Public discourse in a large and diverse country in India invariably tends to be episodic. What grabs the headlines for a day or even a week often sinks without trace subsequently, with historians guaranteed to not even accord it a footnote. To be fair, the print media is relatively a minor offender. But the way TV news has evolved over the past two decades, has made the phenomenon more widespread and given it a markedly frivolous character. An exercise involving the correlation of the subjects that warrant shrill outrage and shrieking in the evening prime time shows with what people remember a month or 60 days would reveal a marked mismatch. What seemingly agitates the TV anchors and their performing guests today is not even remembered a week later. The media shifts from outrage to outrage, with no opportunity to even pause for breath.
The proliferation of social media has worsened matters. There is, of course, a godsend opportunity to pump up every minor grievance into an international crisis. This occasionally works and at other times fall flat. Secondly, there are individual attempts at grandstanding — mainly with a show of gratuitous insolence, often verging on abuse. A variation of this is the mushrooming of trolls — people who make it their business to respond to every remark (both innocuous and serious). The responses range from the catty (often witty) to the downright offensive.
In normal circumstances, the recipient can choose to ignore trolls, mute their responses and, in extreme cases, both block and report the sender. If there is a persistently menacing tone to the postings of trolls, the recipient is also at liberty to make a police report. Unfortunately, matters don’t always end here.
One of the unintended consequences of the growth of social media is the creation of alternative routes to fame. This is the route preferred by the non-serious politicians. However, it has become the first choice of mid-ranking professionals in search of a fast track to celebrity status. In the past few months in India, we have observed — with a mixture of dismay and amusement — the sustained bid by individuals to capitalise on the murkiness of social media.
The path to fame is now well charted. Begin with a series of provocative posts on a popular platform. Predictably, these will elicit sharp responses. Some of them will be in parliamentary language and others not. Indeed, there will always be a few loonies, some with an insufficient vocabulary, who believe that challenging an idea is best done with threats and personal abuse. Since the contested posts are also sharply political and partisan, it is also inevitable that the rebukes will be from one end of the ideological spectrum. Next, select a handful of the most offensive retorts, publicise them and raise a hue and cry about organised intimidation and threats to free speech. If necessary, link the offending posts with the political dispensation and insist that there is now an organised bid to stifle to dissent.
After that, the road to becoming a celebrity is more or less assured. Others from the same political persuasion will be encouraged to publicise this assault on free speech and political liberty. There will be posts written on the subject, highlighting the astonishing bravery of a vulnerable dissident who dared to stand up to the state. The matter will soon become international because of two reasons. First, there are enough Overseas Indians who are anxious to play a role in desi politics but, prior to the creation of the social media, lacked the platforms to be able to do so. In a bid to create an aura of themselves as members of a nation suffering from political oppression — they acquire the status of almost-Palestinians — they latch on to some individual ‘victims’ of India’s state oppression under the ‘fascist’ Narendra Modi government. Soon, an article highlighting the grim tragedy of a lonely and vulnerable dissident appears in mainstream papers such as the New York Times — its India pages now handled by paid-up members of the global hate-Modi fraternity — and the Guardian — always the home to fringe causes. Finally, and this is the climax, some international do-gooder body, always willing to believe the worst of every Third World country and anxious to put an interloper called India down — recognises the ‘bravery’ of the dissident and honours him/her with an award.
This road to fame is now becoming well-trodden. Increasingly, we are witnessing shrill claims of a sinister Indian establishment doing its utmost to silence anyone who is a critic — real or potential. There is talk of a deep state — a’la a neighbouring country — firmly putting every dissident, particularly those from the media, in their place and warning them to observe silence till the Modi victory in 2019 is assured.
So widespread is all the talk of blacklists and witch-hunts of the enlightened that victimhood has become a low hanging fruit. And all because the Modi government, far from hounding the media, has chosen to ignore it and deprive it of lollipops that used to be generously distributed by the old dynastic order. These are indeed interesting times.
Swapan Dasgupta is a senior journalist and Member of Parliament, being a presidential nominee to the Rajya Sabha.