Ever since the elections were announced, uncontrolled media reports began surfacing less in the mainstream media but vast numbers in the freer social media: about corruption, about pushing thousands of Muslim girls out of examination halls due to the hijab ban.
By- Mrinal Pande
The past week all the nation’s anchors and all the king’s men were trying to analyse the sweeping mandate from the people of Karnataka. It overturned a mighty ‘double engine government’. The large margin of victory made it impossible to put a coalition together again. Reasons for such an unforeseen debacle are usually sought in objective conditions: grinding poverty, caste oppression, scandalous reports of abuses of power and high-level corruption. This, though right to a certain degree, is actually a simplistic and one-sided view.
Karnataka is one of the golden states of India, the hub of the IT industry, among the top ten in providing college goers with good education. Its capital Bengaluru is where some of India’s richest IT and pharma czars reside. For youngsters from the dry northern plains dreaming big, it is a great provider of jobs, promoter of innovation and high technology and a fertile land for eventual global recognition.
Given the size of the prize, the game of thrones was fierce. Ever since the elections were announced, uncontrolled media reports began surfacing less in the mainstream media but vast numbers in the freer social media: about corruption, about persecution of marginalised groups, about pushing thousands of Muslim girls out of examination halls and classrooms because they would not (or could not) discard the hijab.
The much tom-tommed yojanas like Ujjwala had also come a cropper. The cheap gas cylinder promoted as a liberator of women from smoky kitchens were out of their reach in 2023. Added to these, the frequent push for Hindi and Sanatani Hindutva led by a Brahminical elite of temple priests and the Kannadigas, who had defied the caste system and created their own inclusive sects, began to protest.
In such restless times, the last straw on the proverbial camel’s back always comes from the ruling authority’s refusal to read the public mood and try to silence dissidence with an unnecessarily provocative assertion of power. When the Congress manifesto promised that it would ban the questionable militias that called themselves the Bajrang Dal, the drivers of the twin engine sarkar lost no time in interpreting it as a direct attack on Hindus who worshipped Lord Hanuman or Bajrang Bali.
There were Hanuman cut-outs, muscular Hanuman-like characters, parading in rallies, flourishing silver Gada (mace) and all. This unnecessary and bizarre use of Hindu gods tried the patience of an electorate which is known to be highly literate, modernised and culturally sophisticated. The media cell that promoted this worldview forgot how in history careless words have often brought down the greatest of empires.
The second reason things went sour was a highly personalised attack on Congress leader Rahul Gandhi after he was forced out of his parliament seat. It was ensured that he would be incapacitated until 2024 general elections. After Hindenburg Research released its report which, like the earlier Rafael deal created global headlines, a feeling began to grow that Gandhi had perhaps been unfairly deprived of his parliamentary membership as punishment for his loud public declaration that there had been a major cover up for the misdeeds of the government.
His march (pad yatra) from Kanyakumari to Kashmir gave heft to the feeling. A grudging admiration was visible in the social media for a young(er) leader who was risking it all to give voice to India’s jobless youth and women all along the route. An attack on him as an “ignorant Pappu” now began to be perceived by many in these groups as their own humiliation.
Vocal for local is a nice turn of words but it also backfired locally. Bad roads, flooded streets, failed crops or some sensational atrocities against women and marginalised groups had been flooding the media all along and were one of the minor contributors to a debacle as large as this. Reporters and anchors ought to have done some psychoanalytical depth sounding of social media messages.
The favoured Godi media actually facilitated Gandhi’s frank public talk about the spurt in the wealth of the rich, citing the Hindenburg report and linking it to the lack of local jobs, mounting debts and spiraling prices hitting the common people hard.
Those of us who were hooked to the media realised that this time the masses did not flee the site where the opposition leaders were speaking to them. Nor did they line the streets and fill the square as expected when Delhi came riding a rath in support of the incumbent government in a shower of flower petals. Those that we saw on our screens as the cavalcade of limousines rolled on gave the security men a cautious look, tinged with curiosity but also somewhat tough and insolent. Nobody at the edge of the crowd feels moved. They still seem a bit timid and stand silently watchful.
A rule that centralises all power in the capital rests on a belief that the common man is an abject creature and a terrorised society and media long-deprived of straight dialogues can be mesmerised by garrulous leaders holding one-sided preaching sessions. People reduced to the dependence on government’s largesse, the labharthis, will crawl when asked to bend. Labharthis of all sorts do crowd the corridors of power from Delhi, Mumbai, to Ahmedabad, and Bengaluru. But it is a misleading phenomena.
The leader, cut off from frank interaction with sharp questioning minds, gets addicted to a continual display of power in glittering events, yatras and victory laps in flower-bedecked vehicles with huge contingents of armed commandos. The photographs, videos showcasing a grand presence, the common touch: tweaking a child’s ears playfully, beating a drum, bowing deeply to an aged man or woman. This rather tiny arsenal of tricks has not changed much over the years but all this is a hall of mirrors. And those that revel in it mostly lack the necessary vision and professional skills.
For gaining Karnataka, every trick in the trade was tried: publicising harsh punishment to gundas, shauchalayas that would democratise indoor shitting, subsidised gas cylinders and large cardboard keys to new homes being presented to the visibly poor labharthis on stage. All in vain. When people decide they want change, they will bring in change.