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Opinion

August 10, 2018

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Reading Orwell in Modi’s India

How would George Orwell and Franz Kafka have seen and interpreted Narendra Modi’s ‘new India’ and the everyday realities of its post-truth political landscape? I have been grappling with this question for some time.

How would those past masters of acerbic political satire have viewed the methodical and deliberate making of the phenomenon called Narendra Modi and how a regional satrap captured the reins of the BJP to transform it into his own image?

If Kafka, the German-speaking Bohemian Jewish author, is renowned for chronicling the monotonous apathy of incomprehensible political and bureaucratic systems with a great sense of realism, no one has captured the political irony and brutal, bizarre nature of tyranny like British author, scribe and essayist George Orwell.

Orwell, who was incidentally born in 1903 in Motihari, Bihar in British India and worked for some years in Burma, particularly revelled in illuminating the lies, hypocrisy and doublespeak of those in power and authority. His path-defining novels, ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘1984’ are the finest examples of incisive political satire, wit and even humour.

For instance, in ‘1984’, the Ministry of Peace concerns itself with war, the Ministry of Truth with lies, the Ministry of Love with torture, and the Ministry of Plenty with starvation. These contradictions are neither accidental nor a result of ordinary hypocrisy. They are deliberate exercises in doublethink.

Individualism and independent thought are prosecuted as “thought crimes” by the Thought Police. The party of power is led by someone called ‘Big Brother’ who keeps a hawk’s eye on everything and everyone. The government even has its own invented language called ‘Newspeak’ and it does all the thinking for its subjects. No one is allowed to think or act on their own. The powers that be would say one thing and do exactly the opposite. Love is hate; war is peace; brotherhood is bigotry; acceptance is intolerance.

So how would Orwell have seen and interpreted the blessed raj of the Parivar over the past four years? What would he think of the massive propaganda blitzkrieg trumpeting the ‘unprecedented achievements’ of this government in India?

What would he, for instance, think of this government’s penchant for corny slogans, and naming and renaming every campaign and scheme after the Indian prime minister? Even those introduced by his predecessors, Dr Manmohan Singh and even Rajiv and Indira Gandhi, have now been nattily and cleverly repackaged to peddle as his own.

From Make in India to Skill India and from Swachh Bharat (Clean India) to Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao, it has been one long ride, dispensing much mirth, and endless platitudes and banalities along the way. In fact, if you go by the tall claims and daily chest-beating of this order, you wonder if India was even governed by anyone before the dear leader came along.

Indeed, Modi began his 2014 election campaign on a modest note with the catchy ‘Abki Baar Modi Sarkar’ (It’s Modi’s turn to rule) promising ‘achhe din’ (good times) to the long-deprived and corruption-weary masses.

He seems to genuinely believe – just as many in the saffron clan, ever-expanding middle classes and corporate circles do that he is God’s gift to India. People know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.

The ‘Hindu hridhay samarat’ (king of Hindu hearts) sees no irony in preaching ‘Sab Ka Sath, Sab ka Vikas’ (Together with everyone, progress for everyone) even as his Parivar and minions turn on the weakest and most vulnerable around them.

Human beings are being killed on a daily basis in 21st century India to uphold the imagined honour of animals. Can there be a greater irony? And when a man is beaten black and blue by the defenders of Hindu pride and is bleeding to death, the ever-vigilant cops rush his cows to the nearby animal shelter.

While Modi invokes the pride and wellbeing of ‘125 crore Indians’ in every other sentence in his monthly monologues, ‘Mann ki Baat’ (Matters of the heart), he has yet to remember that it includes Muslims, Dalits and other dispossessed communities.

Every issue under the sun from the blessings of yoga to the stress of exams is tackled in the monthly ‘Mann ki Baat’ of the prime minister, except what has lately been on everyone’s mind. For instance, why are Muslims and Dalits being hunted and killed like animals across the length and breadth of Modi’s India?

Not only are all those who have killed helpless Muslim farmers likely to reclaim the honour of the mother cow when they are out on bail, they are also seen boasting and describing their brave acts on national television in gory detail and no one bats an eyelid, let alone going after the killers and their patrons in uniform. But what can the police and administration do when they enjoy the blessings and protections of those in power?

Even blacks had not been hunted and killed in those infamous Jim Crow lynchings in the American South with such audacity and impunity in broad daylight with the defenders of law and their masters watching indifferently. The killers are hardly exaggerating when they say on camera, as they did in the expose by NDTV this week, that the police are in their pocket and it is their own government. Jab sayyan bhaye kotwal tab dar kahe ka

(When you are in love with the sheriff himself, what’s there to fear).

Then there are those carefully organised and calibrated jamborees with the Indian diaspora and ‘friends of the BJP’ abroad, from the Americas to Australia, underscoring the larger-than-life persona of the dear leader.

Orwell would have particularly loved the ‘media management’ strategy of this order and how it has managed to rein in and defang much of the country’s once fiercely independent and vibrant media.

The sacking of top editors and bosses of ABP News this past week for their audacity to show the reality of emperor’s clothes is only one of the many instances of the regime dealing with the inconvenient media and their inconvenient truth.

Lal Krishna Advani, the isolated BJP patriarch and one-time mentor of Indian Prime Minister Modi, once famously complained that during Indira Gandhi’s infamous Emergency years when journalists were asked to bend many chose to crawl.

Of course, no such Emergency formally exists under Modi. However, the repression of all free voices of the media as well as intellectuals, artists and academics has been even worse than what it was during the Emergency years. The past four years have seen many a champion of press freedom and free speech fall by the wayside to lick their wounds in silent helplessness.

Courageous journalists like Rajdeep Sardesai and his wife Sagarika Ghose had to leave CNN-IBN (now CNN News 18) when it was taken over by Modi’s corporate cronies.

Prannoy Roy’s NDTV, the last remaining voice of sanity and reason in an increasingly depressing media landscape, has been valiantly fighting back and hanging on in there, thanks to a team of committed and free spirited journalists. But for how long? How long can those brave soldiers of truth hold on? The media cannot survive on its own. It needs society’s support to do its job of reporting and speaking truth to power.

The role of a free and independent press in democracy cannot be emphasised enough. An independent media is the watchdog and lifeblood of democracy. Without the constant vigil of an alert press, democracy dies a quiet death in darkness.

The writer is an independent writer and former newspaper editor.

Email: aijaz.syed@hotmail.com

Twitter: @aijazzakasyed

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