Clash of perceptions: Cogwheels of ‘intolerance’

I must confess my profound irritation last Tuesday on discovering that all the four English news channels available on Tata Sky were engaged in discussing the so-called beef controversy at Delhi’s Kerala House. It is not that the incident was uninteresting or didn’t merit commentary. But for four channels to devote their primetime news slot to a contrived controversy over what constituted ‘beef’— cow meat or buffalo meat — was, in my view, disproportionate.

This exaggerated indignation arose from two factors. First, the incident happened in Delhi and anything that happens in Delhi (and, to a slightly lesser extent, Mumbai) is automatically deemed ‘national’ news. We can hardly blame the news channels for their partial view of the world. The Supreme Court and, of late, the National Green Tribunal, often conducts itself in a manner that would suggest their jurisdiction — like the realm of Shah Alam — extended from Delhi to Palam. Secondly, the food habits of the English media tend to be far more eclectic than normal people. Any potential controversy over ‘beef fry’ (actually ‘buffalo fry’), therefore, agitates it with the same intensity as the non-availability of decent Scotch would have bothered Winston Churchill. Surfing the channels I also noted that none of the Hindi channels available on Tata Sky deemed it fit to prioritise this non-controversy in Kerala House.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not another rant about India’s deracinated chattering classes whose perception of what is news is distinctly lopsided. The minister who remarked in private that there is news and there is channel – created news may have a point but, for the moment, it is sufficient to attribute this divergence to the fact that each one of us inhabits our own little Indias that are cocooned from other Indias.

There are those who believe that Modi’s modernising spiel is humbug and that his single-minded agenda is the transformation of India into a Hindu autocracy. There is nothing but faith to back up this assertion. But there is empirical evidence to suggest that the single-minded dedication to repairing the Indian economy has started to pay off.

The importance of this beef chatter or the never-ending award wapasi incidents is that it makes India appear like a land of permanent confrontation. That there are an unending series of ‘incidents’ in India is not in any doubt. You just have to surf the social media to realise the large numbers of very different grievances that agitate some people. In the past week, for example, some people have been worked up over the West Bengal government’s forcible postponement of the Durga Puja immersions because the original schedule clashed with Muharram; there have been questions raised over the traffic bedlam in Delhi centred on the Africa Summit; and colourful theories have been proffered on the real reasons behind the arrest or ‘surrender’ of gangster Chotta Rajan in Bali. And these examples merely skim the surface.

At the same time, there have been other developments that don’t even make it to the channel-driven news. A World Bank report released last Wednesday showed a marked improvement in India’s ‘ease of doing business’ rankings. In banking circles there are whispers of a government initiative to float a number of Rupee-denomination bonds in the international market — a sign of the restored faith in the Indian currency. And the second quarter results of big corporates show encouraging trends — possibly a reflection of the fact that the government’s expedient Keynesianism may be yielding some results.

In short, there are two worlds. There is a picture of an India that is undergoing slow but definite transformation for the better, an India whose economy is beginning to perform after a significant period of downturn, and an India that has begun to reach outwards—to Africa and to the rest of the world—on the claims of economic competitiveness. The process has just about begun and I was happy that Finance Minister Arun Jaitley used the encouraging World Bank ratings to stress that there are still large areas for improvement.

Then there is another India of the news channels which is marked by sectarian strife, unhappy artistes and despondent and even allegedly persecuted intellectuals who are, however, determined to fight back. Resistance and protest, we have been told, by award-winning writers, learned sociologists and erudite filmmakers (who feel that the Idea of Modi assaults the aesthetics of India) is part of their dharma. With the English media backing them enthusiastically, the Modi sceptics have even begun to shape business perceptions. The risk analysts have now routinely started to inject the fear of sectarian strife in India into their reports. Western diplomats, on their part, are adding to the concern with their own despatches culled from the English media. If unchecked, this could have a bearing on how India is perceived in the world of commerce and business.

There are those who believe that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s modernising spiel is humbug and that his single-minded agenda is the transformation of India into a Hindu autocracy. There is nothing but faith to back up this assertion. But there is empirical evidence to suggest that the single-minded dedication to repairing the Indian economy has started to pay off. In such a situation, why should Modi — unless he is completely nuts — have an interest in triggering a bout of inter-religious conflict?

I can find no credible answer. However, I can think of many reasons why some people —particularly those who believe that the May 2014 verdict should be reversed as soon as possible —would want India to be projected as a timeless area of darkness.

There is a perception war that is underway in India. So far only one side has fired all the volleys. It is time for an intelligent and focussed response.

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