Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks to a joint meeting of Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S. on June 8, 2016. (Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

PM Modi Should Control Clumsy Propagandists Before They Do More Harm

BloombergQuintOpinion

All politicians, without exception, use propaganda and punishment as a double-edged knife to wound their opponents. So, it’s not a question of “when” or “if” but “how” these instruments are used, since that determines the character, temperament, and longevity of a leader or his regime.

I reckon Adolf Hitler, who used both levers viciously, from vengeful murders to Goebbelsian untruths, is at an extreme end of the spectrum. No wonder he met a vicious end. At the opposite end are leaders like Nelson Mandela, who were calm, subtle, and moderate in deploying propaganda/punishment. Small wonder that Mandela enjoys near immortality.

Clearly, how a politician weaves propaganda and punishment into his political strategy creates the fourth “P”, namely “perception”. And this is critical, as politics mimics physics, with every action instigating an equal and opposite reaction. If a politician pummels too hard, he runs the risk of creating an “underdog’s halo” around his opponent. That could morph into the fifth “P” of politics, namely “persecution”, which, ironically, often revives a fading politician’s fortunes.

Still not fully convinced, are you? Here are four examples from today’s politics (not some artifact of distant history): Nawaz Sharif’s repeated returns to power in Pakistan, anybody? What about Jeremy Corbyn’s miraculous lift in last year’s UK polls? Or, Mahathir’s and Anwar Ibrahim’s upset win in Malaysia? And, Lula’s astonishing bounce in Brazil even as you read this.

How The Shah Commission Revived Indira Gandhi

But why peep over our borders when perhaps the most stunning resurrection of a persecuted politician happened on our soil. Remember how Indira Gandhi was thought to be in political oblivion after her resounding post-Emergency defeat in 1977? The Janata Alliance won an incredible 51.89 percent of the popular vote. Indira’s most trusted lieutenants, led by YB Chavan and Brahmanand Reddy, broke away thinking she was irrevocably condemned in the court of public opinion. She could be seen, forlorn and lonely, aimlessly pottering around her garden at 12 Willingdon Crescent in Lutyens Delhi.

But then the Janata government committed a cardinal political sin. Within two months of being in office, it pulled out Justice JC Shah, a former Chief Justice of India, from retirement to inquire into the “excesses committed during the Emergency”. While his judicial credentials were impeccable – he had helped prosecute Nathuram Godse in the Mahatma Gandhi assassination case – his political choice was contentious. He shared a bitter history with Indira Gandhi, when 199 Lok Sabha MPs moved an impeachment motion against him in 1970 (that was eventually rejected, but his estrangement with Indira was palpable). It was therefore easy for a canny politician to paint the Shah Commission as “a motivated witch hunt”.

Foolishly and unwittingly, the Janata government had handed Indira Gandhi a colossal lifeline of political oxygen. And she wasn’t one to stare a gift horse in the face!

Indira, along with her son Sanjay Gandhi and political aide Pranab Mukherjee, disputed the legality of the Commission and refused to take oath. Justice Shah lost his cool and reprimanded her. A bumbling government arrested Indira amidst screaming newspaper headlines. She was jailed, but the flimsy charges were dismissed in court; her “V moment” arrived as she was pronounced “not guilty”.

Indira’s political instincts, dulled in defeat, were back on adrenaline. She rode an elephant to Belchi, an obscure village in Bihar where 11 Dalits had been shot and burnt alive. No government minister had bothered to visit and commiserate. It was a fantastic political photo-op, as villagers cheered and sloganeered, “aadhi roti khayengey, Indira ko bulayengey” (we will live on half our ration but bring Indira back).

Then she took her most audacious plunge, standing for a by-election from Chikmagalur/Karnataka, coining the mesmerizing “ek sherni sau langur; Chikmagalur bhai Chikmagalur” (one lioness versus hundreds of monkeys, this is the battle of Chikmagalur). She won to become the Leader of Opposition (with cabinet rank). Her political legitimacy was now fully restored.

