Worms in the Chocolate

The Indian media’s collective, voluntary amnesia

It is nothing short of horrifying that Amit Shah is now the country’s home minister, responsible for maintaining domestic peace. Besides being tainted by charges in multiple fake encounters, Shah has been accused of using the state machinery to spy on a woman for Modi.
01 July, 2019

On 15 August 2014, in his first Independence Day speech as prime minister, Narendra Modi said: “whether it is the poison of casteism, communalism, regionalism, discrimination on social and economic basis, all these are obstacles in our way forward. Let’s resolve for once in our hearts; let’s put a moratorium on all such activities for ten years. We shall march ahead to a society free from all such tensions … My dear countrymen, believe in my words.”

Lots of red flags should go up when a prime minister puts an expiry date on social harmony, but most mainstream media quoted Modi’s speech either uncritically or approvingly, including a national daily describing it as “non-partisan.” By 2014, the media should have been alert to the doublespeak of, and the division of labour in, Hindutva forces. A speech in the hinterland might demonise Muslims; one at a media summit in Delhi might focus on inclusive growth and democracy. A speech made by Modi is not binding on Adityanath, then a member of parliament from Gorakhpur and today the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, whose repugnantly communal comments in the Lok Sabha, just a few weeks after the speech, did not ruffle the prime minister’s feathers.

But for the last five years, the English mainstream media and many intellectuals have helped to not only whitewash bigotry, but also to scrub Modi’s failures and missteps out of the public discourse. Today, clinging to his words instead of his track record has become a collective delusion.

The mainstream media seemed wildly aroused by Modi’s victory in the 2014 general election. Perhaps it was because of its scale—those once vilified were suddenly all-powerful. Or perhaps it was good old animal subservience to the alpha male. Whether out of sycophancy, fear or naive optimism, the media decided to forget all the awkward “butcher of Gujarat” and “merchant of death” monikers it had once conjured up for Modi. So did infuential liberal thinkers. The well-known academic Pratap Bhanu Mehta wrote a gushy op-ed about “one of the most gloriously spectacular political triumphs in the history of independent India.” He buried his liberal conscience in one short sentence somewhere in the middle: “We can talk about the way parts of his campaign fished in social polarisation in places like UP. But for the most part, he presented himself as something new…” That’s funny, a constitutionally minded liberal reader might think, Mehta forgot to talk about the parts of the campaign that fished in social polarisation.

Following 2002, Modi could not catch a break from the stigma of the anti-Muslim pogrom he had overseen as chief minister of Gujarat. Yet by April 2014, the academician Ashutosh Varshney was writing that “Anti-Muslim rhetoric has been missing in Modi’s campaign. Instead, he has concentrated on governance and development.” That simply was not true. Varshney must have missed Modi’s attempt to whip up communal passions with speeches about the “pink revolution,” a reference to cattle slaughter; missed Adityanath on the dais where a BJP man recommended exhuming Muslim women’s corpses in order to rape them; missed Amit Shah exhorting Jats to “take revenge” on Muslims in Muzaffarnagar, where the two communities had clashed violently in 2013. Praveen Donthi’s piece in this magazine’s June 2019 issue forensically examined the liberal intellectual defense of Modi on his way to the prime minister’s office.

Modi’s smash-hit 2014 election campaign, led by advertising stars from Ogilvy & Mather and McCann Worldgroup, was so successful at this kind of erasure that Business Today ran a case study of it in June 2014. “Marketing gurus cite the examples of Cadbury, PepsiCo and Coca-Cola that battled problems relating to brand-taint,” the article said. “Cadbury had fought its way out of a controversy related to worms in its chocolates while the two beverages giants faced allegations of pesticides in their colas … Not so long so, the words that could have been used to describe Modi were authoritarian, megalomaniac and communal.” By the time of the election, the words imprinted in the public imagination were “strong” and “decisive.”

Repeated cattle- and caste-related lynchings, beginning early in his first term, failed to evoke any comment from Modi. Since the mandate had vapourised his communal record and recast him as an economic messiah, many liberal commentators deflected blame to what they insisted were “fringe elements.” Meanwhile, the union minister Mahesh Sharma draped the coffin of a beef-related murder accused in the national flag, and his cabinet colleague Jayant Sinha met another set of Hindutva criminals with garlands.

Modi eventually issued a late, half-hearted censure of cow vigilantes. He followed it up by appointing Adityanath—a communal leader with a private militia at his disposal, who faced scores of cases for things including rioting and attempt to murder—as the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. It took wilful naïveté to say, as an India Today news anchor tweeted, “Give him a chance.”

In 2019, nobody can feign innocence about how the Modi government’s claims differ from its actions. Few liberals disagree with the view that the BJP has enslaved and destroyed every institution, from the Reserve Bank of India to the Central Bureau of Investigation to the judiciary to the press to our universities. We have watched it coddle rioters who demand a film ban and marchers who support rapists, but crack down on Kashmiris. We have seen it call college kids “anti-nationals,” and put a target on dissenters’ backs. We have had five years of regressive anti-intellectualism, fake news and fudged data; of crony capitalism and poor economic management; of relentless chipping away at Gandhian and Nehruvian legacies; and of increasing Hindutva aggression. As recently as the 2019 campaign, Modi was making divisive remarks, flouting the Election Commission’s code of conduct and seeking votes in the name of the armed forces. On the one hand he whipped up fear about “terrorism,” on the other he gave a ticket to Pragya Thakur, who is an accused in the Malegaon bomb blast and a champion of Mohandas Gandhi’s assassin, Nathuram Godse. There is no discernible distance between the centre and the so-called fringe.

