To understand seven years of the Narendra Modi government and its unique approach to communication, we should begin with a different anniversary. A few days from now, it will be two years since a shocking act of vandalism took place in a small island in the Tungabhadra near Hampi: the desecration of Nava Brindavan, the sacred Tulsi-plant bearing shrine of the 15th century Dvaita philosopher Sri Vyasa Tirtha.
Unlike many commercialised pilgrimage sites, the Nava Brindavan island is little known outside the Dvaita tradition. For violence to enter a place like this was brutal, a violation not only of cultural sanctity, but of nature too. What makes this site important is not just the monuments, but the fact that the whole valley, with its hills and boulders, still remains as it did for hundreds of years, a sacred geography undisturbed by “development”. Greed got here too.
The second point of disbelief around this incident, and one that takes us to the issue of communication in the age of Prime Minister Modi, is the way a particular reaction spread on Twitter. Despite the gravity of this desecration, within hours, a cheerful, self-congratulatory tone was on display: Would the rebuilding have happened if “Pappu” been Prime Minister instead of Modi? Could the “new, confident, Hindu” have rebuilt the Brindavan without the inspiration of Modi?
Some might say the positive tone averted needless communalism. Yet, a divisive angle was not absent either. Look at us, the tweets went, we don’t protest or riot when our sacred sites are violated, unlike… (those people). This sort of boastfulness is now a regular feature of the Hindu response system on social media. Most recently, it was in evidence again when a Charlie Hebdo cartoon mocked Hindu gods over the Covid-19 tragedy in India (We don’t behead! We’re Hindus!).
I share this story because this is one example of what the “on the ground” communication of the movement that has brought Prime Minister Modi to power, and keeps him there, looks like.
Polarisation and the ‘befitting reply’
A few weeks ago, I wrote a sharp criticism in ThePrint of Prime Minister Modi’s approach to communication in the face of a severe national calamity. Since then, the prime minister has expressed grief, but has also assured his followers that “the country has given a befitting reply to those who conspire against it,” a reference perhaps to the “toolkit” circus.
Whatever the truth might be, the deeper question I wish to explore here is the polarisation that has left India divided between two alternate conceptions of reality. Each side seems deeply invested in believing what it wants to, that “Modi is a fascist” or that “Modi is a Messiah.” I disagreed with the fascism accusation prevalent in academia and Western media in 2014, and I also disagree with the savior cult that dominates social media. I say this not to sit on the fence but to ask that what we need is a better critique of propaganda and power than what we have had till now; a critique of both, global corporations like Twitter and Facebook and Netflix, as well as the power of populist political figures and their powerful machines. We need a critique, perhaps, from Left and Right, and not just of them.
I think that we are polarised today, at least in part, because social media (and some legacy media too) have got us wedded to our worst beliefs about our opponents. We are now “always on,” seeing and being seen on social media, communicating not for connection, but for image. We write less to share, more to perform. The “gotcha” moment (as it is called in America), or the “befitting reply” (as it is called in India), seems to be the only communication goal of leaders today.
The social dilemma
We are in a race to extreme isolation and social fragmentation. Every word, every tweet, seems to be one-way, a label or accusation, rather than an invitation to consider. We brand each other as “Right wing” or “Left wing” (and I have to dust off one such awkward label I got last month: how on earth does a columnist for a paper with “Wall Street” in its name get away calling a Hind Swaraj-advocating professor a “Hindu Right” intellectual!). We smear each other as “bhakts” or “anti-nationals.” We call upon friends and family members to perform denunciations. We boast of locking up our elders because they voted wrongly. We are, to put it mildly, being played by the very things we can’t stop playing with (the documentary The Social Dilemma is a good, if not perfect, critique for the times).
I fear that if we don’t make an effort to see others as something bigger than either props or rivals to our image on our phones, we will soon forget how to relate with each other. And the language of politics we use at the moment, sadly, is stuck in this polarising, performative mode too. When criticism is virulent and seems motivated by bigotry and bias rather than truth, people eventually reach a point where they will never believe their perceived rivals, a “boy who cried wolf” dilemma as it were. When the ruling party makes a spectacle of harassing two young women by turning communication memos into a nation-breaking bogey called a “toolkit” (Disha Ravi and Saumya Verma), it will fail to make a case morally when it has to prosecute someone or something far more serious. And conversely, when critics of the ruling party protest crimes against women with images that violate reason and sanctity by depicting Hindu deities and symbols in violently sexualised forms, they come across not as principled opponents but as bigoted Hinduphobes.
