By Swapan Dasgupta
Arun Jaitley once recounted to me the story of a voluble Jana Sangh worker named (or so I recollect) Lalchand. An entertaining warm-up speaker at political rallies, Lalchand may even have contested the odd municipal poll where parties opposing the Congress had to literally scrape the bottom of the barrel for candidates. Anyway, the hallmark of Lalchand's spirited interventions were the rhetorical questions he posed to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. "Jawaharlal", he would declaim, "answer this question of Lalchand."
Predictably, Jawaharlal never deigned to respond to Lalchand's insolence. No one even expected him to. But the puerile eloquence of Lalchand became part of the saffron folklore--a story fondly narrated when looking back at the decades of lost deposits.
In today's 'connected' world, the contemporary Lalchand would probably have found refuge in the company of those who have come to be described as "trolls" on the world's most lively 140-character leveller, Twitter. At the risk of doing the reputation of a well-meaning political worker a disservice, I would locate the contemporary Lalchand as the person who harasses a public figure with abusive comments. The crowning glory for a troll is when a celebrity either responds to the abuse or insolence, or better still, blocks the troll. A response gets the troll a huge exposure and, in the process, some extra followers. Alternatively, he gloats over having been turfed out of the mind space of a person with a large public exposure. This week, for example, I received a twitter message from a troll daring me to block him. He proudly proclaimed that he had been blocked from some 150 twitter accounts.
My own experience of the social media suggests that there are different types of trolls. Most are highly belief-driven individuals who are hamstrung by their limited vocabularies and inarticulation. But there are others with respectable (but humdrum) jobs who become monsters on social media--an interesting research topic for social psychologists. What unites these different types of individuals committed to making an absolute nuisance of themselves is the distaste for being ignored. They revel in being demonised, spat upon and abused. They just can't countenance being declared 'non-persons'.
To me, the Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal is both a bore and a troll. He is a bore because he and some of his less-foul-mouthed Lok Sabha candidates are annoyingly sanctimonious. They began their political innings boldly asserting that all those who were not with them are corrupt--a crude message that his more intellectual followers attempted to nuance. Then they went on to suggest that all those who posed uncomfortable questions to them were in the payroll of Narendra Modi. And, finally, as their orchestral crescendo, Kejriwal (as reported in Indian Express) proclaimed to a gathering in Nagpur: "The whole media is sold out this time, it is a big conspiracy, it is a huge political conspiracy. If our government comes to power, we will set up an inquiry into this. And along with the media people, all will be sent to jail."
Since this is a free country and remains so until the time the army of the virtuous sweeps the elections and form a government, we cannot fault Kejriwal for believing in a grand media conspiracy to keep India in the throes of venality and corruption. After all, every second troll on twitter has his/ her own pet conspiracy theory. Nor is it appropriate to ask what would have been society's response if, say, Modi had threatened his detractors with imprisonment on assuming power. To use the analogy from an earlier age, Jawaharlal wasn't expected to mirror the rhetorical grandstanding of a Lalchand. The fringe player is invariably allowed greater license than a serious prime ministerial aspirant, even if the former does occasionally ride a private aircraft for a short hop from Ahmedabad to Delhi.
Make no mistake, Kejriwal loves it when a Rajat Sharma and an Arnab Goswami devotes an hour on prime time debunking his fanciful comments in Nagpur. As a leader of an organisation that is in a tearing hurry to get places but has no worthwhile organisational support system to bolster his electoral ambitions, Kejriwal believes that all media exposure is worthwhile. Ever since he was catapulted to the seat of local government in Delhi, albeit for a short span of 49 days, Kejriwal has perfected the troll methodology: using notoriety as a force multiplier. Whether it is harassing Africans in a Delhi colony, threatening to disrupt Republic Day, engineering an attack on the BJP central office, causing traffic disruption in Mumbai and threatening the media, Kejriwal has been driven by a single-minded desire to remain in the public imagination.
It is a clever strategy and symptomatic of the asymmetric warfare perfected by the 'non-state actors' in another sphere of disruption.
What Kejriwal seeks above all is a response from those who are at the receiving end of his poisonous attacks. And here too he has been successful. Even Reliance Industries was egged on to rebut his charges. Now, he is going for broke and demanding that Modi respond to his fanciful accusations.
Modi knows the social media well. He should know that there is only one effective strategy to counter trolls: give them the royal ignore. Modi has so far not responded to the spit-and-run tactics of AAP. He should not do so in the future. As the old Arab saying goes: "Dogs bark, the caravan moves on."
Sunday Pioneer, March 16, 2014