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The Big Story: Thumb on scale

Over the next two months, political coverage everywhere in India – including on this newsletter – will be preoccupied with the upcoming elections, in Puducherry, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Assam and West Bengal. In news stories, the nationally dominant Bharatiya Janata Party will most likely be treated as the challenger that it is in each of these states (barring Assam where it is the incumbent0.

Much of the analysis will assume a level playing field, in which the BJP is simply competing to put forward a more compelling narrative and haul in more votes than, say, the Trinamool Congress or the Left parties. Election coverage tends to portray all players as if they are competing in a horse race: starting at the same line, on an even footing and preparing to run equal distances.

While this straight-forward coverage might seem fair, it isn’t.

The starting line is often skewed and the tracks rarely run parallel. In the past, this has occasionally meant that regional parties, because of their control over finances or state-level institutions, may have had tremendous advantages if they were in power while assembly elections were being conducted.

That may still be the case, as with the Dravidian parties in Tamil Nadu, for example. But the centralisation India has experienced under Prime Minister Narendra Modi (which we have written about here, here and here) has meant that even if his BJP was previously a bit player in a particular state, it now enters each race with tremendous advantages.

Take India’s official institutions, for example. Although previous national governments have used investigating agencies for political ends, the BJP’s brute majority in Delhi has transformed entities like the Central Bureau of Investigation and the Enforcement Directorate – which investigates financial crimes – entirely into political tools.

My colleague Shoaib Daniyal has also written about how the supposedly apolitical institution of the governor has been used to carry out unabashedly political battles on behalf of the BJP in states it does not control, such as in West Bengal and beyond.

The Quint last week took a look at how the Election Commission, another organisation that has been accused of succumbing to political interference, may have ended up giving a boost to the BJP in the way it scheduled the elections, particularly in Assam and West Bengal.

We have written at length about how the Modi government’s introduction of electoral bonds, an opaque funding instrument that even the Election Commission argued against, has upended the political funding system in India, skewing it massively towards the BJP. Connected to this has been the party’s unabashed efforts to control state governments even after losing elections by convincing politicians to switch sides.

Over the last few days, there have been further indications of just how much more control the party wants over the narrative, over speech and over the spread of ideas in this country, despite the mainstream media tending to broadly toe the BJP line nearly across the board.

First, there were the new rules governing social media platforms, which the government also regulating digital news organisations and online video-streaming services in one fell swoop. We explained why these rules should be alarming for anyone concerned about restrictions of free speech and institutionalised censorship. This is being done under the guise of taking on the large Silicon Valley firms, which have been under attack for failing to crack down on misinformation globally.

Access Now’s Raman Jit Chima put it even more simply: The rules are “more about Big Government than about Big Tech”.

“The notification of these new rules, however, do not merely represent the executive branch superseding previous subordinate rules under a law with newer regulation. They represent a dramatic, dangerous move by the Union Government towards cementing increased censorship of Internet content and mandating compliance with government demands regarding user data collection and policing of online services in India.

“This has happened in the absence of open and public discussion of the full swathe of regulatory powers the government has sought to exercise, and without any parliamentary study and scrutiny.”

Then, there was this report from the Wall Street Journal:

“India’s government has threatened to jail employees of Facebook Inc., its WhatsApp unit and Twitter Inc. as it seeks to quash political protests and gain far-reaching powers over discourse on foreign-owned tech platforms, people familiar with the warnings say.

“The warnings are in direct response to the tech companies’ reluctance to comply with data and takedown requests from the government related to protests by Indian farmers that have made international headlines, the people say. At least some of the written warnings cite specific, India-based employees at risk of arrest if the companies don’t comply, according to some of the people.”

Next, even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi was inducting 1980s film star Mithun Chakraborty into the BJP in West Bengal, central agencies carried out tax raids at the properties of filmmaker Anurag Kashyap and actor Taapsee Pannu among others. While the authorities claimed these were on the basis of evidence of tax evasion, the Centre’s track record suggests that Kashyap and Pannu’s outspoken criticism of the government may well have been a factor.

On the judicial front, the Supreme Court appeared to call for even more onerous restrictions on online video platforms, after BJP leaders accused streaming service Amazon Prime of offending religious sentiments in a drama titled Tandav.