But the government continued with suicidal fumbles, using its brute majority to expel her from Parliament. Her popularity only soared, eventually to segue into a landslide victory in the 1980 General Elections. Indira swung a massive additional 8.17 percentage points in her favour to win 353 seats out of 542 in Lok Sabha. The world’s biggest political comeback, ever, had just occurred!

Now, Make Rahul Gandhi The Fall-Guy For Everything!

Cut to 2014 and Prime Minister Modi’s equally numbing mandate of 336 seats in Lok Sabha. Some speculated whether he would embark on Shah Commission 2.0 (not to be confused with the surname of his hand-picked party president, Amit Shah; that is just a silly coincidence). But he was careful not to repeat the blunders of history. There was no institutionalized persecution via a collective public trial or commission of inquiry.

But having eschewed “punishment at scale”, Modi let fly the second arrow in his quiver, namely “propaganda”, a Frankenstein that has now gone rogue. Anybody today can write a tome on how trolls, television anchors, and post-truth columnists have unleashed a furious propaganda on behalf of the Modi government. Here are five of the most egregious examples (there are a million more, but these should ram home the point):

Date: June 20, 2018

Big News: India was convulsed by the collapse of the PDP-BJP government in the highly vulnerable and combustible state of J&K. The cancer on India’s body politic had opened another painful gash. And over 500 miles away, in the capital, a chief minister had put the Lieutenant Governor under siege.

Prime Time Propaganda Show: Did Rahul Gandhi and ally use Rohith Vemula as a prop?

This diatribe was “inspired” by Vemula’s mother talking about the promised assistance of Rs 15 lakh from IUML. She had not named Rahul Gandhi at all. Yet, hours of prime time were used to make Rahul Gandhi the fall-guy!

Date: June 12, 2018

Big News: Nirav Modi was tracked down in UK; and the CBI finally reached out to Interpol. It was time to hold the rulers severely accountable, for either being incompetent or complicit.

Prime Time Propaganda Show: Rahul’s visit to Vajpayee a political stunt?

The anchor’s opening line betrayed his bias: “Rahul Gandhi turned what should have been an honourable courtesy into a political race”.

Date: May 17, 2018

Big News: Political drama in Karnataka as the governor surreptitiously tried to install a minority BJP government, while the Congress knocked at the Supreme Court in a midnight hearing. Huge negligence unearthed in the tragic flyover collapse in Varanasi which killed several people.

Prime Time Propaganda Show: Rahul Gandhi draws Pak analogy to Judiciary.

All Rahul had said was: “Four judges of SC come out in public and seek support. They are under pressure, they are being forced … this happens under dictatorships, this happens in Pakistan”. Once again, real news be damned, Rahul had to be made the fall-guy!

Date: Dec. 20, 2017

Big News: Congress nearly created an upset in Gujarat. Responsible news outfits dug into the poll data to come up with fascinating electoral insights. 49 Gujarat seats had changed hands, 41 of which were in rural areas.

Prime Time Propaganda Show: Rahul Gandhi went to watch Star Wars at a cinema hall in Delhi.

This one is so stupid and funny; does it deserve any comment at all?

Date: March 9, 2018

Big News: Massive setback for the ruling NDA, as a primary founding party, TDP, pulled out of the coalition.

Prime Time Propaganda Show: Rahul Gandhi’s designer visit to Singapore.

The anchor began with “Rahul Gandhi looks for a water bottle instead of answering the question”. It was yet another amateur ploy to make Rahul Gandhi the fall-guy!

I can go on and on; as I’ve said earlier, there are a million such examples, dozens of them every day, in which a news item is invented to somehow make Rahul Gandhi an object of political ridicule. However, the propaganda is so transparently naive, so egregiously clumsy, that it is bound to boomerang.

Beware the lessons of political history; beware the excesses of punishment and propaganda!

Raghav Bahl is the co-founder and chairman of Quintillion Media, including BloombergQuint. He is the author of two books, viz ‘Superpower?: The Amazing Race Between China’s Hare and India’s Tortoise’, and ‘Super Economies: America, India, China & The Future Of The World’.