The curious case of the prime minister who is never wrong
Opinion

The curious case of the prime minister who is never wrong

Why is it that whatever comes from Narendra Modi is regarded as the truth by a large section of Indians, no matter how inconsistent with fact or logic it is?

By Raj Shekhar Sen

Published on :

As Sudhir Chaudhary, Arnab Goswami, and their poundshop imitators on TV proclaim that by banning 59 Chinese mobile apps, prime minister Narendra Modi has carried out a “digital air strike”, one can’t help but marvel at their propensity to keep repeating what George Orwell would have called Newspeak without losing credibility with their audiences. How do they manage this?

Why is it that whatever comes from the Modi government, and especially the prime minister, is regarded as the truth by a vast section of Indians, no matter how inconsistent with fact or logic it is? Indeed, take a tour of WhatsApp groups or Twitter feeds discussing the Chinese incursion, the coronavirus pandemic or Donald Trump’s ban on new H1B visas to the United States, and you find yourself in a world where every opinion can be a fact if said by the right person.

To make sense of this, we need to start at the beginning, that is, by understanding the nature of what is true and how something seems true to someone.

What’s true?

We realise the truth either through our own senses (it’s raining and we see it) or through an arbiter of truth that we trust (an astrophysicist tells us how the earth revolves around the sun). So, when it concerns the truth we can’t ascertain by ourselves, we need a neutral arbiter, usually a specialist, to validate it for us.

When it comes to our political reality, the arbiter of truth has long been the media. Most of us have accepted journalists as specialists who can tell us what is true and what isn’t. This tendency is strong in India. While trust in the media has shrunk globally, it has stayed the same and even increased slightly in this country.

And how fair of an arbiter of truth is the trusted Indian media?

Aaj Tak is the most watched TV news channel in the country, followed by ABP News, Zee News, India TV, and Republic Bharat. The Hindi daily Dainik Jagran is the most read newspaper. A cursory look at these news outlets shows that when they aren’t peddling falsehoods, they amplify certain truths more than others. Partly, this is because of the nature of today’s media. As Jon Stewart said, “Twenty four-hour news networks are built for one thing, and that is 9/11. There are very few events that would justify being covered 24 hours a day, seven days a week. So, in the absence of urgency, they have to create it. You create urgency through conflict.”

And Modi embodies conflict. It isn’t surprising then that no one has benefited as much from the Indian media’s disregard for its role as the arbiter of truth and the popularity of social media as the prime minister. When I say Modi enjoys huge support on social media, I say it fully recognising that it is populated by common citizens like us and that his online popularity signifies his mass appeal in general.

But having the majority by your side does not necessarily mean you have the truth by your side as well. So, in the rising tides of ratings-driven news media, retweet-driven social media, and election-driven politician – all demanding validation because they have the numbers on their side – the truth becomes the first casualty.

Post truth

In a world bereft of truth, every word becomes a genius policy, every turn of phrase a masterstroke. Here, stunning claims are made and forgotten in a moment (GPS chips in currency notes; destruction of black money). It’s a world where parroting even objective falsehoods does not dent one’s credibility (Sudhir Chaudhary and Shweta Singh are still celebrated; the prime minister is still, well, the prime minister).

Similarly, the BJP, which professes to be the party of national security, lets a hostile nation encroach on India's territory without much resistance and it’s still perceived as the party of national security.

Since Modi’s election in 2014, and more so after he demonetised the bulk of India’s currency almost overnight in 2016, it has been almost fantastical to see his supporters hold and propagate with immense conviction views that are demonstrably false. A large population of the country, it seems, is living a reality that’s not shared beyond them. For example, the international media did not corroborate the Indian government’s account of the Balakot air strikes, only to be painted as Islamists by Modi supporters on social media and in the legacy media.

It’s a mentality that Hannah Arendt explores in The Origins of Totalitarianism. “In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true,” she writes. “Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow…one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.”

Manufacturing consent

The “digital air strike” in response to the Chinese incursion into the Galwan Valley, Ladakh, is even more interesting because for the longest time the government maintained that there was no incursion. In fact, even after Indian soldiers were killed, Modi went on national television and claimed that there had been no incursion at all. This was duly used by the Chinese media. Still, the government’s only reaction has been to ban 59 Chinese apps available to Indian users. If Modi’s supporters were to honestly assess this move, they would have to agree that, at the foreign policy level, it is disproportionately small, if that. Instead, they are lauding it, in the legacy media, on social media, and on the ground.

To make sense of why this is so, we need to know that there are two ways of framing an argument – the winding diatribe and the thought-terminating cliché. A winding diatribe is when someone talks at length, sounds smart, and seems to know what they are talking about without making sense. Any speech by Modi can be an example of a winding diatribe, but let’s analyse the one in which he called for lighting lamps to convey appreciation for “corona warriors”. “At that time, if you have turned off all the lights of your homes and each one of us in all directions has lit a diya,” he declared, “we will experience the superpower of light, clearly illuminating the common purpose we are all fighting for.”

This is a string of words spoken in a grammatically acceptable fashion and yet it doesn’t really make any sense. Other experts in this mode of communication include “spiritual gurus” such as Jaggi Vasudev, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Deepak Chopra.

