New Year Double Issue

Post-Truth and Indian Politics

PR Ramesh is Managing Editor of Open
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It gets worse before it gets better

THE ERA OF post-truth, we are told, is one of ‘competing sets of facts’ and ‘multiple truths’, each being sold aggressively. As Professor Kathleen Higgins of the University of Texas at Austin’s Philosophy Department recently wrote, ‘‘Don’t bother me with facts’ is no longer a punchline. It has become a political stance.’ In 2016, Oxford Dictionaries crowned ‘post-truth’ the word of the year in response to a spike in its usage, brought on for the most part by political developments in the US that left many observers in dismay. So, what’s the problem with post-truth? As an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’, it speaks of an inherent contempt among politicians for the voting public’s ability to tell what’s true apart from what’s false. This undermines the democratic idea of being ruled by elected representatives of the people, for it erodes the voter’s fundamental right to make an informed choice.

Analysts say that as wilful consumers of post-truth, we accept narratives bereft of facts essentially because we are loath to rethink our fundamental beliefs and prefer ‘information’ that confirms our deeply held biases or reinforces our positions, even if we know that lies are being resorted to. It is the New Normal, and its effects are most obvious in politics.

Post-truth in politics, though, has had a long tradition in post- Independence India, dominated as it was by leaders who virtually lived in their own echo chambers and kept an ear out only for support of their political postures and decisions, however faulty. When former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi fell back on socialist rhetoric and coined the slogan ‘Garibi Hatao’ to boost the Congress party’s dwindling fortunes in 1971, her key motive was not socialism but desperation to reclaim power. She used the slogan to give the country’s poor an illusory sense of being her top priority, even as she sculpted out of the masses a vote bank of her own that relieved her of having to rely on other powerful leaders within her party.

Mrs Gandhi’s centrally monitored anti-poverty programmes promised to give the poor a voice and put them at the centre of public policy. It strengthened, in her eyes, her own self-image as a messiah of the poor. The ploy won her the re-election she sought. However, only a minuscule part of the funds allocated to the schemes would ultimately reach the poor. Poverty did not budge and her slogan for its removal continued to evoke bitter synonymity with her rule long after she was gone.

Rajiv Gandhi, who as Prime Minister adopted his mother’s slogan for political convenience, was dubbed ‘Mr Clean’ by the media until the Bofors scandal smeared his image and took apart the narrative of a government against corruption. Later, Prime Minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh was cast as another messiah: a champion of Other Backward Classes. In 1990, he implemented the then controversial Mandal Commission Report, granting a 27- per cent quota in government jobs and education to OBCs. But it remained a hollow promise of upliftment. It was mostly the ‘creamy layer’ of OBCs, the more influential among them, who asserted themselves and cornered the lion’s share of reservations, marginalising the less influential.

When Indira Gandhi coined the slogan ‘Garibi Hatao’ to boost the Congress party’s dwindling fortunes in 1971, her key motive was not socialism but desperation to reclaim power. She used the slogan to give the country’s poor an illusory sense of being her top priority

The craftsmanship of political post-truth has taken new forms in recent years. Just half a decade ago, Arvind Kejriwal, now Chief Minister of Delhi, presented himself as India’s new crusader for clean politics, an image he dedicated himself wholly to until he had a brute majority in the Union Territory’s Assembly. Once he assumed office, the messianic narrative began to unravel, laying bare a myth crafted by post-truth.

When Narendra Modi was elected to power as Prime Minister in mid 2014 by a massive vote despite a negative image crafted for him by opponents on the basis of his alleged role in Gujarat’s riots of 2002, when he was the state’s Chief Minister, it burst into bits the post-truth narrative of a grossly unpopular politician with a tainted record. Since then, Modi has unsettled his rivals and critics with an ability to burst the bubble of post-truth. He did not come to Delhi with a coterie of his own. It was a groundswell of popular support that put him in power and his mandate was clear: to radically transform the corrupt establishment by rooting out networks and cartels of privilege and graft across sectors. In an interview to Open before the polls, he had said that he would break the Delhi cabal of status quoists. In response, his critics charged him with vendetta politics.

