In 2014, there were those who believed Narendra Modi when he spoke of a new deal for India and all Indians, of sabka sath, sabka vikas – solidarity with everyone, progress for everyone – and reform and hope. There were others who dismissed the makeover, arguing that there could be no fundamental change in a man who once mocked a chief election commissioner by his Christian name (“James Michael Lyngdoh”) and darkly alluded to the alleged fecundity of Muslims with the phrase hum panch, hamare pachees – we five, our 25.
The optimists appeared to have their day, and India embarked on the era of Modi with hope.
Three years later, optimism and the prospects of a new deal appear surreal, as the prime minister, in his desperation to win the Gujarat Assembly elections, gave in to his deepest prejudices and hotly pursued the politics of temple-Pakistan-Congress-Muslims-traitors. Whether Modi wins or not – and it is a reflection of his growing paranoia that a provincial election has become all about him (Vijay Rupani who?) – India is set to embark on an era of toxic public debate and the proliferation of lynch mobs, online and in real life, that target minorities, liberals, independent journalists, intellectuals and democratic values.
The only consolation, if you can call it that, is that India’s divided polity and dark, state-sponsored ultra-nationalism, which has now been embraced by swathes of the media, administration and judiciary, mirrors what is happening worldwide. Last month in South Africa, I listened to Ewald Scharfenberg, co-founder of armando.info, an investigative journalism website, as he explained how he faced six years in prison for defamation when he returned to Venezuela, where the government prescribes 20 years for what it calls hate messages, primarily those aimed at the administration.
I heard investigative journalist Maria Ressa describe how the Phillippines had gone from a vibrant democracy to semi-dictatorship in 18 months. President Rodrigo Duterte – an abusive man who openly approves and boasts of extra-judicial assassinations – runs an administration that has pioneered “the weaponisation of social media, combined with a populist anti-intellectualism that rejects expertise”, Ressa said. She provided an instance of how 26 fake Twitter accounts allied to the government spread manipulated news, taking a kernel of truth and embellishing it with lies, to three million accounts within 24 hours. The well is being poisoned, writes Ressa, on her website, rappler.com, by paid trolls, fallacious reasoning and fabricated news – techniques that help Duterte shift opinion on public issues. His spokesperson once tweeted a photo of what he said was a nine-year-old killed by drug dealers (Duterte has allowed the police to kill anyone they say is a drug dealer with no trial or judicial process), accusing “human rightists” and presstitutes – a term commonly used by Modi supporters – of not condemning such brutal acts and undermining “the war against drugs”. The photo turned out to be from Brazil.
In the United States, it is Donald Trump who rants at liberal, democratic values and the media and winks at white supremacy. Despite a vibrant civil society opposed to him and a free press that catches his falsehoods – Trump lied 103 times during his first 10 months, six times as much as Barack Obama in his entire eight-year presidency – the US president’s supporters are largely unmoved, lapping up his early morning tweet storms.
It was a concerted social media campaign by the Far-Right that diminished the new leader of the free world, Angela Merkel, in recent German elections. Russia, Hungary and Poland have all been radicalised by social media, which has given life to the darkest fears and prejudices of citizens, eagerly manipulated by autocrats.
There is growing evidence that social media threatens democratic processes by wiping out the middle ground, pushing people to abandon accommodation and take extreme positions. A former Facebook executive has warned the world that it is “being programmed” to hate. “We have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works,” Chamath Palihapitiya, Facebook’s former vice-president for user growth, said last month.
His views were preceded by Sean Parker, one of Facebook’s founding presidents, who likened social media consumption to “dopamine hits” that exploited vulnerability in human psychology. And last year, Vyacheslav Polonski, a network scientist at Oxford University’s Internet Institute, argued that social media was disintegrating the general will, the core of democracy, and providing a loud echo to a loud minority. “People who have long entertained Right-wing populist ideas, but were never confident enough to voice them openly, are now in a position to connect to like-minded others online and use the internet as a megaphone for their opinions,” he wrote, warning that social media was crippling healthy democratic discourse and becoming “a platform for conflict and malicious agitation by Right-wing populists”.
The most forbidding example of what lies ahead for democracies that elect populists and succumb to social media-driven agitation is Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan does what Trump, Duterte and Modi would, perhaps, like to. Erdogan’s first term has uncanny resemblances to Modi’s current term. In his first term, Erdogan kicked off some economic reforms, spoke of hope and togetherness and signed a peace deal with Kurdish separatists. But he also stood by – and abetted – the radicalisation of Turkish society, the evisceration of the liberal, investigative media and the switchover of political conversation from secularism to Islamic revival.
These days, in his second term, secularism is embattled, Islam is firmly embedded in politics, the Kurds are bombed whenever the nationalist media reveals so-called conspiracies, and Erdogan’s rhetoric is full of anger, paranoia and conspiracy theories. He manipulates laws and public opinion – using a social media army – and imprisons anyone who does not fall in line. Hundreds of journalists, teachers, professors and bureaucrats are in jail, inconvenient judges and bureaucrats have been purged, elections have been manipulated, and the constitution has been changed.
“They want us to teach the way they like. They want us to dress the way they like. They want us to obey them wherever we go,” Aynur Barkin, a sacked teacher, told NPR, a US radio network. “And we say no.”
The year ahead
Change Muslim to Hindu, and there are uncanny parallels with India, where the Gujarat elections pushed Modi to discard the idiom of development and unleash his sectarian instincts. The timing could not have been better for him. Fringe rhetoric over love jihad, cow jihad, cultural issues and the Ram temple is now mainstream political discourse. A peculiar trait of this majoritarian era is use of the law against those it should protect, especially minorities. As I write this, the police in Madhya Pradesh have detained Christian carol singers whose car was burnt by Hindu extremists and in Uttar Pradesh, the police have filed a criminal case against a Muslim elected official who was attacked by Hindu colleagues after he took his oath of office in Urdu.
Here is what you can expect in the run-up to the 2019 general elections. Expect further weaponisation and more extensive deployment of social media to radicalise Indian society. Expect frenetic efforts to build the Ram temple over the next two years. Expect social and political divisions to be further exacerbated. Expect more fear and marginalisation among minorities, especially Muslims. Expect India to be dragged deeper into the abyss. Expect to live in an era where the word secular is no longer recognised (Rahul Gandhi has already become – politically at least – a born-again Brahmin, visiting temples with growing urgency).
If Modi wins Gujarat, he will become more confident. Social media will reflect his confidence; the troll armies and nationalised media will push discourse further to the Right, in anticipation of the temple and the strengthening of the Hindu rashtra. If he loses, your social feed will become more vitriolic than it ever has.