Wednesday 12th June 2024,
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Our Propaganda, Their Propaganda

Our Propaganda, Their Propaganda

Our propaganda, Their propaganda (An unpublished essay written a few days before the election results) – Vamsee Juluri .

We may well be on our way to a dismal, Orwellian, cultural future where no matter who rules, the lies will remain the same I recently had the pleasure of teaching an online class for parents and children on George Orwell’s 1984.

We talked about ideas like propaganda, surveillance, and brainwashing in the novel, and in the Indian political conversation with examples like YouTuber Dhruv Rathee’s video about “Whatsapp University” as well as the heated exchange of accusations between NDA and INDIA leaders over their supposed policies. Since then, we have witnessed the frequency and nastiness of these exchanges escalate. Some sharp rhetorical shifts, and by extension, image-projection shifts were made by Prime Minister Modi on the campaign trail.

After years of cultivating a statesman-like image on divisive Hindu-Muslim issues (condemning alleged “go rakshak” violence but refusing to comment on anti-Hindu incidents such as the Bhayanaknath mandir priest massacre or Palghar sadhu lynching or Nupur Sharma supporter Kanhaiya Lal’s beheading) he has now assumed a doomsday-mode, warning that the Congress party would lock up the Ayodhya Ram Mandir, or worse.

The INDIA alliance rhetoric did not do much better either. Its attempts to position the NDA as the party of billionaires and social inequality have run aground with its own contradictions, supporting the charges that INDIA leaders lack even an elemental respect for the integrity of India and the sanctity of its ancient cultural inheritance.

From statements calling “sanatana dharma” a “disease” that deserves to be “eradicated” (DMK leader Udaynidhi Stalin) to bizarre racialist comments flinging Indians rhetorically at least into other continents (former Congress advisor Sam Pitroda), the INDIA platform has failed to make even the smallest adjustments to its worldview which denies a billion Indian citizens the courtesy of seeing their cultural and biological ancestors with affection and respect.

It is not difficult at all for the NDA leaders to paint them as Angrez-Aurangzeb-ki-Aulad. While it is comforting to assume that this hatred and mendacity will die down in June and we can go on with life as usual with crashing hoardings, speeding porsches and burning amusement centers and baby hospitals (that was a pained, helpless, ironic use of “usual” for the record), comforted by “Our Side” (whichever it is) winning, my concern is that the polarization is now here to stay.

The consequences for the direction of future propaganda may be slightly different, but our divided realities will remain or get even worse. If the NDA wins again, their version of reality, which currently dominates TV news, social media (especially WhatsApp) and official government communications, will continue unabashedly.

If they lose, their opponents’ version of reality, which currently exists in foreign media and universities, some Indian print media and regional news channels, as well as some Indian educational curriculum materials (unchanged since 2005), will prevail and likely neutralize the former as well.

Left, Right, Same Lies

Whatever the outcome might be politically, in the interest of looking beyond our silos I offer below a “no man’s land” point of view of some key issues in the rhetorical landscape we live in today.

There has been, unknown to many of us in our silos, a remarkable convergence in the rhetoric and the ideology of both “Right” and “Left” in India. It is helpful to recognize some of these key tropes and talking-points on which the demagogues have divided us, while they actually remain quite cozy together, just like the animals and farmers in the last scene of Orwell’s Animal Farm!

LIE 1: “Ancestral Sin”

Both Left and Right, NDA and INDIA, agree that inequality and injustice in India today will solved by compensation for the “ancestral sins” of the “upper castes.”

Both sides do not question the colonization-era claim that inequality exists in India because of the caste-system and the caste-system exists because of the greed and religious deception of the Brahmins. Prime Minister Modi and RSS Sarsangchalak Mohan Bhagwat among others have taken this depiction for granted.

There is an alternate view though among some social science scholars and Hindu activists outside the Sangh that the notion of “ancestral sin” is questionable and empirically unsustainable as well (see my piece in The Print for instance on the Stalin Sanatana Dharma hatefest and the need to respect differences between cultural inheritance and economic inheritance). But the propagandists of both sides ignore such questioning.

LIE 2: “NRIs”

While NRI “success stories” have been a running trope in Indian media for decades, there has been a new layer of meanings and resentments added since 2014 from both sides. Prime Minister Modi brought NRIs into his personal spotlight with his spectacular stadium-size events around the world.

