Such a volatile public mood in the run-up to the impending general election suggests nightmarish scenarios. An anxious polity is a fair game for demagogues who can play on its uncertainties, biases and prejudices to capture political power.
Rumours have always come in handy for canny political forces. They are efficient instruments to channel an anarchic public mood to further their political agendas. They also have the added advantage of being nearly untraceable.
Social networking platforms are available on every other mobile, offering anonymity to agent provocateurs like never before. Research in the United States shows that a false story or a “fake news” report took roughly 10 hours to reach 1,500 Twitter users compared to the 60 hours for a factual story. The influence of a rumour is directly linked to how far and quickly it spreads.
Yet, one must not confuse the medium for the message. Under criticism, the government has asked social media platforms to monitor their content and states have been directed to check mob lynching. But social media platforms are only instruments for spreading messages. The problem is the message itself.
When the political party in power at the Centre encourages the use of social media to spread fractious ideas, what can state governments do? Days after his Cabinet colleague Sushma Swaraj was viciously trolled on social media, Prime Minister Narendra Modi praised it fulsomely, crediting it with “democratising” public discourse and described it as “endearing”. There was not one word of caution about its misuse. Everyone is aware of the paid trolls that target people critical of the Prime Minister or his party. They exist because they have their political uses. Under these circumstances, one has to be very very afraid of the possible political consequences of rumours in an election year.
No one knows for sure who begins the rumours which start communal riots -- rumours about conspiracies of an impending attack by one religious community on the other, or the desecration of holy books and icons, mosques, churches and temples and so on. However, everybody has a fair idea of who benefits in a surcharged communal atmosphere and the aftermath of violence.
No one knows who started the ‘love jihad’ rumours or the rumour of sexual harassment that triggered the deadly Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013. However, everyone knows that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) benefited electorally from the riots and that some of the riot-accused became members of Parliament and even ministers.
No one knows for sure who was behind the rumour that the unfortunate Akhlaq’s family had slaughtered a cow in Dadri, but everyone knows that the local BJP MP and Union minister, Mahesh Sharma, turned up to pay homage to one of the murder accused who died in jail. Press photos showed the murder accused’s body wrapped in the national flag as the minister stood before it in reverence.
Similarly, no one knows who started the rumour that Alimuddin Ansari, a coal trader in Jharkhand, was transporting beef, resulting in his lynching by a mob of cow vigilantes. However, everyone has seen the video footage of Union Minister Jayant Sinha garlanding the eight accused convicted of the murder when they secured bail. Politicians will not pay homage to murderers or honour them unless they benefited from their action or supported it.
This has been witnessed in riots across the country whether they are in Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh or Maharashtra. Asghar Ali Engineer’s studies provide ample evidence of this as do reports of various commissions of inquiries. No one knows who triggers the rumours leading to communal violence but the Hindu right-wing moves in to reap the benefits electorally.
Since the Narendra Modi government came into power in 2014, India has witnessed much more starkly than ever before how rumours can be used to channelise public anxiety and anger against imaginary threats and enemies -- beef eaters, leather workers, cattle traders, Christian missionaries, kurta-pyjama and skull-cap wearing students of madrasahs and ‘anti-nationals’ or ‘Urban Naxalites’ those who question state policy.
What the child-lifter and braid-cutting rumours indicate is that there is a social eagerness to believe rumours because of high levels of anxiety prevailing in contemporary Indian society. The sources of such anxiety are many -- youngsters are anxious about jobs which are non-existent; farmers are caught in a cycle of debt; unorganised workers who lost their jobs during demonetisation are still in a state of shock and unemployment; the minorities feel that they are being relegated as second-class citizens and even the majority which should have been confident in its sheer number, the Hindus, feels that it is threatened by a demographic transition which could reduce them to a minority.
The ‘Pathalgadi’ (literally, inscribed in stone) movement shows that tribals whose land and forests are being taken over by industry feel so helpless that they think that stone inscriptions claiming sovereignty will keep them safe. Others who are equally naïve support the Maoists who take up guns on their behalf. These are all signs of an anxious and helpless population. The uncertainty in their lives is not becoming less with time. In fact, their social, economic, political and even religious insecurities have tended to increase.
Politicians in democratic societies pry on these insecurities. They can be been used intentionally during election campaigns to influence voters. When much is at stake politically, rumours to exacerbate the voters’ insecurities can become a means to tangible electoral gains.
Rumours have become a weapon in the armoury of powerful political parties in India because while they can exacerbate social anxieties, they also offer easy electoral ‘solutions’. The intentional use of rumours helps political parties to extend their influence beyond the converted, by creating a large penumbra of the susceptible around their core support base. These are the ambivalent voters, anxious and uncertain, and waiting to be herded.
The deliberate use of rumours allows those seeking public office to follow a dual strategy. An overt strategy that allows them to occupy the high moral ground promising development, employment, higher incomes, honesty and accountability in governance, and selfless public service above individual gain – ‘achche din’ in short. However, the use of rumours also allows for a covert political strategy -- one of attacking rivals by sullying their reputation or consolidating and expanding their voter base by generating fear and hatred among communities.
While one allows them to pose as change agents – knights on white chargers, as it were, the other permits them to make allegations that would not stand legal scrutiny but damage the reputation of their challengers and rivals by creating doubts in the public mind about their suitability for public office. The covert political strategy using rumours can also be used to vitiate the political atmosphere without taking responsibility but enjoying the fallout. This is most evident in those rumours that divide a wedge between communities – e. g. between Hindus and Muslims and between natives and outsiders. A criminal act or a perceived misdemeanour by an individual is projected as aggression by an entire community or a group to justify retaliation.
The unquestioned master of the dark art of perception management has been the Hindu right-wing in India. Their prime target has been secularism and liberalism. They see the Congress and the Nehru-Gandhi family as the prime culprits for promoting such values and therefore their private and public lives are routinely painted black and horrendous allegations levied against them. They also use rumours to target the minorities, especially Muslims. Social media networks have allowed them as never before to weaponise ordinary folk into deadly mobs willing to do what may be individually unthinkable.
These mobs have become weapons of social destruction --identifying a ‘public enemy’ and prompting people to cast aside logic, reason, and compassion in favour of violence; to deliver retribution and justice. Vigilante delivery of summary justice suits the masters of the rumours. They can manage and harvest public anger for political purposes while continuing to play innocent. What’s more, they can even deliver pious sermons about why the public should not take the law into their own hands while reaping the political benefits of mob action.
The writer is a journalist based in Delhi.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal. They do not reflect the view/s of Business Standard.