As anyone who has sung in a choir well knows, a key factor enhancing the power of massed voices is the dynamics: a good conductor knows when to keep the singers soft and when exactly to raise them up fortississimo to a stirring crescendo.
By ranging playback singer Lata Mangeshkar against the global pop star Rihanna in its propaganda battle against India’s protesting farmers, the Modi government has hit a painfully discordant note.
It all began on Tuesday night, with the Barbados-born Rihanna tweeting out a CNN article about the internet cuts effected in several parts of Haryana in an attempt to disrupt the swelling protests by farmers against three new agriculture laws that they believe will undermine their livelihood.
“Why aren’t we talking about this?!” the musician asked.
She was immediately greeted by a wall of misogynistic, racist responses on Twitter. Some spoke approvingly of the battering her former boyfriend Chris Brown had inflicted on her in 2009 and rued the fact that he wasn’t around to “keep her in line” now.
Astonishingly, by mid-morning Wednesday, India’s Ministry of External Affairs issued a statement warning against the “temptation of sensationalist social media hashtags and comments” about the government’s new agricultural laws.
People familiar with the world of diplomacy were taken aback at the government’s decision to react to an innocuous statement by a showbiz personality.
As if that wasn’t enough, the government proceeded to orchestrate a Twitter storm by Indian celebrities from the worlds of film and sports, who filled cyberspace with cut-and-paste messages using hashtags coined by the external affairs ministry: #IndiaAgainstPropaganda and #IndiaTogether.
Among them was Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar, who is a Canadian citizen.
Badminton player Saina Nehwal had an identical tweet.
When former cricketer Sachin Tendulkar joined in, Twitter users were quick to point to his poor record in attending to civic duties. After he was nominated to the Rajya Sabha in 2012, he attended just 29 of nearly 400 Parliament sessions. He had earned a salary of Rs 86.23 lakh during his six-year term.
Late on Wednesday night, even 91-year-old singer Lata Mangeshkar joined the chorus.
By throwing so much energy into assembling this incongrous range of performers, the Narendra Modi government has demonstrated that it is playing the wrong score. Mangeshkar, Tendulkar and Akshay Kumar have little influence with the global audiences that Rihanna and Thunberg reach. The domestic constituency who will be impressed by these Indian personalities don’t need to be convinced about the government’s intentions: they already support Modi full-throatedly.
In effect, the government’s propagandists are only preaching to the choir.
Ironically, with its tin-eared response, the government only amplified news about the farmers’ protests. Over the past 24 hours, the government’s repressive measures against the farmers have made headlines around the world. finding mention in the New York Times, the BBC and Germany’s Deutshe Welle, among other publications.
The new focus on the protests has evoked reactions in unlikely quarters, such as from JuJu Smith-Schuster, who plays for the Pittsburgh Steelers American football team. He announced that he had donated $10,000 to provide medical assistance to the protesting farmers.
Rihanna’s brief tweet has set off a joyous cacophony that the Indian government is now struggling to contain. Perhaps it should have remembered that at key moments, silence is golden.