The crisis of expertise
Polarisation is one part of the problem today. What may be even worse is the catastrophic consequences of a government accustomed to one-way, top-down communication eliminating the role of expertise in guiding public affairs. As early as March 2020, professor of public health Rama Baru wrote in Hindustan Times that a nodal communication agency was essential during a pandemic. One year later, it appears that not only do we still lack that sort of specialised communication arm in an emergency, but we also have a subversion of the very idea of communication by the government itself.
A key indicator is the hefty 97-page document published in The Wire earlier this year entitled Report of the Group of Ministers on Government Communication. The presence of some respected journalists there notwithstanding, the meetings read like a scene out of the Dilbert cartoons, full of wishful lists and magical numbers: “We should track 50 negative and 50 positive influencers” (Irani, p. 9); “We need to identify 10 big narratives and then how to work on how to take the messages to the common people” (Jaishankar, p 11); “Around 75% of media persons are impressed by the leadership of Shri Narendra Modi” (unknown, p. 15); “Narrative is fueled by around 20-30 people” (Javadekar, p. 10). And of course, the only qualitative idea that the ruling party seems to have for global messaging: “The right-wing parties of other countries need to be roped in so that some common ground can be found” (Thakur, p. 14)
Like its many “Soft Power” and “Vishwa Guru” initiatives, this government seems out of its depth in the real world, putting on a show of doing instead of actually doing, and at best piling on to a failing “RW” bandwagon no matter how distasteful its record in the West has been.
The truth is that doing takes knowing, and knowing takes, well, listening. Unfortunately, Sita Ram Goel seems to have got this one right too. As he wrote in Time for Stock Taking: Whither Sangh Parivar, “The Sangh Parivar never touches anything which does not originate from within it.” It is one thing to be a social service organisation and be that way. It’s quite another to be ruling a whole nation in a highly interconnected world with the same attitude.
A force without a story
I return in conclusion to the Nava Brindavan incident. It is not surprising, perhaps, that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as a ruling party tried to put a cheerful spin on it instead of a negative one (as was the case with the temple desecrations in Andhra Pradesh earlier this year where a different party governs). But the question remains. Does the ruling party have a story beyond mere reactive spin? If so, what is that story? How does India under the BJP see people, cultures, the land, nature, history?
From 2014 to 2015, when some pracharaks were kind enough to reach out and present me with books about their history and worldview, I came to believe that critics were misinformed in seeing the Sangh’s goal as being a far-right Hindu religious State. Their books were hardly about Hinduism as we knew it; gods, culture, aesthetics, none of it figured. At best, this was self-help and management for the people, emphasising service and national pride as a method of personal transformation (“man-making”). Their larger political vision, at least in principle, was Deendayal Upadhaya’s Integral Humanism, a post-Independence sequel to Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj.
Unfortunately, we have seen little of Deendayal Upadhyaya besides his name these last few years. The Modi government’s attitude to communication instead seems to have, as its guiding aesthetic, a peculiar form of dehumanisation, embodying a cold, objectifying view that reduces human beings to numbers and targets. It does not see people as who they are, but only as either followers, enemies, or future converts. Whether it’s called “vikas” or “Hindutva” it still doesn’t augur well. India seems to be ruled by a technocracy that supporters think is morality and its opponents think is religion.
The BJP has done well so far running with the hares and hunting with the hounds on the question of Hinduism, but eventually, the questions must be answered. What does Hindutva mean to it, an indigenous vision of decolonisation or mere copy-cat Right-wing nationalism? How does the BJP expect to address the disappointments of Hindus fighting off the State’s destructive intrusions into sacred spaces from Kerala to the Himalayas? Does it intend to ever win the trust of opponents when it keeps throwing them to the Twitter-hounds?
For now, the BJP seems to have settled on presenting itself as “RW” rather than “Hindu” (possibly because it mistakenly sees the former as more respectable in the eyes of the world), and its critics still seem stuck on the belief that a criticism of the BJP is best made not for its “RW”-isms but simply for its “Hindu” associations. These are the limits to our political discourse, and to our ability to see across the “befitting reply” divides of social media. Given these realities, we are probably stuck for a while with charges of “Hinduphobia” from one side and “Hindu fascism” from the other, unless a third space of conversation opens up somehow. I imagine Hampi, with its Tulu-Telugu-Kannada (and other) voices, and its Dvaita-Advaita-Jaina philosophers, its richness of art and life, and hope that a future where we are all who we are is still possible.
Vamsee Juluri @vamseejuluri is Professor of Media Studies, University of San Francisco. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)
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