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Disinformation campaigns shrink the possibilities of genuine debate ahead of polls

Five years ago, a famous line was “The Nation Wants to Know”. Today, it seems that, even if it wanted to know, it cannot.

Written by Christophe Jaffrelot | Updated: April 8, 2019 7:20:26 am
Disinformation campaigns shrink the possibilities of genuine debate ahead of polls Last month, a Microsoft report revealed that “India has more fake news than any other country in the world”. (Photo: Getty/Thinkstock Images)

Truth used to be a major concern in India’s public sphere. The word was part of ideological “brands”, ranging from the title of the book by Swami Dayananda Saraswati (founder of the Arya Samaj), Satyarth Prakash (The Light of Truth), to the name of Jyotirao Phule’s Satyashodhak Samaj (The Truth Seekers Society) and the title of another book, Mahatma Gandhi’s “The Story of My Experiments with Truth”. One hundred years later, untruth has become pervasive, banal and the new normal. Last month, a Microsoft report revealed that “India has more fake news than any other country in the world”. The ruling party, whose responsibility it is to be a role model, contributes to this state of things, by action or omission.

By omission, because the propagation of wrong information sometimes reflects a lack of historical culture. Recently, for instance, it was claimed (1) that the UPA was responsible for the liberation of Masood Azhar, who, in fact, was handed over to the Pakistani authorities by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, (2) that Jawaharlal Nehru was PM when Pakistan attacked in 1965, whereas Lal Bahadur Shastri was at the helm of government and (3) that, according to Arun Jaitley, Nehru initiated political dynasticism by appointing Indira to the same position, whereas Nehru had made it clear, long before he died, that the Congress would decide who takes over from him — and that was Shastri.

But ignorance of history is not the only reason why wrong pieces of information are circulating. Disinformation is also a way to discredit opponents. For at least five years, trolls have spread canards, including photoshopped pictures, (1) of Rajiv and Rahul Gandhi at the funeral of Abdul Ghaffar Khan in Kabul in 1988, claiming that they were burying Indira Gandhi the Muslim way, (2) of Ashok Gehlot waving Pakistan’s flag, (3) of “Rohingya eating Hindus”… The list is so long that websites have specialised in exposing this travesty of reality. Attempts at controlling communication have resulted in a record number of internet shutdowns in 2018, with Rajasthan being second only to J&K, where security reasons have been invoked for these suspensions.

Thirdly, truth sometimes cannot prevail because data are doctored or concealed. Besides the controversy about the growth rate of India under the Manmohan Singh government compared to the present one, the evaluation of joblessness is a case in point. Two months ago, a NSSO report was revealed by the media, showing that the unemployment rate, at more than 6 per cent, was the highest since 1972-73. The NITI Aayog vice-chairman contested these figures which were not released officially. The government’s decision not to publish the job data led the acting chief of the National Statistical Commission to resign. Incidentally, the most reliable source, the NSSO Employment-Unemployment Survey, supposed to take place every five years, was postponed in 2016 and the Labour Bureau Survey is not available beyond this date either. It is not as rich as the National Sample Survey anyway. For instance, religion and caste are not systematically factored in. These variables are also missing, now, in other statistical compilations. In 2015, the Modi government decided to no longer make public the percentage of Muslims in the Indian police, which amounted to rescinding an innovation introduced by the Vajpayee government in 1999. Similarly, since 2014, the National Crime Records Bureau is not taking the caste and religion of the jail inmates into account — the 2013 data, the last available, showed a substantial over-representation of SCs/STs and Muslims in Indian prisons.

Sometimes, independent sources tell the truth, like the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy. In its last report on unemployment in India, the CMIE showed that if the unemployed who are “willing to work but inactive in seeking jobs” are taken into account, the unemployment rate is 7.87 per cent, if they are not, 5.67 per cent. While these data are in tune with the NSSO’s, the CMIE shows more, that the last rate — the one we will retain — conceals immense variations.

In terms of education, the more educated are more badly affected by unemployment. The rate increases from 1.27 per cent for the uneducated, to 3.39 per cent for the 6th-9th standard pass, to 8.89 per cent for the 10th-12th standard and 12 per cent for the graduates and post-graduates. Similarly, there are huge disparities age-wise: The unemployment rate peaks at 38.34 per cent for the 15-19 year-olds and reaches 27.27 per cent for the 20-24 year-olds. These two categories are even more badly affected in the urban context where the respective rates are 43.17 per cent and 32.59 per cent. Last but not least, while some regional variations are spectacular, many rich states are below average, including Haryana, where the urban youth is dramatically affected by joblessness: 67 per cent of the 20-24 year-olds are looking for a job in this state where the unemployment rate among urbanites is above 17 per cent. In Gujarat, where the average unemployment rate is low (4.8 per cent), the young people are also struggling: 22 per cent of them are job-seekers.

These data reflect a degradation of the job market that is especially disturbing so far as young Indians are concerned. This trend is partly explained by another set of data about investment, independently provided by the CMIE. This organisation has shown that investments, in 2018, in the “ended December quarter fell to a 14-year-low”. A very telling graph shows “private sector investment stalling near all-time high”. What went wrong? An election campaign is the right time for reviewing policies and mechanisms of accountability. But in contrast to the 2014 election campaign, public debates on the past term are not taking off, partly because of paucity of information for assessing the policies, such as Make in India and Skill India.

Five years ago, a famous line was “The Nation Wants to Know”. Today, it seems that, even if it wanted to know, it cannot. In a parliamentary democracy, statutory committees may be alternative channels of communication — especially when press conferences are out of question. The Estimates Committee and the Public Accounts Committee, which should be accountable only to parliament, may recover some room for manoeuvre and freedom of expression after the Lok Sabha elections. For the moment, some academics and some media try to make a genuine debate happen, besides the Opposition whose agenda is inevitably more politics- than policy-oriented. But can such a debate take place in an atmosphere of general disinformation where facts are systematically targeted?

This article first appeared in the print edition on April 8, 2019 under the title ‘Targeting facts’. The writer is senior research fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/CNRS, Paris, professor of Indian Politics and Sociology at King’s India Institute, London, and non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

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