“Honest and earnest criticism from those whose interests are most nearly touched -- criticism of government by those governed, of leadership by those led – this is the soul of democracy and the safeguard of modern society.” -- W E B DuBois
“Any people, and especially the Russian people, will always be able to distinguish between the true patriots from the scum and the traitors, and just to spit them out like a midge that accidentally flew into their mouths.” -- Russian President Vladimir Putin
Political leaders are, for the most part, thin-skinned about anything adverse said about them, as evident from the venomous quote of Putin that prefaces this essay. But such hypersensitivity to criticism is the least problematic aspect of the havoc that Putin and his ilk have wreaked on the world and on the very idea of truth, justice and freedom. One had assumed till recently that Donald Trump coined the term “fake news” but long before the orange-haired fibber used it as a chant to discredit all reporting critical of him, the phrase was pervasive in Russia, where Putin mobilized an army of propagandists, dignified as “political technologists” to spin myths in favour of the regime, malign and persecute the critics for purveying fake news and then claim that their political fiction was the real deal.
The Russian propaganda and cyberwarfare unleashed abroad not only facilitated Brexit and weakened the European Union but also propelled Trump, a covert pupil of Putin, to the US presidency in 2016. A diabolical example of Russian tutoring was Trump’s mischievous and widely believed assertion that President Barack Obama was born in Africa, a canard that was first aired on Russian TV. Putin was even more brazen in demolishing factuality and creating his own reality, which Timothy Snyder describes as “implausible deniability”. In February 2014, almost a week after Russian tanks rolled into Crimea, he claimed that there was “no intention of rattling the sabre and sending troops to Crimea”, compounding the lie days later by asserting that Russian soldiers were local Ukrainian citizens who had purchased the uniforms from neighbourhood stores. Russia annexed Crimea even as Putin self-righteously proclaimed his innocence. Goebbels was a neophyte by comparison!
Apart from flagrant falsification and hounding of dissenters and critics, an authoritarian leader constantly feeds his people myths about the past, the present and the nation’s enemies, with the intent of keeping them quiescent and for maintaining the status quo. As so brilliantly analyzed by Paulo Freire in his seminal work “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”, the oppressor’s mythicizing includes the myth that the oppressive order is a free society; the myth that this order respects human rights; the myth that the street vendor is as much an entrepreneur as the owner of a large factory; the myth of the equality of all individuals. If needed, the oppressor divides the oppressed and keeps them divided in order to remain in power. Are these intimations of the wily strategies being deployed at home?
In our country under the present government, factuality, truth, tolerance of criticism in matters of state are as tenuous as in Russia, the only difference being that we still have some of the trappings of a democracy, albeit one that is in its twilight. Intriguingly, in an interview to a magazine that, in keeping with the times, has metamorphosed from being a fiercely independent journal to “lapdog media”, the Prime Minister said that he attached great importance to criticism “which requires a lot of hard work and research.” He bemoaned the fact that the number of critics is few in number, alleging that most people “only level allegations and play games about perceptions.” (It needs mentioning that under the present regime, not just the media but every institution has attained lapdog status.) Thereafter, in a speech to a group of Brahma Kumaris, the Prime Minister stated: "We are all witness to how there are attempts to tarnish India’s image. A lot of this happens at the international level.”
Voltaire had observed: “The human brain is a complex organ with the wonderful power of enabling man to find reasons for continuing to believe whatever it is he wants to believe.” If the Prime Minister seriously believes in what he said about encouraging criticism and critics, then he is clearly a victim of self-delusion, or else, living in a sealed echo chamber that has filtered out his administration’s frontal assault on dissenting voices and opposing viewpoints.
In our see-through, cyber-powered information world, nothing can be hidden. We are witness to this government’s concerted campaign to silence dissent. It has, in fact, deployed the law-enforcement agencies to hound detractors of the regime, letting loose the CBI, the Enforcement Directorate, the Income Tax department, the NCB and even bulldozers, to bring dissenters to heel, with scores being sent to jail for exercising their democratic right to criticize and protest against the government. Marching in step are the vitriolic saffron-bandanaed storm-troopers and trolls who serve as an auxiliary extra-constitutional force under the overall guardianship of Nagpur, to intimidate and even physically punish dissenters. Journalists, students, comedians, human rights activists, movie stars, and political opponents have paid a heavy price for daring to criticize this government.
Even more chilling are the periodic killings and lynching of Muslims by Hindu vigilantes whose fiendish actions are sanctified by saffron-clad holy men in robes giving a call for the genocide of Muslims. Apologists for this government would have us believe that too much is being made of what they perceive as the random rants of ‘fringe elements’. But then, how does one explain the coldly calculated ‘othering’ of an entire community through plainly discriminatory laws such as the CAA, the Anti-Religious Conversion laws, the anti-love jihad campaigns and the routine, brutally overt targeting of Muslims by the law enforcement agencies? There is a method in the madness!
