On May 14, 2004, the day after the general elections, headlines screamed "NDA out, Sonia set to become PM". Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, or the NDA-1, had fallen by the wayside despite its supermassive "India Shining" campaign. Gujarat 2002 was uttered as an addendum to the causes leading up to the verdict. The country, who knows, would have forgotten and forgiven the mass murder of Indians, especially targeted killing of Muslims, if the economic disconnect wasn't so obvious and unsettling.
Some of the editorials then, particularly the lead opinion piece penned by P Sainath, then an editor at The Hindu, ran with the headline "Mass media versus mass reality". If chunks from that piece are reproduced today, it could very well pass off as a contemporary commentary on the dishevelled state of affairs - the economy near ruin, the acute agricultural crisis and farmers killing themselves by tens of thousands, the sociopolitical tinderbox that the country has been turned into with the routine attacks on minorities, the climate of fear instilled by the government and its useful "fringe elements" with the aim of furthering the Hindu Rashtra, which many feel is already here, already holding us back from expressing ourselves freely, eating what we like, loving whom we choose to, unless we want to be assaulted in public, or worse still be gunned down at our doorstep by mercenaries in service of the ruling ideology.
Even then no one had expected the Congress to actually come back, as no one expects now. 2019 is still one and half years away, and the Narendra Modi regime still has almost 18 months to provide an amnesiac, an ameliorant also known as "jumla" that his government has been repeatedly caught floating - new day, new big announcement and paid trends on social media. Only on Monday, September 25, PM Modi announced Saubhagya - a rural electrification for all scheme that set its deadline as December 2018. Only problem, this wasn't a rehashed UPA-era scheme; this was in fact the Modi regime "retweeting", as it were, its own erstwhile announcements. The government was caught and bowled in barely two hours because, for a change, fact-checking has become a welcome habit with a section of Indian media - the smaller, feisty ones leading the fight against Modi sarkar.
To celebrate the anniversary of "Electricity for all by May 2017", Indian government launches "Electricity for all by March 2019" scheme pic.twitter.com/bnqnYsmgjt— Stanley Pignal (@spignal) September 25, 2017
But that's not all. Dissent, at least on the economy and also on some of the social and foreign policy approaches, is coming from within the BJP. Those ignored by the Modi-Shah duopoly have suddenly found a voice, and lo behold, that voice echoes what the trenchant critics of the establishment have been warning of since year one into the Modi regime. Yashwant Sinha's fire and fury article titled "I must speak up now" eviscerated the claims on economy that the government is still trying to hide behind, perhaps even by fudging figures occasionally. The "unmitigated disaster" that's demonetisation, the humungous impact on the economy and loss of over a million jobs, decimation of the informal sector, the contraction of the GDP by two percentage points from 7.9 to 5.7 in just eight months - Sinha spelled out in no uncertain terms, pinning the blame, unfairly, on the finance minister Arun Jaitley solely. Vociferous editorials were immediately penned calling out Sinha on this, and perhaps the deflection technique of targeting Jaitley to really hurt Modi worked. Like a charm.
Sinha isn't alone. Arun Shourie, former NDA bigshot under the Vajpayee regime, who had expected the finance ministry under Modi and had even praised the RSS before his complete conversion to the other side, is now one of the most prominent faces of the loose coalition of citizens opposing the government. Shourie has been heard giving scathing interviews to senior journalist Karan Thapar, as well as deliver impromptu speeches on media freedom and strategies to beat the government with. When NDTV was raided some months back, Shourie addressed a gathering of journalists and listed out ways to deflate the regime of hype with hard facts. He named the then tiny portal Alt News, which is now a national sensation, the David of fact-checking slaying the Goliath of fake news and inflated claims from the government and its spokespersons as well as the "North Korean channels" that peddle lies and jingoism, warmongering pornography of hysteria and communal rifts as editorial policy. Digital media is holding Alt News as a model now, and doing its job, fast, so that bursting the BJP-Sangh bubble of misinformation, fake news, false claims, hypes and regurgitated schemes are busted in no time, prominently and persistently.
But that's just Modi and the media he was the darling of until even a year back, with the surgical strike against Pakistan and then one on "black money". While the first was indeed claimed as a paradigm shift, though tactically how successful it has been to deter terrorists and infiltration is in doubt, the latter, or the demonetisation diktat - was a complete dud, but put the economy in a financial coma. "It's the economy stupid" has now become the line that would ultimately be offered as the reason why the Modi bubble finally burst, and not three years of constant and disgusting assaults on the secular, pluralist fabric of the nation, on that oh-so-derided constitutional "idea of India".
But as Sainath had underlined in his 2004 editorial, even then the NDA had the audacity of saturating Indian television - those were the pre social media days - with the India Shining campaign, despite the agrarian distress, the lack of jobs, the flowering of Hindutva and Narendra Modi's Gujarat mayhem. The "feel good" factor, Sainath said, seemed the day after the election "so pathetic as to requiring no ridicule". But his words were prescient:
"Yet while the spin doctors have been sacked, the age of spin doctoring has arrived. Also rubbed in yet again was, of course, that second huge disconnect. That between mass media and mass reality. Little in the media output of these past five years had prepared audiences for anything like this outcome. The polls succeeded where journalism failed. They brought back to the agenda the issues of ordinary Indians."
