accused of “spreading hate.” The next day, they will all lose their jobs and everyone from banks to mobile phone operators will refuse to do business with them. How would they survive without a job, without a bank account or even a phone?
Think it can’t happen? It’s already happening. The Chinese call it the ‘social credit system.’ If you fall out of favour with the government, your life gets progressively harder, to the point that you would not be able to buy so much as a bus ticket. You can then agree to “reform” by showing your loyalty to the government and slowly raise your “social credit score.”
You think the secular overlords will reject this technology if they get a chance?
Am I being too dark and too pessimistic? After all, China is China. We’re a democracy. They can’t do this here.
Fine, how about the United States? They are the oldest democracy in the world. Last week, the New York Post published an explosive story about business dealings of Hunter Biden, son of US Presidential candidate Joe Biden. Those who tried to tweet the story or plug it on Facebook found that it was impossible to do so. Even via direct messages…
They did this in the US. Still think they can’t do this here?
Okay, this time they got caught. But they still fulfilled their main objective, slowing down the story. Next time, their algorithms will tackle this even better. Next time, they won’t get caught.
Around 2010, the secular ecosystem was caught flat footed and complacent by the rise of social media. They mocked the medium because they didn’t understand it. A lot of real people began speaking for the first time. This collective voice played a huge role in destroying the UPA government.
Stung by the defeat, they’ve learned well. They turned their full propaganda machinery towards owning the digital space. They put up “news” website after website in quick succession, with massive funding, top notch production and media graduates swarming into the new space. They fanned out across YouTube and Instagram, building a massive coalition of influencers.
On the right, the resistance was patchy at best. Most were real people, with real day jobs, families and bills to pay. It is commendable that they held the fort for so long. But anyone who sees the internet space today will know that the resistance is rupturing badly. There was only so much that hobbyists could have done to stop a well oiled machine.
All other pieces are in place. All that remains is for their friends to get back in power. The moment they get that back, they will take ownership of most of their loudspeakers in the old media of TV and newspapers. Most of it still works for them anyway. The handful of right leaning media will be snuffed out quickly by government action, threatening advertisers or banning them under the excuse of “stopping hate.”
This time, they will have a third and most potent weapon: technology and dominance in the digital space. The legions of influencers and the brands are in place already. You will be blasted with propaganda at all levels. With the personal sphere becoming public, your reaction to each event will be under their scrutiny. The smallest show of dissent will be punished, not by jackboots at your door, but by a faceless algorithm that will destroy your life in a millisecond.
The old dictators were prone to creating martyrs. This time, there wont be martyrs because nobody will come to know. If a tree falls in a forest with nobody to hear, did it really happen?