Clumsy Use of Propaganda Could Backfire on PM Modi

Excessive propaganda could backfire and give its hapless victim the “halo of the political underdog”.

4 min read

All politicians, without exception, use propaganda and punishment as a double-edged knife to wound their opponents. So, it’s not a question of “when” or “if”, but “how” these instruments are used. I reckon Adolf Hitler, who used both levers viciously, from vengeful murders to Goebbelsian untruths, is at an extreme end of the spectrum. No wonder he met a vicious end. At the opposite end are leaders like Nelson Mandela, who were calm, subtle, and moderate in deploying propaganda/punishment. Small wonder that Mandela enjoys near-immortality.

Now politics mimics physics, with every action instigating an equal and opposite reaction.

If a politician pummels too hard, he runs the risk of creating an “underdog’s halo” around his opponent, which, ironically, often revives a fading politician’s fortunes.

Still not fully convinced, are you? Here are four examples from today’s politics (not some artifact of distant history): Nawaz Sharif’s repeated returns to power in Pakistan, anybody? What about Jeremy Corbyn’s miraculous lift in last year’s UK polls? Or, Mahathir’s and Anwar Ibrahim’s upset win in Malaysia? And, Lula’s astonishing bounce in Brazil?

But why peep over our borders when perhaps the most stunning resurrection of a persecuted politician happened on our soil.

Remember how Indira Gandhi was in political oblivion after her resounding post-Emergency defeat in 1977?

But then the Janata government committed a cardinal political sin. Within two months of being in office, it pulled out Justice JC Shah, a former Chief Justice of India, from retirement to inquire into the “excesses committed during the Emergency”. Indira, along with her son Sanjay Gandhi and political aide Pranab Mukherjee, disputed the legality of the Commission and refused to take oath. Justice Shah lost his cool and reprimanded her. A bumbling government arrested Indira amidst screaming newspaper headlines. She was jailed, but the flimsy charges were dismissed in court; her “V moment” arrived as she was pronounced “not guilty”.

She rode an elephant to Belchi, an obscure village in Bihar where 11 Dalits had been shot and burnt alive. Then she took her most audacious plunge, standing for a by-election from Chikmagalur, Karnataka, coining the mesmerising “ek sherni sau langur; Chikmagalur bhai Chikmagalur” (one lioness versus hundreds of monkeys, this is the battle of Chikmagalur).  She won, but the government used its brute majority to expel her from Parliament. Her popularity soared, leading to a landslide victory in the 1980 General Elections, winning 353 seats out of 542 in Lok Sabha.

The world’s biggest political comeback, ever, had just occurred!

‘Make Rahul Gandhi the Fall-Guy!’

Now, under Prime Minister Modi, while there has been no Shah Commission-like “mass public trial”, his government could be making the error of using excessive prime time propaganda against its principal political opponent, Rahul Gandhi, trying to make him the fall-guy for everything! Here are a few egregious examples:

  • India was convulsed by the collapse of the PDP-BJP government in the highly vulnerable and combustible state of J&K. And over 500 miles away, in the capital, a chief minister had put the Lieutenant Governor under siege. But what was on prime time news: “Did Rahul Gandhi and ally use Rohith Vemula as a prop?” This diatribe was “inspired” by Vemula’s mother talking about the promised assistance of Rs 15 lakh from IUML. She had not named Rahul Gandhi at all. Yet, hours of prime time were used to make Rahul Gandhi the fall-guy!
  • On the day that Nirav Modi was tracked down in UK, and CBI finally reached out to Interpol, the propaganda show was: “Was Rahul’s visit to Vajpayee a political stunt?”
  • Now see what happened on the day of big political drama in Karnataka when the Governor surreptitiously tried to instal a minority BJP government, while the Congress knocked at the Supreme Court in a midnight hearing. Huge negligence was unearthed in the tragic flyover collapse in Varanasi which killed several people. But what was the prime time propaganda show? Rahul Gandhi draws Pak analogy to Judiciary. All Rahul had said was: “Four judges of SC come out in public and seek support. They are under pressure, they are being forced… this happens under dictatorships, this happens in Pakistan”.  Once again, real news be damned, Rahul had to be made the fall-guy!
  • And look what happened on the day that the Congress nearly created an upset in Gujarat. Responsible news outfits dug into the poll data to come up with fascinating electoral insights. 49 Gujarat seats had changed hands, 41 of which were in rural areas. But prime time TV was focused on: “Rahul Gandhi went to watch Star Wars at a cinema hall in Delhi.”

I can go on and on; there are a million such examples, dozens of them every day, in which prime time TV shows don’t focus on the big news of the day, but try to invent something utterly silly to make Rahul Gandhi the fall-guy. What they ignore is that such an excessive propaganda misadventure could backfire, as it ends up giving the “halo of the political underdog” to its hapless victim.

Beware the lessons of political history.

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