That's what has been happening all over again. Mainstream journalism has been failing the Indians left out of this "New India", that PM Modi declared on August 15 this year, from the ramparts of the Red Fort. Whatever happened to his "Achche Din"? Every once in a while, Modi and his technicians of hype balloon up the bogus, the patently false, the fraudulent. Plain old duping is passed off as moralistic sacrifice, the Aadhaar-surveilled austerity that citizens must accept as their contribution towards nation-building.
Whether it's Dalits, Muslims, farmers, women, unemployed youths, poor children depending on the mid-day meal for their one solid morsel of the day, the old and the haggard depending on their pensions, the soldiers without proper food stationed in Siachen's freezing temperatures, university students questioning the regime's anti-minority pestilence, its warmongering to deflect criticism on the economic and sociocultural ruin, intellectuals aghast at the saffron-washing of history, the packing of school textbooks with Sangh Parivar's wishful thinking and outright lies, the obliteration of our founding fathers and mothers from the books that will shape the minds of future, the institutionalisation of hard surveillance linking everything to Aadhaar, the assault on women's bodies and policing of their sexualities, their wombs and trying to mould them as the RSS would want them to be, the crumbling of healthcare in BJP-ruled states, particularly Uttar Pradesh and the deaths of many, many children because they couldn't breathe, the lynching of Akhlaq, Pehlu Khan, Junaid and others, the stench of death, of murder, of persecution - all this and more have gone on to contribute to the collective economic ruin.
Because the same supremacist arrogance from which bigotry stems, which prevents the authoritarian regimes from seeing the lived lives of diverse Indians, even those who have a problem with the tag, also prevents them from seeing the backlash against their ruinous policies. Economic ruin is the price of bigotry, and the Supreme Court-stayed ban on cattle slaughter was a great example of how the regime and its henchmen are ready to flush the economy and lakhs of crores of rupees invested in the meat and allied industries down the drain, just to pursue their sickening, anti-minority agenda. The beef lynchings, the skullcap lynchings, the beard lynchings - they were normalised despite the PM's "feeble nos", when the regime itself distinguished between the good gau rakshaks and bad gau rakshaks and attempted to legislate an anti-farmer, anti-poor, anti-minority law.
Mainstream journalism has been failing the Indians left out of this “New India”, that PM Modi declared on August 15 this year.
While universities nationwide are already flushing out the RSS-affiliated ABVP, a common verdict from Delhi University, JNU, Guwahati, Hyderabad Central University, Punjab University and more, citizens have upped the ante with their #NotInMyName peaceful protests against lynchings and targeted murders of journalists, writers, rationalists. This, as farmers are protesting en masse, such as the Rajasthan Kisan Morcha, where tens of thousands of peasants participated for days at end, making it one of the biggest and longest demonstrations ever, but more or less blacked out by mainstream TV and print media.
As Sainath had written in 2004: "There is almost no government in the country that has ill-treated its farmers and not paid the price. That has hurt agriculture and not been punished. India has never seen so many farmers' suicides as in the past six to eight years. For some, the urge to blame it all on nature is overwhelming. And yes, droughts have badly hurt people in parts of the country. But that would be missing the wood for the trees. Countless millions of Indians have seen their livelihoods crippled by policies hostile to them. Many of these applied to agriculture, on which two-thirds of the people depend. Any incoming government that fails to see this writes its own exit policy."
The déjà vu hits home and hard. The "68 paise" hefty loan waivers from the Yogi Adityanath government would come back to haunt these practitioners of electoral Darwinism, a political determinism in which permanent electioneering is the means and end of governance, keeping the citizens on a feeding tube of junk policies that have now started to come crashing down all at once.
And what about the Opposition? Its "feeble nos" too have been ignored, much like the Delhi high court's recent judgement on the idea of sexual consent. India has lost its democratic constitutional consent exactly as its culture of dissent and questioning is being trampled upon. But there are winds of change. Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi these days sounds like a new man, or the same old shehzada with a heart, but now also with a sharp tongue. His recent interviews and interactions abroad have been widely praised for their staunch adherence to nonviolence as an Indian tradition, and Gandhian pacifism as strength. In an interview to Nicolas Berggruen of The World Post, Gandhi elaborated on the ethnic rifts that the regime is fomenting and exploiting, but his firm criticism never saw him descend to ad hominem attacks, something his political adversaries in PM Modi and the BJP national president Amit Shah resort to habitually. Some commentators, including this writer, are urgently hoping for that return of civility in political discourse, which despite differences, had never dwindled to the current ugliness before.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves, because Gandhi has very little to contribute to this shifting of narrative. If it's no longer under Modi-Shah's control, that's mainly because of citizens and those who protested every time, those whose raised their voice and concern inviting extreme trolling and abuse on social media, censure from the government, or the university administration in case of students such as Kanhaiya, Shehla, Umar, Anirban, Gurmehar, and more. Editorial heads experimenting with intriguing critiques have been shunted out, and attempts to cover-up have been impossible because the scoops have been a-coming on how the Big Media's spine has been systematically made malleable and ductile as per the regime's needs. But the small guys, the tiny warriors, the foot-soldiers, the little generalissimos of facts, secularism, inclusive economics - they have marched on.
Economics of tolerance, as Raghuram Rajan had once said, is infinitely more profitable than the economics of bigotry. If Manmohan Singh is being missed today, it's because citizens are being pushed to the wall. In case fortress Modi is breached in 2019, economics of bigotry will have a lion's share in doing what was barely a year back considered near impossible. India Shining 2.0 will be rejected by India churning.