In the election carnival, FOE (Freedom of Expression) is a harried Harlequin. Fiction parades as fact. Truth assumes the guise of untruth. Illusion and sleight of hand innovations are invoked as reality. The tragic subtext of election campaigns is that political parties and their myopic masses vow to propagate fabrication over fact. They believe that only exaggerated claims that go hand in hand with invective can deliver ballot box knockouts. Sanity and sense are sabotaged. Ever since the Gujarat elections were announced, both the BJP and the Congress seem to have forgotten that mandates are fought on performance and not abuse of power.
Hardly a day passes without a personal filthy attack on top political leaders, including the Prime Minister hitting the headlines. In this festival of filth the social media is the most misused and abused medium to demolish and discredit opponents. Since technology knows no limits or civility, it is being manipulated to morph pictures to mislead, twist the truth and rupture reputations. Preachers, monks, faux academics and their fellow travelers, including some artists have opted for the dubious delights of crass creativity by demonising and eulogising their enemies and icons respectively in FOE’s name.
It was genuinely believed that the Gujarat elections would be a fight between vikas and vinash (Development vs Destruction). The BJP was well-placed to reiterate its commitment to the development model conceived by Narendra Modi during his 12-year long stint as chief minister. The Congress was itching to blacken the picture as a period of destruction of Gujarat from a relatively debt-free state to a debt-ridden one. It started off well. But once the electioneering picked up, blind panic seized the middle and lower level ranks of both parties.
The opening salvo was fired by an overenthusiastic bhakt of the ruling BJP determined to destroy the reputation of Hardik Patel, the poster boy of the powerful Patidar community who has become a nemesis of the BJP. A video clip showing someone resembling Hardik in the company of a young girl went viral. The BJP leaders started calling him a womaniser. Hardik is yet to marry. Yet those who fear him politically decided that the best way to neutralise his charisma is to portray him as a philanderer; not a budding politician. It came a cropper.
The BJP’s next move was to dig deep into the national archives to tarnish the image of the iconic Jawaharlal Nehru for real or imagined dirt. Its IT cell posted a collage of pictures of Nehru with women including his own sister Vijay Laxmi Pundit on Twitter to try drive home the accusation that the Congress and its allies are a cabal of womanisers who are in politics for pleasure. An official organ of the Congress party retaliated by making fun of the Prime Minister by posting his photograph with Donald Trump and Angela Merkel, and suggesting that Modi was only fit to sell tea and not good enough to be the head of the government. Soon good sense prevailed over bad taste, and the warring parties withdrew the posts.
In the name of FOE, Twitter, Facebook, gossip columns and primetime TV debates have turned into battlegrounds of bizarre banality by conjuring up mental monsters. Moreover, numerous NGOs, PR firms and corporates have hired over 500 techies and researchers to create calumnious content by mixing and doctoring speeches, pictures and other activities to divert people’s attention from real issues. Genuine, credible content is no longer king for them. A combo of seductive and sensational memes with provocative prose is their queen of the hour.
Since development has been reduced to a mini meal in the vote buffet, even events in Pakistan are paraded to polarise people. Last week, 26/11 mastermind Hafiz Saeed was released from house arrest by a judicial order, but Modi baiters attacked his 56” chest claim to portray him as a hapless bystander before Pakistan, which he had vowed to teach a lesson.
Another development in the FOE factory was the open letter of Archbishop Thomas Macwan of Gandhinagar made public last week. He may be genuinely concerned about the growing attacks on minorities in some parts of the country, but the timing was significant since he spoke out when the Gujarat election campaign is at its peak. He wrote that “the secular and democratic fabric of our country is at stake”, and “human rights are being violated. Constitutional rights are being trampled. There is a growing sense of insecurity among the minorities, OBCs, BCs, poor, etc. Nationalist forces are on the verge of taking over the country.”
He appealed the voters to come together to defeat the “Nationalist forces” and elect only those to the Gujarat assembly “who would remain faithful to the Constitution and not engage in discrimination”. His angst may not make much of a difference to the final poll outcome since Christians in Gujarat are few in number. Yet, the fact that a cleric could paint the ruling dispensation as a threat to India’s diversity is an indication that FOE can also be used effectively during the elections. Earlier, just before the Bihar elections, over 40 artists and filmmakers had returned their awards in protest of the same. But once the elections were over, some of them retracted while others retreated to strike again with the FOE weapon at an appropriate time.
Contrary to the general impression that the exchange of free ideas and opinions has been curbed in the past three years, excessive outpourings of biased babble meant to influence the electoral process have damaged genuine debate and dialogue. On the other hand, there is a feeling that any attempt to point out deficiencies or infirmities in governance is dubbed anti-national and attracts harsh and even punitive action from the establishment. But the critics are also being selective about their targets since they fear demonising the wrong person or idea would result in loss of their privileges, plum posts and crumbs, which they have been enjoying for decades. FOE is a matter of faith in the Indian Constitution. But for propagandists, FOE is a vehicle of convenience, not conviction.