Those cries of protest have grown particularly loud since Modi’s demonetisation decision of November 8th. Rarely has a bid to mask the truth by Modi’s opponents been as concerted as the one currently being witnessed. The Prime Minister’s move to withdraw all Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 currency notes from circulation was aimed at empowering the poor and the disenfranchised, those who suffered the most on account of rampant corruption and black money. “Many economists agree that demonetisation of high-value currency is a move that will pave the way for a more egalitarian society by giving the underprivileged a relatively level playing field. The decision was well considered before it was put into effect and the Prime Minister did it in full cognisance that there would be teething problems for a short while… But also in the confidence and conviction that the gains in the long run would be worth the pain,” says a senior official of the Finance Ministry.

Yet, Modi’s political critics, determined to thwart any chance of this landmark move’s success, roped in social scientists, economists and others to voice fears of social unrest. While Venezuela, which tried to withdraw its 100-bolivar note in mid-December, saw the kind of unruly street protests being spoken of, India has been largely calm. “There’s a big difference between India and Venezuela. [The latter’s president] Nicolás Maduro demonetised [that note] in an oil-reliant economy that was already badly crippled. The decision had to be put off for a while after widespread looting and arson and riots. India, on the other hand, is among the fastest growing economies in the world, with sound fundamentals. In a country as large as our’s, if demonetisation was a death blow, would the poor be waiting at banks with relative equanimity?” asks the official.

VP Singh implemented the Mandal Commission Report, granting a 27-per cent quota in government jobs and education to OBCs. It remained a hollow promise of upliftment

Social scientists interpret the public composure in a nation of such wide economic disparities as proof that most people understand the benefits; that while it is disruptive, it will also force their employers to pay them legal wages and accord them long-denied work benefits, since the electronic documentation of transactions also means compliance with the law. Transparency, they believe, will improve their lives. “This is purportedly the constituency of the Left, the working class, the unorganised sector. They should be the first to bat for this radical restructuring of economic practice. Once this goes through, the Left parties will find that they have an even slimmer support base than now,” says a BJP leader. The Government’s decision to press on with demonetisation despite the risk of post-truth narratives being spun by the opposition was based on a close observation of data. The use of high-value notes had gone up exponentially in a span of ten years, from 36 to 86 per cent, an indication not only of higher prices in general but also a possible increase in counterfeit cash and black money—unaccounted for, untaxed, and thus detrimental to the country.

Referring to how social networks and internet processes play a role in shaping the story against demonetisation, Prabhudev Konana, professor of Information Management at McCombs School of Business, Austin, Texas, observes that they work like ‘echo chambers or consumption treadmills that reinforce prior held beliefs’ rather than encourage scrutiny of material for veracity. Writing in a news daily recently, he says that even an economist as well known as Amartya Sen ‘fell into the trap of confirmation bias’ when he called Modi’s move ‘a despotic action that has struck at the root of an economy based on trust’. That, Professor Konana writes, can be attributed to the Nobel laureate’s prior bias against the Modi administration’s policies; he argues that morality more than trust should be the key to India’s economy today, and that demonetisation— far from being a draconian policy that engenders only hardship and misery—will cleanse the system of moral decay and place ethics centre-stage in India’s growth. Ethics was fundamental to the Human Development Index championed by Professor Sen himself, Professor Konana adds, and such an approach would reflect all-round human well-being much better: ‘Demonetisation may be… required to change the moral fabric for good.’