His critics often blame NRIs for leaving India and imposing Modi on Indians who are still here. Conversely, Modi supporters in India rejoice that the Prime Minister has brought glory to NRIs all around the world with his visits. While these positions are seemingly different what is less obvious is the degree of resentment that is at play in some pro-Modi social media circles about NRIs who don’t join the cheerleading. Another example of the NDA’s complex attitude to NRIs is that while the UPA government famously involved NRIs/PIOs in senior advisory positions, there is virtually no NRI/PIO in any key position in the Modi government as far as I know.

So, both pro-Modi and anti-Modi camps find NRIs a useful figure for their propaganda to the domestic audience.

Lie 3: Denial of Hinduphobia/ Anti-Hindu Hate

Many American academics have gone on record to say that “Hinduphobia” is not real and merely a Hindu-Right concoction that appropriates the language of “Islamophobia.” This is factually untrue considering the term “Hinduphobia” has been in use since at least 1866. In the past, it was used to describe anti-Hindu prejudice among colonial Europeans as well as South Asian Muslims. In recent times, Hindu community groups and leaders in America have been talking about it as well, and they say there is a need for recognition considering anti-Hindu hate incidents are indeed on the rise (the latest finding is a report from the California Civil Rights Department which states that anti-Hindu incidents exceeded anti-Muslim incidents last year).

However, there is actually an amount of convergence between pro and anti-Modi positions on this issue. “Hinduphobia” was actively denied by some overseas Hindu groups until very recently. A former Hindu organization leader in the UK stated on social media a few years ago that he was instrumental in getting “Hinduphobia” removed from anti-hate legislation in the UK soon after 9/11. A global Hindu conference held in America in 2017 with many Hindu leaders in attendance in 2017 did not mention Hinduphobia in its website. There is at best a selective use ofHinduphobia” in these quarters.

LIE 4: Intellectuals

Intellectuals have sadly become recurring tropes and targets in the divide between Left and Right.The NDA has offered little support for professional research in humanities and social sciences but continues to traffic in heated rhetoric about how Modi-ji unlike even Vajpayee-ji has “kicked out” the eminent historians and intellectuals of the earlier era. This is strange (if not a huge lie) considering that NDA ministers have proudly declared that they have not changed one word in history textbooks.

The NCERT Civics textbooks in use today also remain those designed under the UPA in 2005. The Modi government, its critics should be happy to note, seemingly endorses the UPA view of civics education as training in recognizing social inequality, attributing it to religion and specifically Hinduism, and learning to organize protests as a form of social change.

Conclusion: Building a “Narrative” and Propagating an “Image” are Not the Same

There has been much talk about the emerging “Bharat narrative” the last few years. While this has been articulated with some precision in the domain of foreign policy by the External Affairs Minister in his books, what it actually is remains a mystery, if not a mediocre, derivative mess, as seen in the unresolved examples described above.

Despite the Prime Minister’s successful optics at home and abroad, he does not quite have a narrative for the world that straddles the contradictions between the “vasudhaiva kutumbakam” ideal on the one hand and what his critics have been saying all along. Arguably, these critics and the world outside does not really matter to him as long as he has the voters of India on his side, which he possibly still does. But there is a potential danger for Indians in the diaspora, and perhaps even in India, from unchecked propaganda and dehumanization campaigns if the current trajectory in communication remains uncorrected.

At a most elementary level, the problem remains that in Indian electoral politics “image” is perhaps all that matters, and narratives, words, ideas can come and go without discipline or even integrity as long as the image (of the “sevak” or “chowkidar” or now, the divine-purpose-birth) remain strong. However, the Modi-team’s efforts to push at a growing global narrative using a motley mix of GDP-pride, domestic electoral cred, and hotch-potch anti-colonial and anti-Western talking points, will not bear fruit as long as the effort is made only at the level of an individual’s image abroad and not a whole nation, or civilization’s, story abroad.

This limitation was in evidence in a recent conversation between ANI journalist Smita Prakash and former Prasar Bharati CEO Shashi Shekhar on Western media coverage of India. In response to a question about “Modi 3.0”, Mr. Shekhar wondered about what would need to be done about making Mr. Modi better understood abroad; not India as a nation, or as a nation returning to its colonially-suppressed civilizational strengths, but just about making Mr. Modi being better understood. Once again, the “image” and the “person” may be all that matter in domestic political communication, but in international communication, India, that is Bharat, deserves a richer philosophy informing that push. Without that effort, we may well be on our way to a dismal, Orwellian, cultural future where no matter who rules, the lies will remain the same.

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