The newer and more independent online media outlets, and some social media voices, continue to call out the government, but the liberal space in the English-medium press is shrinking. Modi’s BJP won its first term by changing the rules of the perception game in devastating ways, bringing lethal propaganda and fake-news machines to campaigning. It has been like taking an assault rifle to a fencing match. Propaganda and lies on social media are drowning out rationality, fact and memory. An incremental normalisation of communalism and hate speech is well under way.

And so, even the most egregious outrages of these last five years seemed to have faded along with the dust of the 2019 election results. In a shower of rose petals, Modi made his second Lok Sabha victory speech. He declared his dedication to the Constitution and, in the same breath, stomped all over the idea of secularism. Forget the nastiness of the campaign trail, he said, because everyone should go forward together. A news anchor tweeted: “A statesmanlike speech.” An editorial in the Indian Express saw a “heartening note of magnanimity,” as if promising not to vilify and oppress citizens is an act of generosity.

In other words, the commentariat is doing exactly what it did at the start of Modi’s first term—sweeping the messes under the carpet, and resetting to tabula rasa. But parties do not spring fully formed from the brow of democratic hope, like Athena from the brow of Zeus, without history or track record. And holding your nose in a fire does not protect you from the flames.

The journalist Manini Chatterjee wrote, in November 2018: “It might seem incredible today, but Amit Shah first came into national prominence as a result of the alleged fake encounters … The then Gujarat home minister lost his job, was exiled from his home state, and was arrested after being named by the CBI as one of the main accused in the triple murder of Sohrabuddin Sheikh, his wife, Kauser Bi, and his associate, Tulsiram Prajapati (who was killed in another alleged fake encounter a year later on December 28, 2006).” As she wrote, “Strenuous efforts have been made over the last four and a half years to obliterate that link from public memory.”

An India Today article on the day of the 2019 election result said: “Known as an astute strategist whose non-political interests range from playing chess and watching cricket to stage performances and listening to classical music, 54-year-old Amit Shah is often hailed as the BJP’s most successful president for crafting its way to power states after states.” The article’s analysis of Shah’s political success tested the limits of euphemism: “Amit Shah has used a skilful mix of ideological firmness, unlimited political imagination and realpolitik flexibility to keep the BJP ahead of the game.”

It is not clear that this kind of media erasure has worked quite as well for Shah as it has for Modi. Despite all the public admiration of “the BJP’s Chanakya,” the public still makes a strong connection between crossing Amit Shah and personal misfortune. It is nothing short of horrifying that Shah is now the country’s home minister, responsible for maintaining domestic peace. Besides the fake encounters that Chatterjee mentioned, Shah has been accused of using the state machinery to spy on a woman for Modi, in a scandal known as Snoopgate; he has called Muslim immigrants “termites”; and has referred to journalists and writers as “breaking India forces” and “the tukde tukde gang.” But on the website of the Observer Research Foundation, a Reliance-funded think tank, Sushant Sareen wrote: “The team comprising of Home Minister Amit Shah, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and the NSA Ajit Doval is something of a security dream-team.”

It is equally horrifying that Pragya Thakur sits in parliament, as does her fellow MP Pratap Sarangi, who was the Odisha convenor of the Bajrang Dal when the missionary Graham Staines and his children were burned alive, and who faces several serious criminal charges. The Indian Express, however, chose to fete him for his—wait for it—simple lifestyle. “Sarangi had an enthusiastic cadre,” the article said. “He had served as president of the Odisha Bajrang Dal unit and was previously a senior member of the state VHP unit.”

Even newsrooms unsympathetic to the government unthinkingly accept the terms set by power. Channels that willingly serve as the government’s hyper-nationalist, anti-minority attack dogs naturally throw around words like “traitor” and “anti-national” to describe the government’s critics. More liberal channels, anxiously trying to keep up by proving their own nationalist credentials, only fall into the trap designed by Hindutva, which disguises communalism as nationalism.

The Caravan recently put out a list of media stories that were retracted during the Modi government’s first term. The most ironic of them must be the ones involving the April 2017 report by Reporters Without Borders on India’s declining press freedom. (The report was first published and then taken down from the websites of both the Economic Times and the Times of India.) In its second term, Modi’s government will consolidate its dominance with the laughably large sums of money it has raised via anonymous electoral bonds, and with the fear ratcheted up by Amit Shah’s appointment as home minister. Since the government took oath, we have already seen many instances of lynchings, illegal arrests and intimidation of journalists, and crimes and political confrontations used as grist for the communal mill.

None of this is normal, but five years from now it will be more so, and worse, unless the media, politicians and citizens find a way to push back. India has seen this movie before. Spoiler: there are still worms in the chocolate.