Just half a decade ago, Arvind Kejriwal presented himself as India’s new crusader for clean politics. Once he became Chief Minister, the messianic narrative began to unravel

The Congress, in its own spin on demonetisation, has tried to highlight its immediate impact on the economy. While most economists peg the resultant fall in growth this quarter at less than 1 per cent, the party’s former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, speaking in Parliament, has put the figure at a significantly worse 2 per cent. Being an economist himself, Singh’s estimate holds weight and the Government has spared no effort since to counter it. On being challenged by media interviewers on the 2-per cent hit the Congress is projecting for an economy with such strong fundamentals, the party’s leaders have now chosen to hedge their bets.

Reality is being twisted in other ways as well. Visual clips of long queues on prime-time news have been used as an indication of the ‘failure’ of demonetisation. This ignores the tactical plan of the authorities to keep most ATMs cash-strapped, with customers expected to go to their own banks—which have their identity records—instead to access currency. Opposition parties have also been shifting their goal posts on their allegation against the Government. First, they called it a ‘wrong decision’. Now, they speak of ‘poor implementation’. “If the RBI has coined over 50 rules on the issue since November 8th and the Government changed its regulations 125 times on note-bandi, it only means this is a government highly responsive to criticism and suggestions,” the BJP leader asserts.

The economic sphere is not the only one where post-truth has been turned on the Modi Government. When the controversial issue of Triple Talaq (or talaq-e-bidat) as a practice among Indian Muslims became part of the national discourse, the battle against it was led by the All India Muslim Mahila Andolan, which had gathered thousands of signatures for its abolition from followers of the faith who termed the custom not only grossly unfair to women but also unIslamic. Ranged against the Andolan were mostly male Muslims who stood firmly opposed to any ‘tampering’ of Shariah law under the aegis of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB), Darul Uloom, a seminary in Deoband, and the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, an organisation of clerics.

Modi’s most strident political opponents such as Rahul Gandhi rely heavily on painting the Government as a pro-corporate, anti-poor: in short, a ‘suit-boot ki sarkaar’

Once the Centre took a stance in favour of Muslim women, however, spin doctors started portraying the issue as a majority versus minority one. An online article on news site titled ‘Urdu Media Agog with Conspiracy Theories to Force Changes in Shariah’, shows how these organisations are using the Urdu press to portray the Modi Government as conspiring to use Triple Talaq to sneak in a Uniform Civil Code (UCC) through the back door that would invalidate Muslim Personal Law that applies to matters of marriage, divorce and inheritance within the community.

On December 8th, when the Allahabad High Court observed that ‘no personal law board is above the Constitution’, it went against the AIMPLB’s long-held position that under the Fundamental Rights guaranteed to the community, no court could contravene the dictates of Shariah on those matters. The ruling also reaffirmed the Centre’s stand taken in the Supreme Court recently. In an article dated October 18th, an Urdu daily quoted Maulana Jalaluddin Umri, head of the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, with sister organisations in Bangladesh and Pakistan, as saying, “It is the belief of Muslims that no change is possible in the principles of the Qur’an, Hadees (traditions and sayings of the Prophet) and the Shariah until Qayamat (Day of Reckoning). The Jamaat wholeheartedly supports the stand of the Personal Law Board on these issues.”

Even while the AIMPLB has the backing of many Islamic clerics and scholars, the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, led by Maulana Mahmood Madani, has reportedly declared Triple Talaq ‘unIslamic’. Passed at an early December conference held in Ajmer, its resolution states: ‘The session condemned talaq at one go and appealed to every section of Muslim society to make strides to eliminate it.’ No mention is made, however, of ‘talaaq’ uttered three times over an extended time span as a mode of divorce. While asserting that the Prime Minister’s motives are “suspect” on the subject of a UCC, Maulana Madani has been quoted as saying that the community nonetheless has to do its women justice by reforming certain practices.

