On May 14, as the Lok Sabha elections were underway, News18 anchor Rubika Liaquat asked Prime Minister Narendra Modi why he had referred to Muslims as “infiltrators” and “those who have more children” in his election speeches.

Modi’s remarks had been widely reported – and criticised. As Scroll reported, the prime minister’s election campaign was marked by “divisive falsehoods, pitting India’s Muslims against other disadvantaged communities”.

In response to Liaquat, however, Modi feigned surprise. “Who told you that the reference to those who have more children is linked to Muslims?” he asked. He went on to declare that “the day I do Hindu-Muslim, I will be unworthy of public life”.

This evasion was in keeping with the record of the Modi-led regime, which has generated extensive debates and conversations on lies, propaganda, misinformation, fake news, WhatsApp “University”, manipulation and the like.

But it is actually “gaslighting” that perhaps best articulates what the past decade has felt like in India.

The dictionary defines “gaslighting” as a tool often wielded by abusers to manipulate and control victims over an extended period of time, pushing them to question their own sense of reality.

The use of “gaslighting” to describe political rhetoric is not new. Doctoral scholar Natascha Rietdijk writes that journalists have accused politicians like Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, and even the Kremlin of resorting to gaslighting practices.

Similarly, Modi’s speech on June 4, after the Lok Sabha election results were declared, was an obfuscatory exercise that blended gaslighting tactics. The Bharatiya Janata Party fell short of a majority, contrary to the vociferous declarations of the exit polls since June 1.

While Modi spoke of the BJP sweeping Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Himachal Pradesh, he made no reference to the party’s humiliating losses in the politically significant states of Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra. He praised the record turnout in Jammu and Kashmir, which, as news reports point out, is an emphatic mandate against the BJP scrapping the former state’s special status in 2019.

The era of “post-truth” politics, as Rietdijk notes, is unconcerned with the truth, which is why even the most rigorous attempts at fact-checking – or even video evidence – will never be enough.

This is where Rietdijk’s use of gaslighting to frame post-truth political rhetoric might prove instructive. In a discourse where the truth is irrelevant, such political rhetoric sows the seeds of self-doubt among listeners, undermining their self-trust and how they make sense of the world. Most importantly, a fraught discourse and frayed nerves also help politicians consolidate power.

Rietdijk’s analysis might help understand why the past 10 years in India may have felt bewildering, frightening, even isolating – a bit like having lived in a world where one manufactured reality was the sole reality.

Credit: BJP @BJP4India/X.

Post-truth rhetoric

In her research paper “Post-truth Politics and Collective Gaslighting”, Rietdijk lists three categories of post-truth political rhetoric, which she notes strongly resemble gaslighting tactics: “the introduction of counternarratives, the discrediting of critics, and denial of a more or less plain facts”.

Counternarratives, says Rietdijk, are to distract and disorient. “The truth is often nuanced, messy, and sometimes boring, so distracting attention with an exciting and outrageous fiction is usually quite simple,” she writes. “This psychological fact explains the effectiveness of fake news.”

Similarly, discrediting critics, such as opponents and journalists, and even scientific and academic institutions and also the media, isolates victims from trustworthy sources of information and increases their dependency on the manipulators.

Finally, the denial of plain facts, even in the face of evidence such as being on record saying the contrary – like Modi’s campaign speeches – puts the onus on the listeners and the audience to best gauge what they have heard while enabling the speaker to evade responsibility, benefitting from ambiguity.

Propaganda war machine

That the BJP-led government has operated a informational war-machine is more than evident with its network of WhatsApp groups and an expansive, virulent social media army – the “IT cell” – acting in tandem with pro-government content creators, pliant television media, and advertisements splashed across daily newspapers, billboards and digital platforms.

The party’s information blitzkrieg unfolded alongside a simultaneous assault on and undermining of democratic institutions, civil society, academic spaces, and whatever little independent media that spoke up.

Fog of war

It might not be possible to exhaustively list the ways in which the BJP deployed the post-truth strategies that Rietdijk outlined. Even so, a few instances should be enough to throw light on the gaslighting tactics used by the regime and its leaders.

Days after the Supreme Court in March held the Electoral Bond scheme unconstitutional and ordered the release of data – which showed that the BJP amassed crores in donations, the highest among all political parties – the prime minister told the media that the political funding scheme had led to transparency. This, even as government lawyers had defended the opacity of the scheme in the Supreme Court going as far as to claim that citizens had “no fundamental right to know the source of electoral bonds funds”.

The Covid-19 pandemic is another instance. In the summer of 2021, as smoke billowed from crematoriums and funeral pyres and bodies floated down the Ganga while several more were uncovered along the banks, the government stuck to its abysmally low official toll.

The government’s tactics operated in other ways too, like claiming that it had “no data” on a range of crucial matters – the number of migrants who died while returning home during the Covid-19 lockdown, farmer deaths during the protest against farm laws, manual scavenging deaths, and so on. The government also delayed conducting the Census, due in 2021, even as BJP leaders made dangerous claims about the population of Muslims.

Finally, there is the routine discrediting of all kinds of international ratings and indices – the hunger index, press freedom index, democracy rating, to name a few.

Trauma and truth

Scholar Michael Hannon writes that lies, spin, propaganda, prejudice, uncertainty, bias, emotions, complexity, disagreement, division and contestation over the truth are not aberrations in politics – they are the norm.

Hannon points out that the truth is rarely self-evident and that social reality is immensely complex. The problem with post-truth rhetoric, he writes, is that it waves away social complexities. For Hannon, it is this effect, among others, of post-truth rhetoric that is the problem.

Rietdijk, too, points out that post-truth rhetoric has a plain benefit: power. Control, Rietdijk writes, is achieved by silencing dissent, obscuring inconvenient facts and disorienting people so much they long for securities and strong leadership. “Gaslighting is just one of the means to this aim,” she notes.

At the moment, it is difficult to tell how ordinary Indians perceived information and made sense of things these past 10 years. One can only assume that for some, the BJP’s vast informational network may have formed the basis of resources they used to make sense of their reality and perhaps even their sense of self.

But what about the others – never mind the “anti-Modi” group – or even the average sceptic?

It is reasonable to assume that they relied on other sources of information to make sense of what was unfolding around them: newspapers, alternative media, YouTubers and the like. But they have also had to do so amid a constant and brutal assault on any semblance of the truth – or even reality.

That might have meant grasping at straws for credible, verifiable sources of information; of suspecting every bit of information or news that comes their way; verifying, cross-checking and vetting every bit of information – and still not being sure of what that means.

It has also meant a fraught public and personal discourse defined by ruptured friendships, broken relationships, disillusionment and even dismay and horror at the banal bigotry being voiced.

That is an exhausting, confounding way to go through life, even for the most wary, alert and combative Indian.

One can only wonder how many such citizens were resigned to the idea that this election was a foregone conclusion – as gleefully echoed by television channels.

Yet, there is a glimmer of hope now.

“Gaslighting thrives best in cases of power asymmetry,” writes Rietdijk. A more combative Opposition should surely be able to restore some balance to the public discourse – as it did so during the election campaign by pushing back against outright falsehoods.

But this will be no easy feat – already, angry BJP supporters have turned on Indian voters, accusing Hindus of betraying the Hindu cause by being divided on the basis of caste. Dangerously false claims have warned of a conspiracy by Muslims to undo all the “gains” of the past decade.

A starting point will be stronger tools and even greater courage to start recognising rhetoric as just that – rhetoric.