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Monday, August 02, 2021

Veterans in the watchtower

Tavleen Singh writes: Having seen many prime ministers come and go, many eras arise and fade, ‘veteran’ journalists alone can play the role of wary watchdogs who can ring alarm bells when history starts repeating itself as farce.

Written by Tavleen Singh
Updated: July 18, 2021 9:26:25 am
The Prime Minister made clear last week that Yogi is his favorite Chief Minister. (File photo)

Usually, I hate being called a ‘veteran’ journalist. It makes me feel very old. And, it has become especially irritating after social media became the arena for BJP trolls to fight their mean, pathetic battles. When they do not like what I say, the charges they fling at me include ‘senility’ and of having become ‘irrelevant’ because of my age. But, last week a few things happened that have emboldened me to say that being a ‘veteran’ journalist is not a bad thing. Having seen many prime ministers come and go, many eras arise and fade, we alone can play the role of wary watchdogs who can ring alarm bells when history starts repeating itself as farce.

The first thing that made those bells start ringing last week was Yogi Adityanath’s new population control law that seeks to restrict people from having more than two children. Those who disobey will be deprived of government jobs and benefits which in one of our poorest states is an ominous threat. No sooner did he announce the law than other BJP chief ministers started trying to copy him as they did with his love jihad law. And, a private member Bill moved by an RSS ‘intellectual’ in the Rajya Sabha seeks to bring such a law at the national level.

This gentleman announced on a primetime chat show that he was inspired by a slogan he remembered from Indira Gandhi’s time ‘hum do, hamare do’ — we two, our two. Without any sense of irony, he said that he remembered it from his childhood when it used to be painted on the walls of his village. The slogan came after Sanjay Gandhi ordered government officials to meet compulsory sterilisation targets. They could lose their jobs if they failed to find enough men to sterilise. This is when people in Old Delhi started whispering about white vans with black windows that came at night and picked up homeless men, young and old, and dumped them back in the streets only after they had been sterilised. Sanjay Gandhi’s population policy did not work because it tried to shift the blame for India’s poverty from the government’s bad economic policies onto the people.

It will not work this time either, but the Prime Minister made clear last week that Yogi is his favorite Chief Minister. He went to Uttar Pradesh and declared that the state had been exemplary in its handling of the second Covid wave. The truth is that Yogi’s government handled the second wave so catastrophically that the whole world saw those half-buried bodies on the banks of the Ganga and those cremation grounds where pyres burned endlessly. The finest reporters flocked to Uttar Pradesh to report the cataclysmic mismanagement of the second wave. But, when political leaders choose untruth as policy, the lies have to be big ones, even if they are not good ones.

The Prime Minister talked of the great strides that Uttar Pradesh had made despite the pandemic. Yogi himself is spending a small fortune on projecting his ‘achievements’ through glossy advertisements in newspapers and propaganda documentaries on television. This is another idea taken straight out of the Emergency playbook. There was press censorship, but Indira Gandhi used newspapers and Doordarshan as a propaganda machine to exalt the ‘successes’ of her 20-point programme and her son’s five-point programme. The lie was spread that it was because of democracy being suspended that India was striding forward at high speed.

It was a big, big lie and as a ‘veteran’ I remember well how quickly it came apart after the Emergency ended and the general election came in 1977. People danced in the streets of our cities when Mrs Gandhi and her heir both lost their own seats. So will the BJP lose that most vital of state elections that comes next? Political predictions are a bad idea so I will not make any. But, when I was wandering about rural Uttar Pradesh not long ago I did not get the impression that people thought the Yogi government had handled Covid well.

The Prime Minister was on a visit to his own constituency when he praised Yogi. He promised new investments of
Rs 1,583 crore and inaugurated the Rudraksha Convention Centre in Varanasi. Actually, what Varanasi needs is investment in cleaning its filthy streets and for the Ganga to become less polluted. This has not happened and may not happen for a long while, so an illusion of progress and prosperity is being created instead. Will this work? Will people see modern, motorized ferries floating about in the Ganga and fine new public buildings and parks and become bedazzled enough to vote for Yogi again?

Once more I shall refrain from making predictions. What I will say as a ‘veteran’ journalist is that since the second Covid wave has become less lethal I have noticed two things. The Prime Minister has taken to warning people that they must do their best not to invite a third wave. And, all talk of mismanagement of the second Covid wave is being suppressed by a tissue of lies that seek to prove that the government did whatever was ‘humanly’ possible. So, if a third wave does arrive, we cannot blame it on the shortage of vaccinations but on the bad behaviour of ordinary Indians. Will this strategy work? It has never done in the past.

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