“You must have seen, recently there was a train accident in Kanpur. Some people have been arrested. Hundreds were killed. The police investigations reveal a conspiracy. And where were the conspirators sitting? Across the border. Brothers and sisters, if our enemies want to run their conspiracies from across the border...if such people are chosen who help such conspirators, then will my Gonda remain secure? If Gonda becomes insecure, can Hindustan remain secure?”
Ignore the leaps of imagination that Narendra Modi made from train accident to sabotage to Pakistani conspiracy to Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh to India’s security. The speech he made, gesticulating and shouting, as is his style, on February 24, in eastern Uttar Pradesh’s Gonda district was at a political rally, where hyperbole and faux emotion are par for the course.
But it was striking that India’s prime minister would undercut his own government’s agencies to make a claim that, currently, is not backed by any evidence. The November 20 accident Modi referred to was among India’s worst: 148 people died when a train jumped the tracks. A preliminary report from the railway’s safety authority said old, defective coaches and wonky wheels appeared to have caused the mishap. There was no evidence of sabotage. The National Investigation Agency, which is investigating six recent train accidents after allegations of sabotage by Pakistani agents in Nepal, said in January that its preliminary investigations ruled out sabotage by terrorists.
With no evidence, what caused Modi to allege terrorism? The proximate reason is, of course, the elections. As the battle for Uttar Pradesh wears on with little certainty about its outcome, Modi and Bharatiya Janata Party President Amit Shah are increasingly discarding their holy grail of development and dipping instead into the poisonous chalice of religious identity (more on that later).
But the larger reason to twist, exaggerate or entirely replace fact with fiction is that Modi clearly understands the benefits of “alternative facts”. In his careful, gradual embrace of the post-truth era, the man who ruled Gujarat for 14 years predates demagogues such as Donald Trump, who with a smaller support base and greater opposition tend to be more forceful in their manhandling of the truth. The coming elections are important to Modi, but India’s electorate is now so willing to accept what he says that –regardless of the outcome in UP – his propagation of alternative facts is only likely to grow. Note how the devastation of demonetisation did nothing to diminish the BJP’s electoral success last week in Maharashtra, India’s richest state, by state gross domestic product.
It stands to reason that Modi and Shah are not averse to creating facts in UP. Take, for instance, Modi’s repeated allegations (here and here) that UP is India’s most crime-prone state or Shah’s claim that BJP-ruled states have a better record of controlling crime than UP. As my colleague Manoj K reported in FactChecker.in earlier this month, after analysing national crime data, those claims are not true.
Uttar Pradesh, Modi has said, is “number 1” in crime, with 24 rapes, 21 attempts to rape, 13 murders, 33 kidnappings, 19 riots and 136 thefts every day. First, the crime rate is calculated per 1,00,000 population, and by that measure, there are many states with higher rates. Even considering the “per day” measure, the data Modi quoted were inflated by three and 21 times, respectively (although figures for murders, kidnappings, riots and thefts in “per-day” terms are correct) for 2015. The clinching data: Compared to UP, 21 states and union territories have a higher murder rate, 27 have higher rate of rape, 19 have higher abduction rates and 16 endure riots at higher rates. As for Shah’s claim that BJP-run states have a better law-and-order record, the fact is six BJP-ruled states report higher murder rates, 12 report higher rates of rape, nine higher rates of kidnapping and abduction, five higher rates of riots and eight higher theft rates.
I quote Manoj’s work in considerable detail to emphasise that the facts really do not appear to matter very much to Modi. Many of the government’s claims escape scrutiny, but as FactChecker.in has intermittently found, facts have frequently prostrated at the altar of propaganda since the BJP took charge in 2014.
The most egregious claim Modi made was during an independence day address on August 15, 2015, when he claimed that his 2014 promise of building separate male and female toilets for nearly 138 million school children nationwide had been kept. This, as you might imagine, is a hard claim to verify, but over two months, random checks found that many schools – from urban new Delhi to Chatra district (Jharkhand) and Sedam Taluka, Gulbarga district (Karnataka) – did not have toilets; existing toilets in many schools (UP, Karnataka, Chhattisgarh and Telangana) were useless without water; and some new toilets built in a rush had no drainage.
Earlier, in May 2015, a fact-check of performance reports issued by 14 ministries revealed a string of overblown or misleading claims – many “new” programmes, turned out to be repackaged versions of existing programmes. There were indeed many new initiatives and significant progress, but it was clear the government was not averse to padding the truth with, well, fake news.
Modi used the technique of repackaging the truth during the Bihar elections of 2015 – with no success, one reason for the careful, subsequent deployment of post-truth methods – but others have joined in as well.
For instance, Rahul Gandhi made false claims (he exaggerated the unemployment data by 3 million and graduate unemployment by 19 percentage point) about unemployment in Tamil Nadu.
Gandhi also misused facts on rising prices of daal – in 2016, his “Arhar Modi” jibe – a reference to a 200% rise in prices of pulses, not bothering about the fact that the rise in the price of pulses was higher during the United Progressive Alliance rule. Obviously, those in government have the greatest stake in the facts, so Modi has been caught out more than others (futher examples: In 2016 on tribal deaths in Kerala are here and on electoral gains in Odisha are here).
Taking a cue from their prime minister, his ministers too take liberties with facts. Only last week, we found union health minister JP Nadda wrongly claiming that India had reduced its rate of infant and maternal deaths faster than any other country (a host of countries, from Rwanda to Bangladesh, have done better).
The problem with the speech in Gonda was not as much about the facts as the possible fallout. The prime minister used the spectre of terrorism as a shorthand for Muslims (as he has frequently done before) and their “supporters”, meaning opposition parties with his reference to “if such people are chosen who help such conspirators”. There have been additional references to laptops being given mainly to “a certain community” and certain castes (by Shah). Or more money given for Muslim cremation grounds instead of Hindu graveyards and more electricity for Ramzan instead of Diwali (byModi).
Whether in Europe, Turkey, the United States or India, the post-truth era is displaying an unparalleled ability to widen a country’s schisms by emboldening prejudice and hate. This is particularly damaging when deployed for short-term political gain, as Messrs Modi and Shah are doing in Uttar Pradesh. If the BJP does win, expect a rapid acceleration in India’s post-truth era.
Samar Halarnkar is editor, IndiaSpend.org, a data-driven, public-interest journalism non-profit.