I “Challenge” My Critic To Criticise Me; Welcome To Post-Truth India
Something strange, really strange, happened last Saturday. Our Indian Administrative Service policymakers, usually imprisoned in dusty, yellowing, red-taped files, broke away into the aggressive, either-I-will-or-you-will-screw-me arena of WWE showmanship. The man whose job is to secure our telecom and broadcast infrastructure suddenly wanted to play ‘cowboy cowboy’ in a Wild West bar duel. He unsheathed his Twitter handle (the 21st century equivalent of the hip-strapped leather holster), and let fly –‘here is my Aadhaar (biometric ID) number, you b---dy hackers (synonym of the ‘n’ word in 19th century America); I challenge you to harm me now’.
No Humility Or Grace In Defeat
Much to the IAS fraternity’s chagrin, the response and annihilation were brutal. The protagonist’s daughter’s email ID, his own demat/bank accounts, airline frequent flyer number, subscription accounts, income tax unique number and demographic details – everything was hacked and manipulated (in a dangerous breach, an unsolicited one rupee was deposited in his savings account) in a matter of hours. But did he accept defeat with humility and grace? Did he say ‘oh great, thank you for showing us the path to a million correctives which we shall now develop to ensure that our security features are enhanced’?
No sir. The response was ‘typically IAS’. They invented a new challenge to somehow win the argument: ‘but the biometric database has not been breached’.
Hey, the dare was ‘do me harm’, not ‘breach the fort’. But now that “harm” had been visibly and demonstrably inflicted, the dare was changed to ‘try and breach the fort’!
Criticism, Like Pain, Can Heal
I felt very queasy about this fiasco. Mahatma Gandhi once said that “no school of thought can claim a monopoly of right judgement. We are all liable to err and are often obliged to revise our judgement”. His arch-rival, Winston Churchill, concurred: “criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. If it is heeded in time, danger may be averted; if it is suppressed, fatal distemper may develop”.
There has to be something “fatal” in our current political environment if a God-fearing 63-year-old bureaucrat with impeccable credentials – a mathematics major from IIT Kanpur and Masters in Computer Science from the University of California – suddenly begins to act like a renegade teenager on Tinder.
In 1986, he had written a pioneering DBASE search program to nab 22 firearm thieves in 30 days. But now he had committed a criminal act himself - remember, revealing your Aadhaar number is an offence punishable by three years in jail – why?
A Critic Today Is Intimidated, Treated Like An Enemy
Then a revelation struck me in a flash. A critic today is treated like an enemy. He is an adversary who needs to be eliminated. You do not debate with him on merits. You do not want to convince him on substance. You have no patience for Gandhi’s exhortation that “we owe it to ourselves as to others to try to understand the opponent’s view-point and, if we cannot accept it, respect it as fully as we expect him to respect ours”.
Instead, today’s discourse is defined by intimidation:
- “Congress kay neta kaan kholkar sun le, seemaon ko paar na kare, dhyan rakhhe yeh Modi hai, kahin lene ke dene na pad jaye” (Congress leaders, beware; if you cross your limits, then remember, I am Modi, I shall retaliate with disproportionate force) – this statement by Prime Minister Modi at an election rally in Hubballi on May 6, 2018, is perhaps the closest a democratic leader can ever come to advocating violence on his opponents.
- “I want to tell Kashmiri youth that azadi (independence) is not possible. But if you want to fight us, then we will fight you with all our force. Kashmiris have to understand that the security forces haven’t been so brutal – look at Syria and Pakistan. They use tanks and air power in similar situations” – this chilling threat (invoking images of mass genocide) was uttered by Indian Army Chief Bipin Rawat in an interview just 4 days after the Prime Minister, above.
- Even harmless popular fiction is not spared. Fanney Khan, a simple film about a cab driver and his dreams, featured a song “merey achhe din kab aayengey” (when will my good days come). It was a sarcastic take-off on Prime Minister Modi’s 2014 electoral slogan of delivering “achhe din” (good days) for all Indians. Within 10 days, the film-makers were forced to change the song to “merey achche din ab aaye re” (my good days have come!).
- Why, just today, three journalists of ABP News have been forced to quit. Their folly? Criticism of government propaganda.
I’ve Faced Similar Wrath…
On November 8, 2016, when Prime Minister Modi stunned the world by outlawing 86 percent of India’s currency within four hours, people were unsure about the impact of his ‘demonetisation’. A few applauded, buying into the ‘cleansing and windfall gains’ theory put out by the government – i.e., that it would nullify the illegal cash and hand the government an extraordinary dividend of Rs 4 lakh crore (incredibly, this was a legal submission by the government in the Supreme Court!), about three percent of GDP, to lavish on India’s poor. But I had minced no words in debunking these claims. Here are snatches of what I had written in three stinging columns within three weeks of ‘demonetisation’:
“We pick up the story from where Rambhai is sweating, palpitating and cursing at 8:45 pm on Nov 8, after Prime Minister Modi has concluded his sensational address. Rambhai is one among a million other minds which are dizzyingly trying to figure out a way to save the Rs 4 lakh crore that are lying in more than a million basements, mattresses, suitcases, lockers, and even in household utensils. Do you think they will just roll over and die, quietly giving up their lifelong ‘earnings’ to a ‘rapacious taxman’? No sir, they won’t. They will try every jugaad, any manoeuver - good, bad, ugly, clever, criminal - to salvage their cash… Here’s where the story gets really ironical. This Rs 1 lakh crore will be the good old ‘speed money’ paid to complicit bank branch managers, postmasters, touts, couriers, sundry middlemen and body contractors. Welcome to Swachh New Bharat (Clean New India)…
The Official Spin: Prime Minister Modi has created ‘Ram Rajya’ (Utopia) for India’s poor… He will now use this money to build more schools, rural roads, hospitals and give what-not to India’s poor.
The Reality: This is very bad news… if ‘demonetised’ cash continues to gush in at this rate – 40 percent of the total hoard in just 10 days – the whole manoeuver would become a colossal flop. Why? Because scamsters would have managed to convert all their black money into white, routing the government at its own game!
So the full amount of Rs 15 lakh crore will come back. Period. Q.E.D.”
I don’t want to boast, but two years later, it’s clear that I was spot on. Prime Minister Modi has often said that “to criticise, one has to research and find proper facts. Sadly, it does not happen now. What happens instead are allegations”.
Then, by your own yardstick, sir, I should have been feted, right? I had used “research and proper facts”, hadn’t I? Yet I was relentlessly trolled, abused, and never forgiven.
So Dear Prime Minister, unfortunately, and sadly, intelligent (and eventually vindicated) criticism continues to be called “allegations” in today’s post-truth India. It’s this very culture of enmity that also encourages a God-fearing, sober bureaucrat to “challenge” and damn his critics, instead of embracing and learning from them.
Raghav Bahl is the co-founder and chairman of Quintillion Media, including BloombergQuint. He is the author of two books, viz ‘Superpower?: The Amazing Race Between China’s Hare and India’s Tortoise’, and ‘Super Economies: America, India, China & The Future Of The World’.