“Can we join hands in one endeavour?” asked Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Sunday in the final episode of his fortnightly radio show, Mann ki Baat. “Let’s come together to make positivity viral.” Modi called on Indians to share stories of heroes who bring about a change in society. He went on to say, “Spreading negativity is fairly easy. But some really good work is being done around us, in our society.”
If the only news you paid attention to all year long came from Mann ki Baat, this would seem like a reasonable request. But for anyone who hasn’t been living under a rock, Modi’s words almost seem like his was mocking his fellow citizens. It is, after all his Bharatiya Janata Party that has often been responsible for some of the most vile online behaviour, frequently encouraging open abuse, rape and death threats and the spreading of false information for the sake of political gain.
Indeed, BJP President Amit Shah, Modi’s right-hand man, admitted as much earlier this year. Shah spoke of a BJP worker who made up a fake story of former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav slapping his father, Mulayam Singh Yadav, and then made this story go viral. “One should not do such things. But in a way he created a certain mahaul [perception],” Shah told the party’s social media workers. He went on to say, “This is something worth doing, but don’t do it”, to laughter from those in attendance. “We are capable of delivering any message we want to the public, whether sweet or sour, true of fake. We can do this work only because we have 32 lakh people in our WhatsApp groups. That is how we were able to make this viral.”
Indeed, the BJP and even Modi have worked assiduously to make negative, often fake stories go viral. This is not to say that Modi’s party is the only one that peddles negativity or fake news, but both the prime minister and the party president have been singularly unwilling to criticise those from within the Hindutva ecosystem who resort to the worst sort of negativity. The party even found it hard to speak up on behalf of Sushma Swaraj, one of the most senior cabinet ministers from the BJP itself, when she was subject to tremendously vitriolic trolling earlier this year.
Amid this background, Modi’s appeal to the public at large to “make positivity viral” is either a tremendously tone-deaf platitude or signals a change in the prime minister’s approach after his party was chucked out of power from three north Indian states. It is more likely the former, but one can hope that Modi genuinely believes what he is saying. For it to actually mean anything, though, Modi needs to begin with his own party, whether it is Shah, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath, BJP IT Cell head Amit Malviya, the broader ecosystem or, indeed, Modi’s own speeches. Considering this is an election year in which Modi and the BJP have little in the way of major achievements to take to the public, it is unlikely that “positivity” is going to feature high on the party’s agenda in the run-up to the general polls.