Is the Narendra Modi government, which has been spectacularly successful in keeping a tight leash on information flows, slowly losing its ability to control the contours of the national narrative, three and a half years after it came to power?
The question is intriguing, more so because setting the terms of public discourse has been one of the distinguishing features of this government. Four key strategies are adopted to achieve this. First, the strict regulation of access to those in power. Second, the establishment of a largely one-way communication pathway between the government and the people. This has led to a curious paradox: Even as the government acquires greater information on citizens through instruments like Aadhaar, citizens face an increasingly opaque government. Third, an informal yet intimate connection with a core cohort of influence makers on social media that have user bases far exceeding anything that even major newspapers and TV channels enjoy. Fourth, ensuring pre-selected tropes for public discourse through placement of documents, leaks, plants and the like in mainstream media — which also accounts for the unfathomable manner in which TV discussions divert attention from the issues of the day, making up through the gladiatorial performance of anchors what they lack in substance.
Thus far, the potential of a counter-narrative displacing the officially sanctioned one was limited. The magnitude of the 2014 mandate was treated as an implicit endorsement of Prime Minister Modi for at least the initial year of this regime. The first crack in the mirror possibly came with the Award Wapsi moment of 2015, when through a common act of renunciation some of the country’s best regarded intellectuals stood up against what was framed as “rising intolerance”. By itself it was not a majorly threatening objective, yet it prompted a swift and angry response from state and non-state entities. The finance minister famously termed it as “manufactured”, the minister of culture thought it should be a matter of investigation, while others claimed that it was driven by a hunger for publicity, and even took out an “India Tolerant March” to expose the ugly intent of “pseudo-secularists” to tar the nation. Looking back, that slap down was quite successful. The NDA may have lost the Bihar election towards the end of that year but the Modi government was able to ride out that period of anxiety.
Today, two years later, is that anxiety back? The PM has himself complained about being constantly misunderstood (“They said Modi only talks of bullet trains in India… Now that they see I have actually got the bullet train to India, they ask why a bullet train?”). His party president’s entreaty to Ahmedabad’s youth to resist the lure of social media propaganda seems to indicate a fear that the party’s formidable propaganda drive on social media is facing serious blowback.
There are contingent causes for the new credibility that is coming to be attached to this counter-narrative despite the prevailing disarray in Opposition ranks. Among them is the roiling within universities across the country, where brutal state repression is sharpening student militancy. Joblessness is now being perceived as the inheritance of failure; farming as the harvesting of loss. The assassinations of journalists and assaults on them are threatening to alienate a crucial category of professionals. The initial silence that greeted the unrelenting barbarism of beef vigilantism, targeting minorities and Dalits especially, is also breaking. That lack of immediate response was interpreted by many within the Sangh Parivar as tacit public acquiescence to the project but now widespread revulsion to such randomised violence and killing among ordinary citizens is coming into view, with citizens’ initiatives emerging to reclaim India’s secular legacy across the country. They may appear limited and periodic but they are punching above their weight through the unleashing of immense cultural and oratorical power.
This wave could be read as Award Wapsi 2.0 but look what’s different this time. Those speaking out are also from the BJP’s own camp. It’s also not just about ideas this time, it’s about the economy; about the assumed benefits of demonetisation and GST going AWOL. This is why the meme, ‘Vikas Gando Thayo Che’ (development gone crazy), now buzzing around the BJP’s Gujarat headquarters like an unswattable fly, is interesting, indicating as it does that the famed Gujarat Model — built on a rock solid foundation of words — is now tilting ever so slightly.