Sunday, March 30, 2014
Sunday, March 23, 2014
Saturday, March 22, 2014
Sunday, March 16, 2014
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
Saturday, March 15, 2014
By Swapan Dasgupta
Hyperbolic scare-mongering is an essential part of election campaigns throughout the democratic world. Political parties and rival candidates are prone to paint exaggerated, caricatured images of their opponents in the belief that fear will motivate voters into voting against something, if not for somebody. The telecast showing a little girl quietly plucking flowers and being overwhelmed by a gigantic atomic mushroom cloud is said to have had a telling effect on the American electorate in the 1964 presidential election. President Lyndon Johnson would have won the race for the White House quite easily. The mushroom cloud adverisement on TV ensured that his awkward opponent Barry Goldwater was absolutely decimated .
Goldwater, it has subsequently been remarked, was a figure so detached from the American consensus that it was a miracle that he got as far as did in national politics. Using the fear of nuclear war to devastate him in what was essentially a one-horse race was a bit like using a sledgehammer to squash an ant.
Of course, it did not seem all that disproportionate to the LBJ campaign managers 50 years ago. In the heat of a campaign when passions run very high, a detached view of the pitch of the campaign isn't always possible.
So it was in May 2008 during the election for the Mayor of London, a contest involving the old socialist warhorse Ken Livingstone and the endearingly buffoonish Boris Johnson. Looking back at that election, which Johnson won convincingly, it is quite instructive to recollect the quantum of anti-Johnson hysteria, especially after the opinion polls showed him having a clear edge over Livingstone.
On May Day of 2008, The Guardian--a newspaper that sets the Left-of-centre tone in British politics--the writer Zoe Williams penned an article with the evocative headline "Be afraid. Be very afraid". The newspaper presented it as an eminent Londoner's vision of what the city would be like "if this bigoted, lying, Old Etonian buffoon got his hands on our diverse and liberal capital." A great mistake, the writer suggested, is to think Johnson "singles out any one group for his casual bile. It's not just gay people or Muslims or Africans, it's not just people from Portsmouth or indeed anywhere else on the south coast. He despises people who are not of his class because he is a snob. That, pretty much, means all of us. A snob's London is a Monday-to-Thursday kind of affair, behind fusty doors, in clubs that only just let women in, let alone plebs, in restaurants that don't have prices on the menus...That is not London...We know what London is. Boris is not London."
Since that article was written, Johnson has fought yet another election for Mayor of London against Livingstone and won it conclusively. With his impish sense of humour, his unkept looks and his incessant clowning, Boris has emerged as the favourite politician of the Conservative rank-and-file and, indeed, the favourite to succeed David Cameron as the leader of the party. London remains the care-free city it was in 2008 and hasn't been transformed into one huge gated colony where the plebs are firmly kept in their place. Reading the English newspapers regularly, I would be forgiven for imagining that the two issues that agitate Londoners are property prices and the rights of an ever-growing number of cyclists. Even his most die-hard supporters will not accuse Johnson of creating an environment where the poor, the non-whites, the sexual minorities and the other upholders of a permissive society feel threatened.
So what was the 2008 fuss and alarmism all about? In hindsight, the fears of the soul of London being destroyed by a Conservative Mayor seem ridiculously contrived. Indeed, it seems like a familiar Left-wing ploy to overturn an electoral disadvantage by using the most over-used socialist weapon: the class war. However heartfelt and however poetic the fears sounded seven years ago, we can afford to smile indulgently at its very un-English hyperbole.
The reason for invoking this ridiculous footnote from recent English history should be pretty obvious. As the Indian general election campaign gathers momentum, India's variant of the Guardian-readers are working themselves into a blue funk. The alarmist despondency has everything to do with the overwhelming impression that Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi may be on the verge of creating a historic electoral upset. The very people who till not very long ago had flooded the columns of 'respectable' newspapers with the bold assertion that "Gujarat isn't India", that "Modi represents corporate India" and that "the idea of idea argues against Modi" have suddenly woken up to an unexpected uprising from below.
The defection of the ultra-secular Dalit leader Ram Vilas Paswan, a politician who had walked out of the Atal Behari Vajpayee Government protesting against the Gujarat riots of 2002, has proved to be a veritable turning point. Till then there was the self-comforting belief that Modi was preaching to the committed and that subaltern India would ensure that a "polarising" leader would fail to forge a social coalition that would help him cross the 272 mark. Faith was also reposed in the BJP old-guard who would ensure that the Modi meter froze at the 160 mark, a fractured verdict that would ensure the Gujarat leader couldn't step out of Gandhinagar. Paswan jolted that complacency, not because he is an inspirational figure with a hold over Dalit voters all over India. His importance stemmed from the fact that he represents a large-ish sections of Dalits in Bihar. If a man whose social constituency was India's most disadvantaged could join Modi, it meant two things. First, that Modi's deep social penetration had been vastly underestimated; and, second, that secular grandstanding was negotiable. The opinion polls haven't suggest that the BJP-led alliance will secure an outright majority, but the example of Paswan has clearly indicated that many parties are inclined to cross over to the winning side if the opportunity presents itself.
For the better-dead-than-saffron brigade there is an additional complication. Unlike 2004, there is no faith left in the Congress. The 10-year record of the UPA has provoked disgust, even among its intellectual beneficiaries. Rahul Gandhi does not inspire confidence, and the talk is of the a Congress resurrection in the future, minus the dynasty. There was jubilation that the Aaam Aadmi Party would somehow emerge as the preferred alternative but that does not seem to be happening.
Consequently, there is a feverish bid to invoke nightmare images of the future. There are competitive assertions of drastic action in case the unthinkable happens--"I will leave India" is a promise that is unlikely to be self-fulfilling.
Modi's victory isn't as yet assured: it will be if enough people vote for NDA candidates. Assuming he is sworn-in as Prime Minister after May 16, it is extremely unlikely the emotional architecture of India will witness a change. The committed will work towards a resurgent India with a double-digit growth; the time-servers will jockey for posts and official patronage; and the intellectuals will continue to lament over a lost idea of their India. In short, India will change, perhaps for the better, but the essence of India will be intact. And we may even look back at the imagined sounds of approaching jackboots for what they were: the alarm bells of a bitterly fought election.
The Telegraph, March 14, 2014