Campaign to bring Modi down is afoot (and why he is partly to blame for it)

The PM has inexplicably tolerated mediocre talent in his government.

 |  7-minute read |   30-10-2015
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For decades an incestuous cabal of politicians, bureaucrats, journalists, historians, public intellectuals, lobbyists and assorted power brokers have reigned over India's capital. They set the national agenda; they populate cultural bodies; they win lucrative sinecures; they network ceaselessly; they provide lascivious inside information to ingénue foreign correspondents; they mortgage national interest for personal gain; and they are willing pawns castigating India on the international human rights seminar circuit.

This incestuous cabal now feels threatened. Under the broad church of the UPA-1 and UPA-2 governments, the cabal prospered and multiplied. Abruptly, in May 2014, it was cast adrift. The era of patronage, in return for fealty, was over. The bitterness over the loss of patronage accounts for some of the hostility directed at the Modi government by the nouveau elite - though the government hasn't helped its own cause by mishandling communications strategy as well as making basic governance errors.

Sensing the Modi government's self-inflicted vulnerability, the cabal has struck back. Journalists have been financed to set up news websites to portray the government in the poorest light possible. The series of reports earlier this year alleging politically motivated attacks on churches (later debunked) has been followed by loaded and often inaccurate reportage on communal violence across the country.

Two recent articles in The New York Times painted a dire picture of rising intolerance in India following writers returning their Sahitya Akademi awards. Filmmakers, scientists and historians - many with deep roots in the Lutyens' collusive ecosystem of patronage - have joined the chorus. The herd instinct is strong.

This reflects the general tone of mainsteam Indian media which has a visceral dislike of Modi bordering on the very intolerance it accuses his government of fomenting. The foreign media, never enamoured by Modi, laps it up without doing much original research to verify these claims.

The government has fallen into the trap. It does not communicate with the media, allowing white lies to go unrefuted. It has packed cultural institutions with right-wing ideologues instead of replacing the decades-old Marxist-laden boards with centrists and real intellectuals (not the public intellectuals of the Left who write 1,600-word op-eds in daily newspapers to announce that communalism is bad, very bad, and secularism is good, very good, without accurately defining either).

More errors. The government allowed the fringe to run amok, allowing critics to claim the fringe was in fact the mainstream. For a government headed by a leader who had been subjected to ceaseless abuse from the Lutyens' cabal since 2002, the error was critical. The narrative suddenly was: Modi tolerates communal elements in his party and stifles dissent. This from the cabal whose nouveau elite was complicit in the Emergency, the Sikh pogrom and a decade of corruption.

While incidents of violence have been endemic in India for decades, the media narrative built around Dadri and the murder of three "rationalists" is that, under Modi, communal violence has risen to the highest levels since the 1975-77 Emergency.

An InstaVaani opinion poll conducted last week tested this thesis. According to a report in Mint, the poll revealed that 73 per cent of respondents believe "recent communal tensions are part of a deliberate attempt to disrupt peace in the country. The poll followed incidents of a Muslim being lynched in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh on suspicion that he stored beef in his house; an ink attack on a Jammu and Kashmir legislator for serving beef at a party; and sacrilege of Sikh religious texts in Punjab."

When three out of four citizens believe "a deliberate attempt" is being made to "disrupt peace in the country", the two obvious questions are: 1) who is the instigator; and 2) who benefits?

The enemy within

Modi has inexplicably tolerated mediocre talent in his government. He has allowed a hostile, obsessively biased media to set the agenda without an effective information mechanism to counter it. And he has allowed elements in the Sangh Parivar to live up to the cardboard caricatures they are painted up as: illiberal, wild-eyed fanatics. In the end, if the old Lutyens' cabal has not been dismantled after 17 months of majority government, the blame travels all the way to the top.

The smear campaign is underwritten by a coalition of opposition parties, compromised media and disaffected NGOs. Every argument is aimed at pressing home one message: despite Modi's clear mandate, he is simply not fit to be the prime minister. This demonisation is crucial to the survival of dynastic parties like the Congress that have long lived off Indians' feudal electoral instincts.

The strategy to derail the government is diabolical in intent, and ruthless in practice. The BJP's poor media management has enabled this strategy to gather momentum in recent weeks. Statistics show that incidents of communal violence have actually not increased after May 2014. According to official figures from the ministry of home affairs (MHA) tabled in the Lok Sabha, there were an average of 712 communal incidents per year in India in 2012, 2013 and 2014. That's appoximately 61 a month. In the first five months of 2015 (January-May), there were 287 communal incidents - around 57 a month.

But statistics don't tell the whole story. Perception, driven by media, creates a subjective narrative of its own. Compromised media shrewdly drives this false narrative. That narrative paints the Modi government as tacitly encouraging communalism, leading to a spike in individual cases of violence and a general sense of paranoia among minorities. As in all subjective matters, perception - rather than empirical data - counts. Offensive statements by government ministers add to this grim narrative.

The cabal

Lutyens' dispossessed political cabal is led by the Congress which is fighting for its electoral life. The cabal is aided and abetted by Arvind Kejriwal's Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), Lalu Prasad Yadav's RJD, Nitish Kumar's JD(U), Mamata Banerjee's TMC and the Left.

Large sections of the media are an integral part of this cabal. Mainstream media (MSM) has been so discredited over its biased reportage since Modi took office that it no longer fears more debasement. This has given it new insouciance. The weapons deployed are as old as journalism and as corrupt: planted articles, slanted op-eds, false stories, loaded headlines, biased TV anchors and entire websites financed specifically to undermine the government at every step.

The Modi government's lack of "intellectual infrastructure" has made the task of the Lutyens' cabal easier. In no other major democracy does a coalition of the electorally defeated get away with such an anti-national agenda as it does in India. And in no other major democracy does the government counter this agenda with such staggering ineptitude.

Prime Minister Modi has often - and rightly - said that his government must be open to criticism and learn from it. It is time to not only learn those lessons but to put them into practice. The perception battle, once lost, is rarely won. The Lutyens' cabal knows this. Hence the increasing intensity of its attacks.

The solution? First, the prime minister must evict non-performers from his cabinet and other echelons of his government. Second, he must co-opt professional talent with no ideological baggage into ministries like human resource development (HRD), healthcare and finance. Third, he should direct ministers to, by rotation, address daily media briefings to deal transparently and forcefully with key issues. Fourth, he must ensure his government protects whistleblowers instead of silencing them as, to its discredit, it has done in certain cases.

As a start, the government must immediately initiate daily media conferences. Uncomfortable questions should be encouraged, not avoided. Sunlight is the best disinfectant to expose hidden agendas. Whether it is coal auctions, telecom spectrum, economic reforms, job initiatives, foreign policy, terrorism, RTI, governance, communal violence or law and order, information is the only antidote to misinformation.

Winning the 2019 Lok Sabha election will hinge on how quickly the prime minster recaptures the national narrative from those who will spare no effort to distort it.


Minhaz Merchant Minhaz Merchant @minhazmerchant

Biographer of Rajiv Gandhi and Aditya Birla. Ex-TOI & India Today. Media group chairman and editor. Author: The New Clash of Civilizations

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