A thought-terminating cliché is something that may not be true but feels true and permits you to not think about it any further. An example is the now legendary “our soldiers are dying on the border” remark. You question the value of a decision taken by the prime minister – demonetisation, say – and you are asked, “Our soldiers are dying guarding our borders and you can’t make even this relatively small sacrifice?” “Our soldiers are dying” isn’t meant to be a good argument, it’s meant to communicate, “I have said something so axiomatic that the argument need not continue.” That’s a thought-terminating cliche.

Both these ways of framing an argument – winding diatribe and thought-terminating cliche – rely on what’s known as Peripheral Route Processing. It means that instead of the content of what is said how it is said gives validity to the idea that’s being sold. For example, demonetisation as policy could invite questions, but when it comes from the setting of the PM addressing the country, secondary factors – intimidating nature of the office, the fact that it's said in an assured way – give the idea greater validity. This is why a celebrity endorsing a brand makes it more valuable to the consumer.

Another form of Peripheral Route Processing is argumentum ab auctoritate, or argument from authority. We see this frequently on Indian TV. For instance, Kapil Dev, an authority on cricket, or Raveena Tandon, a debatable authority on acting, is brought on to speak about the coronavirus pandemic. Or, a TV talking head declares that India will defeat China in war because of Beijing’s One Child Policy, without losing any credibility.

This then becomes a self-enforcing cycle where instead of arguing about the validity of a diatribe or thought-terminating cliché, people believe in it. Repetition only makes it seem truer. So, if you are selling people on something that’s fundamentally irrational, you rely heavily on peripheral route processing.

Now as soon as a modicum of agreement about the chain of events or information you’re peddling is reached among the believers, the sheer number of those who agree with you and the structural power they have over the news media and other public platforms means any disagreement can be out-screamed.

Is this a cult?

In this social system, where the same truth comes to you from different sources – news media, social media, family WhatsApp groups – acceptance provides social currency and disagreement is regarded as treason. Here, the leader is constantly valorised as a messiah and whoever disagrees is seen as disagreeing not with the leader or the government, but the idea of patriotism, nationhood, goodness, and what is right.

This is why Sudhir and Arnab will keep saying what they are saying and why Modi will keep winning unless something completely unforeseen happens.

A large section of the Indian population has begun to show the tendencies of a fascist cult. Let’s compare the state of today’s India with the signs usually observed in a cult.

In his essay explaining fascism, Umberto Eco argues that it is not possible to organise these traits into a coherent system but “it is enough that one of them be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it”:

  • The Cult of Tradition. It combines cultural syncretism with a rejection of modernism.

  • The Cult of Action for Action's Sake. It dictates that action is of value in itself and should be taken without intellectual reflection. This is connected to anti-intellectualism and irrationalism, and often manifests in attacks on modern culture and science.

  • Disagreement is Treason. Fascism devalues intellectual discourse and critical reasoning as barriers to action.

  • Fear of Difference, which fascism seeks to exploit and exacerbate, often in the form of racism or appeals against foreigners and immigrants.

  • Appeal to a Frustrated Middle Class, which fears economic pressure from the demands and aspirations of lower social groups.

  • Obsession with a Plot and the Hyping Up of an Enemy Threat. This often involves an appeal to xenophobia such as the German elite's fear of the 1930s Jewish populace's prosperity, for example. The targeted minority is demonised by identifying it as an internal security threat.

  • Pacifism is Trafficking with the Enemy Because Life is Permanent Warfare". There must always be an enemy to fight. Both Germany under Adolf Hitler and Italy under Benito Mussolini worked first to organise and clean up their respective countries, and then build the war machines that they intended to and did use, despite Germany being prohibited by the Versailles treaty from building a military force. This principle leads to a fundamental contradiction within fascism: the incompatibility of ultimate triumph with perpetual war.

  • Contempt for the Weak. Although a fascist society is elitist, everybody in the society is educated to become a hero. For example, the 1930s Germans, especially Hitler, labelled the Jews as well as the physically and mentally disabled Germans as weak. Because they were "weak", they had to be exterminated.

  • Newspeak. Employing and promoting an impoverished vocabulary to limit critical reasoning and distorting the meaning of words like “secularism”.

  • Spread of Propaganda, Lies, Untruths. Nonochip in currency notes, claims about the wonders of demonetisation or about the Chinese incursion, say.

In such a society, facts and figures don’t mean much when the fundamental truth around them can be disputed. In India, this system was created when religion came to be associated with the party, then religion with the nation, ergo the party with the nation, national security, and national integrity. Truth, thus, was distorted to suit the party. Truth was also distorted, by changing history books, for one, to soothe the sentiments of the majority. Now, the people with social capital – upper caste Hindus to be specific – identify with the party emotionally. The readership of pliant newspapers and the ratings of toxic news channels speak to this.

In essence, the party has taken control of the emotional levers of the people. There is not a rational argument or fact that can beat emotion. Emotional choices need emotional responses to change minds.

Until we can fashion such emotional responses, we are condemned to having our thoughts drowned out in the cacophony of Newspeak.

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