Who cares about the facts? How transient rage is driving India’s politics
Pakistan or black money, smartphone-driven anger is shaping India’s politics, prompting swift, visible actioncolumns Updated: Dec 01, 2016 13:40 IST
If you have seen the latest big-budget Bollywood movie Dear Zindagi, starring SRK (Shah Rukh Khan) and Alia Bhat, you cannot miss singer-actor Ali Zafar’s two songs and his bite-sized role. You know he is Pakistani, right?
Wait, had we not drummed Pakistani actors out of India?
The outrage over the Pakistani presence in Bollywood began on social media after 18 Indian soldiers were murdered by jihadis in Uri, Kashmir. Online fury was promoted to a shrill crescendo by the mainstream media and politicians, until Bollywood nervously promised to get the Pakistanis out. That was last month. Asked about the Ali Zafar question, Bhat — with 9.6 million followers, she knows how this works — said: “We can leave... that topic for some time since it has died down.” That was 15 days ago.
Zafar clearly has a more substantive role than his countryman Fawad Khan had in the movie that started the get-them-out furore, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil. Although he has stayed away from the movie’s promotional road shows, the Pakistani question is already on the back burner. Just to be safe, the Dear Zindagi producers have taken other precautions, such as getting an Indian singer to replace Zafar’s songs in the music release.
As the ire dissipates, the Pakistanis are returning. You will soon see — among others — Mahira Khan opposite SRK, Adnan Siddiqui and Sajal Ali opposite Sridevi and Saba Qamar opposite Irrfan Khan. I won’t mention the movies; let the outraged do their research.
Recent instances of Indian public ire have revealed the transient, ephemeral nature of smartphone-driven outrage. The facts don’t really matter, and a month of indignation is hard to sustain. The anger produced inside the bubble appears to dissolve as rapidly as it gathered, as do the outcomes they were supposed to produce. What these explosions of electronic emotion do require, however, is that a head — any head — must roll. Outrage must produce retribution, or appear to.
Recall the “second freedom movement”, the anger against corruption that brought Anna Hazare, a frail retired soldier, to Delhi? Thousands poured into the streets, and while it wasn’t clear how corruption was to be excised, the Congress government reluctantly acceded to the idea of a Lokpal, a national anti-corruption ombudsman. It has stayed an idea — with many flaws. The Bharatiya Janata Party and Narendra Modi rode that wave of emotion to displace the Congress. Last week the Supreme Court asked Modi’s government why there was still no Lokpal. It does not matter. The mob got the Congress’ head. As for corruption, it’s as entrenched as ever, only more creative in demonetised India. I heard recently of corrupt officials demanding gold, European air tickets, other gifts, and — as they become available — IOU bribes in new 500- and 2000-rupee notes.
Recall the nationwide rage after the 2012 gang rape of the physiotherapy student in Delhi? That anger was substantive and stayed till the 2014 election. But in August, four years after the Nirbhaya outrage, a colleague found that rapes reported in Delhi have tripled; women comprise less than 9% of Delhi police ranks, instead of 33%, as they were supposed to; the biases of male officers are as evident as before; and the expenditure on training dropped by 6.9 percentage points over two years to 2015.
The smartphone outrage is real in the sense that it gets inside television’s talking heads and on to front pages. Politicians cannot but react, often mirroring the loutish language of twitter. So you hear the once cautious Manohar Parrikar threatening, as India’s defence minister, to “gouge the eyes out” of enemies. Once you get an online gallery, you have to play to it. Action or retribution, or the appearance of it, has to be swift and visible. That is why the “surgical strikes” against Pakistani terror camps were a resounding public-relations success. Now, the facts: 28 Indian Army and Border Security Force troopers have died since the strikes, meant to avenge the deaths of the 18 soldiers killed in Uri; the 2016 death toll from terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir is currently the highest in seven years.
The use of transient outrage tends to obfuscate the need for sound strategy and long-term planning, a situation that is not surprising in a nation led by a Prime Minister who pioneered the use of social media in elections, uses it to build his image and drive policy. As I write this, Modi commands a following of 25 million — that’s the population of Australia, with a million to spare — on Twitter. The press conference is history. Modi’s primary public contact is on social media, which he has used to promote laudable programmes, such as educating girls and cleaning up India. But here, too, facts and real change genuflect to hype.
Big political prizes, such as the next general elections, tempt someone as impatient as Modi, who has now harnessed the truly disruptive potential of transient outrage, deploying it in the war against “black money”. He uses emotion and hyperbole (“I won’t stop even if they burn me alive”) effectively, drowning out dodgy facts and planning.
For instance, Modi cited terrorism financed by fake Indian currency as one reason for the invalidating of 86%, or Rs 14 lakh crore, of India’s currency notes. A 2015 joint study — cited in the Lok Sabha — by the Indian Statistical Institute and National Investigation Agency said the face value of fake currency did not exceed Rs 400 crore. Various experts and estimates agree that most of India’s unaccounted money is not in cash, and that the remonetisation process has been bungled.
These details appear not to matter — as yet — to the men and women patiently standing in queues to withdraw their own money. It’s worth it, they insist, if those with black money are smoked out. That may never happen, but if Modi can convince them to hold on to their outrage, or stoke it repeatedly, he is assured of Uttar Pradesh — and a second term.
Samar Halarnkar is editor, Indiaspend.org, a data-driven, public-interest journalism non-profit
The views expressed are personal