THE POST-FACTUAL articulations made by Modi’s most strident political opponents, such as Congress Vice-president Rahul Gandhi, rely heavily on painting the Government as a pro- corporate, anti-poor and anti-farmer one: in short, as a ‘suit-boot ki sarkaar’. The Congress leader has singled out Gautam Adani of the Adani Group and Mukesh Ambani of Reliance Industries, both Gujaratis, for special mention as alleged cronies of the Prime Minister. In early July this year, a newspaper report charged the Modi Government with withdrawing a penalty of Rs 200 crore levied on the Adani Group by the Environment Ministry under the erstwhile UPA regime for alleged damage done to the environment by a private port built by the group in Mundra, Gujarat. The Congress was quick to charge Modi with granting undue favours to his ‘favourite capitalist’. Publicised widely in the media, it allowed Rahul Gandhi and his party to play scandal rakers. Just days later, the Ministry had to clarify that it had not withdrawn the penalty; rather, it had made the development conditions on the Adani project far more stringent.

When Modi was elected PM despite a negative image crafted by opponents, it burst into bits the post-truth narrative of a grossly unpopular politician with a tainted record

In the absence of fact-checking by the media, allegations of crony capitalism threaten to stick through sheer repetition. “The charge often was that banks were directed to extend loans to the Adani Group at far softer terms than to other industrialists. But the fact is because the Group operates in the infrastructure sector, the gearing of its balance sheet is always high. Most of the loans to Gautam Adani’s corporate house were given at a time when the UPA Government was in power and there has been no significant increase in the rate of growth in its debt burden under the Modi Government. That clearly shows banks have not shown any undue favour to Mr Adani as far as loans are concerned,” says a financial analyst. “Had the media by and large not fallen victim to the Congress leadership’s post-truth narrative on undue advantages to the Adani Group at the behest of Mr Modi, the charge of being a corporate-friendly sarkaar would not have gained traction.”

In the case of Reliance and its KG Basin gas operations, the noise has been even louder, if less coherent. Says a corporate analyst, “If Mukesh Ambani had any influence on the working of this Government, then, just after it assumed power, it would not have decided to stop implementation of the Rangarajan Committee recommendations. Instead, this Government constituted a fresh panel to come up with a new pricing formula for natural gas. The result was that, in October 2014, new guidelines were announced and natural gas prices, which would have shot up to $8.4 per mmbtu if the Rangarajan panel suggestions were adopted, was nipped at $5.6 per mmbtu.” It was in June 2013 that the UPA Government had accepted the panel’s advice to raise the officially set price of natural gas from $4.2 to $8.4 per mmbtu. The change was to be implemented on April 1st, 2014. But thanks to the Election Commission’s code banning policy decisions from being announced after the poll dates were fixed, the new gas price was not allowed to be notified during the runup to the General Election in May that year.

The Modi Government also decided gas price would be reviewed every six months, unlike its predecessor which decided in 2013 that it would be fixed for three years. The six monthly revision has ensured that in the last 26 months, price has come down four times—in line with global trends. For some fields, the price from October 1st was as low as $2.5 per mmbtu. “If this new pricing policy by the Modi Government had not been implemented, all user industries would still have been paying $8.4 per mmbtu. Among the biggest losers in the whole exercise of re-pricing natural gas has been Reliance Industries,” notes the financial analyst.

The capital markets have also sensed a decline in Ambani’s influence on the ‘operating environment’, as the company likes to call it. Consider the stock price of Reliance Industries. The scrip, which had done extremely well in the period between June 2004 and April 2014 when the UPA was in power at the Centre, has performed unimpressively in the last two-and-half years under the Modi dispensation. In the earlier period, the share registered an average annual growth rate of 18.9 per cent, outstripping the 16.7 per cent figure of the BSE Sensex overall. With Modi as Prime Minister, Reliance Industries’ stock has been stagnant. At the end of May 2014, it was quoting at Rs 1,064. On December 19th, 2016, it was Rs 1,062. In the same period, the BSE Sensex has gained 8.9 per cent.

Truth still has a way of unsettling the post-truth world.