It is essential for politicians to be very persuasive in order to capture the imagination of the people. Trolls are the most facile but very fracturing mode of persuasion in the Internet era. Troll simply means to “make a deliberately offensive or provocative online post with the aim of upsetting someone or eliciting an angry response from them” (Oxford Living Dictionary).
When Passport Officers Preach
The latest victim of acerbic trolls in India is none other than its External Affairs minister Ms. Sushma Swaraj. The controversy started when an interfaith couple tweeted about their humiliating experience at a Passport Seva Kendra in Lucknow where the official named Vikas Mishra rejected their application for Passport and asked the husband to convert to Hinduism. The minister promptly intervened and passport was issued to the couple on the next day.
Mr. Mishra, who instantly was transferred to another office, claimed that he refused to issue passport because of the mismatch in woman’s name. Subsequently some people launched a hashtag in social media supporting Mishra and started to target Swaraj for appeasement politics. The vitriolic trolls harassed the minister even on personal level saying she has an ‘Islamic kidney’ and ‘is almost dead.’ They purported that she is ‘sickular’, and favours Muslims while some demanded her removal from the Cabinet.
Trolls – The Tool Of The Sham
Ever since Internet became popular the political discourse in India has been increasingly filthy and communal. Interestingly, it seems that the Digital India project has aided the political fanatics and sycophants more than the ordinary folk. The trolls are no more simply innocent banters whose counterpart is cartoons and caricatures that elicit decent critique. Contrarily, trolls are created by the ideologues and political devotees with careful planning and creativity.
The reason why none of Modi’s cabinet stood up for Swaraj whilst the minister was trolled by her own party people for apparently doing an innocuous act is not so mysterious given the fact that Swaraj had always lived up to the stature of a national leader. The band of Modi finds her a political threat within the party while Modi is losing his feet at the threshold of impending general elections. As some sections of the Sangh Parivar think it would be difficult for the BJP to come back to power with the fading personality of Modi, it is imperative for the bhakts to stop other figures emerging as a challenge to his unquestionable leadership.
The Rhetoric and the Real
In Rhetoric Aristotle, the great Greek philosopher, maintains that persuasion may be achieved by the use of argument (logos), by appealing to the audience’s emotions (pathos), or by displaying a favourable persona (ethos). One could see an apparent incongruity between the Aristotelian definition of persuasion and Modi’s political performance in real life.
Modi has proved that he cannot be persuasive with his minimal skills of argument (logos). In spite of his verbosity and oratorical skills we have seen Modi running away from Karan Thapar’s live TV interview (2007) not soon after asking for a glass of water. Modi, the Chief Minister of Gujarat, left the studio when Thapar started discussing Godhra riots. After becoming the Prime Minister there had been many instances of him hesitating to address the parliament. He hardly called any press conference and faced media except for a couple of interviews specially tailored for him by his favourite TV anchors. Though he famously hosts the monologue radio programme named Mann Ki Baat, Indians have seldom known him having conversations with connoisseurs in different fields. Indeed he evicted many experts who were heading high profile portfolios in the country.
Neither would Modi attract the Indian masses with his persona (ethos) at present, as he holds a depressing progress card of his 4 years’ performance. People are very much used to his melodramatic performances of pretentious tears in the parliament or at Facebook’s San Jose SAP Centre. Though he sobbed at a function in Goa a few weeks after demonetisation drive saying that he feels ‘the pain of the common man affected by demonetisation’ and begged to bear with the ‘temporary hardships for another 50 days’, Modi proved otherwise. Today people know who are the best beneficiaries of demonetisation and GST. Journalists who were singing praises of Modi at the first lap of his race now openly criticise him for not keeping his promises. Personality cannot be built by wearing monogrammed suit or Montblanc pen in the pocket; it is built primarily by having strong character and integrity, and secondly by being true to one’s words.
Playing the Communal Card
Now, the only remaining way to influence people is to appease the audience’s emotions (pathos) which Modi and his bhakts are very good at. A proven method in India for that is arousing the religious sentiments of the majority Hindus for which they forge narratives of victimhood. These stories spread the idea that Hindus and their culture are attacked by other religious minorities and create a fear psychosis which would presumably consolidate the Hindu vote bank. Polarisation and nationalistic rhetoric had been proved to be flawless tactics along with lynching people on street with religious motives.
In Swaraj’s case, the trolls used their maximum hate and creativity. One image meme depicted Sushma as St. Mary whose heart replicated the Pakistani flag. The tweets named her as “Visa Mata” or “Passport Mata” alluding to the Virgin Mary venerated by Christians all over India as well as Swaraj’s intervention to grand medical visas for Pakistanis. The intention of the creators is to incite the sentiments of maximum number of people across various sections. The desecrating troll is triple edged as it intends first to annoy Swaraj and her fans, then the larger community of both Christians and Muslims. The best part is that neither Swaraj nor the minority communities acted imprudently and emotionally on the shallow provocations.
Changing the Course of the Discourse
Trolls cannot simply be discounted as mere political campaign tools for the Hindu right wing, but they have played a crucial role in establishing a narrative which considers anything non-Hindu shall be struck down. BJP runs ‘factories’ where lakhs of people work to manufacture and spread provocative and pernicious trolls. But a large number of self-motivated people, who until recently had been hidden behind online fake ids, today openly spew hate at their imagined enemies. This means that the perpetrators of ideology of hate have been successful in spoiling the moral fabric and communal harmony of the society at large. It is an established fact that online behaviour of people reflects their offline attitudes. If a large number of people do not hesitate to discharge their anger and hate online, it means that they would be as much vengeful in offline life to their communal opponents. It is very disturbing that every reality in India today is defined and described using the binary of you and us, Hindu and non-Hindu.
Trolls are easy bait for the illiterate and less informed who form the large majority of India. The Sanghs have been successful in making an environment of bigotry and they thrive on its parlance. The state of our public discourse is so much debased that communities and other political parties are tempted to use the same terminology. The idea of India would increasingly be at risk unless someone changes the course of this discourse.
This article was published in Indian Currents on 02nd July 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 27)