The Prime Minister has alleged that there is a conspiracy to tarnish India’s image at the international level. While it is true that the international community, particularly the liberal media, has been scathing about the shrinking of democracy in India, the criticism is directed at the Prime Minister and his government and not the people of India. For instance, the arrest of 23-year-old climate activist, Disha Ravi in 2021 on charges of sedition for her involvement in an on-line toolkit – a standard social justice communications document – supporting the farmers’ protests, led to global outrage as has the recent arrest of Mohammed Zubair, the co-founder of a fact-checking website which is doing an awesomely courageous job exposing the venomous fictions of hate-mongers, trolls and the spin doctors embedded in the IT Cell. The Prime Minister’s presumption that criticism of his government’s actions is an attack on India is a conceited fallacy.
The Prime Minister had rightly denounced those who were critical of him without doing their homework, but then, in a matter that concerns him personally, every possible barrier has been placed to prevent a proper enquiry being conducted to ferret out the truth. His university BA and MA degrees have been the subject of unending controversy. Only recently, Yashwant Sinha, a former BJP Minister, had cast aspersions on the PM’s Master’s degree in “Entire Political Science”. Strangely, regarding the Prime Minister’s BA degree, the Delhi High Court affirmed Delhi University’s plea that the varsity’s BA exam records are held in a fiduciary capacity and cannot be disclosed. A similar Gujarat court injunction has put paid to investigation of his Master’s degree. Even more curiously, the most powerful Prime Minister this country has seen, seems to prefer the shroud of secrecy rather than have the records placed in the public domain so that punitive action can be taken against those who have accused him of fakery.
Opacity is clearly the name of the game under this dispensation. We have still not been told how much of the old currency has been deposited in the Exchequer. The names of the major defaulters who have bled the banks with NPAs have not been divulged. The lawsuits relating to the dubious electoral bonds scheme, the plainly discriminatory CAA, the abrogation of Article 370, and the Pegasus spyware – any of which could cause a huge problem for the government – have been back-burnered by the Supreme Court without assigning any reason. With the political executive and the courts seemingly operating in tandem, democratic accountability is at a premium.
The brutal reality of Modi’s India is that without getting even within sniffing distance of the best of times, we have plunged into the worst of times. In this year’s United Nations’ World Happiness Report, India has been ranked 136 out of 146 countries. Coming on top of the country’s ranking of 101 in the hunger index and 143 out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom index, we are definitely in a bad place. Highly reputed international rating agencies have variously described India as an ‘electoral autocracy’, a ‘flawed democracy’ and a ‘partially free democracy’. Even as the Prime Minister announced to an international forum in April that India had enough food for its 1.4 billion people and was ‘ready to supply food stocks to the world from tomorrow’, comes news from the World Poverty Clock, an NGO financed by the German government, that India has overtaken Nigeria as the poverty capital of the world, with 83 million people living in extreme poverty (less than $ 2 per day) compared to 70 million people in abject poverty in Nigeria. Notwithstanding the bravado, an overpowering miasma of despair has enveloped the country that bears little resemblance to what it once was -- politically, socially and culturally.
Apart from the countless victims of an iniquitous regime, even the ordinary citizens have been psychologically lacerated by the oppressive environment we live in. Every day, one receives intimations of the sense of deep melancholy and fear that stalk our benighted land. The other day, a poet friend who is working on an anthem of protest in the form of a bhajan, expressed her apprehensions about the consequences of her incubating act of dissent in a matter-of-fact sort of way: “My wrists are strong enough to take those handcuffs.” It is chilling to think that even the critical imagination is an enemy of the authoritarian. More recently, in a discussion with two eminent professors, I imbibed significant new words, one German and the other Czech, that have been inducted into the English-speaking world to better describe the disquietude and hopelessness in our lives. The German word is “Weltschmerz” which denotes a deep sadness at the insufficiency of the world. “Litost”, the Czech word that Milan Kundera introduced to the English reader, means “a state of agony and torment created by sudden sight of one’s own misery.” The all-round despondency has even affected my choice of reading material. Frothy novels, my staple diet at one time, are out and now I feed my angst with the writings of Orwell, Franz Kafka, Frantz Fanon, Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky and the like.
Despite a wonderful family, great friends and a sinfully comfortable lifestyle amidst seething deprivation, there is an unremitting aura of gloom blighting my life. It recently got so bad that I was driven to consult a psychiatrist. The kindly gentleman concluded our tete-a-tete with these reassuring parting words: “Don’t worry! This time will also pass!” Much as I would like to believe him, my gut tells me that the damage to our polity is irrevocable. The economy will bounce back for sure, and even if the impossible happens and the BJP loses a future election, the poison of hate and bigotry let loose into our societal bloodstream is going nowhere. With fraternity aka brotherhood lying in tatters, our hardened hearts and never-ending fratricidal wars portend a terrifying future; we will never again know peace. Am I making a mountain out of a molehill? In defence of my dark forebodings, I have Auden’s affirmation:
“And even madmen manage to convey
Unwelcome truths in lonely gibberish.”
(The writer is a former civil servant. The views are personal.)