As the UK’s Independent reported, “There’s palpable unease among the actors and artistes of Bollywood, one of the world’s largest film industries, as recent examples of religious censorship have forced filmmakers to apologise for their content or face reprisals that can range from online boycott calls to police action.”

Nandini Ramnath wrote about the backlash to Tandav earlier in the year:

“Over the decades, India’s system of film certification has all but driven critical commentary out of the movie theatres. The clamour to subject locally produced web series – which are watched across the world – to the same censorship laws is aimed at ensuring that filmmakers don’t smuggle uncomfortable truths into their narratives. This form of control has been weaponised in recent months by a Molotov cocktail comprising FIRs, threats of arrests, downvoting on the internet and fiery television debates on government-friendly television channels…

The attempt by filmmakers to talk about power structures and majoritarian policies is under such virulent attack, it could become untenable.”

Finally, the Caravan magazine – building on a Hindustan Times report from 2020 – revealed the full extent of the government’s paranoia and desire to control every single headline by reporting on and then uploading in full a Group of Ministers report on government communication.

The document is worth reading in full. It offers a glimpse of how the government and its supporters think, featuring ministers calling for independent media to be “neutralised” and an analyst allegedly recommending that journalists be colour-coded based on how favourable they are to pushing propaganda. It also reveals just how much time the BJP devoted to narrative concerns in June 2020, even as Covid-19 cases were on a steep uphill climb and millions of migrants were taking to the roads to walk home.

I wrote about the report, which in most democracies would have been cause for a major scandal, but has gone mostly unmentioned in India:

“The report of a Group of Ministers who met six times over June and July 2020 – when the Covid-19 pandemic and the resultant migrant crisis was still raging – reveals an insecure, paranoid government that seems more concerned with headlines and narrative than the underlying reality. It also shows a government with no concept of a wall between state and party, which fails to understand that journalists are not meant to be unthinking cheerleaders for politicians or their ideologies…

“The only thing the document appears to have conclusively done is revealed that, no matter how politically stable the government may be, it appears deathly afraid of allowing any criticism or questioning and feels the need to use every lever possible to control the narrative, regardless of facts on the ground.”

Obviously, many of these developments raise questions about fundamental rights and the illiberal tendencies of the Indian government, and the wilful kneecapping of civil society and independent media efforts to act as a check on the state, prompting a US-based non-governmental organisation to declare the country only “partly free”.

But they also reflect levers of control that for the most part are only available to the ruling party at the Centre, giving it a massive advantage over all other political players – some of which may have happily used the same tools but don’t have access to them.

Almost as if to demonstrate this, the very first notice under the new technology rules was issued to a journalist in Manipur, before it had to be withdrawn by the state government since only the Centre had the power to take such action.

With the BJP expanding its control over institutions, political funding, the news media and the public sphere, is it any surprise that political contestation in India is constrained?

As India heads into another election season full of juicy political storylines, all of which are undoubtedly worth paying attention to, it is important not to miss the big-picture context or assume that every horse in this race has a fair shot at ending up in first place.

Flotsam & Jetsam

  • In Tamil Nadu, after some wrangling over numbers, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam has signed a seat-sharing deal with allies Congress, Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi and other parties.
  • In West Bengal, the BJP picked Suvendu Adhikari – a former Trinamool Congress leader – to take on Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee in Nandigram, the former’s stronghold. Banerjee has chosen to vacate her own seat of Bhawanipore in Kolkata to fight from Nandigram.
  • In Kerala, the Customs Department has claimed that Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, three ministers in his Cabinet and the Speaker of the Assembly knew about the alleged gold smuggling racket that it is currently investigating, prompting accusations of a politically motivated investigation from the state government.
  • In Assam, the Congress put out its first list of candidates amid reports of an internal rift over ticket distribution that saw its women wing chief Sushmita Dev walk out of a meeting.
  • With a Covid-19 surge in several states, the Centre has urged local authorities to move quicker on vaccinations while also ensuring testing continues apace.
  • US Secretary of Defense Lloyd J Austin is likely to be the first high-level representative of US President Joe Biden’s administration to visit India in March, after the leaders of the Quad – Biden, Modi, Japan Prime Minisiter Yoshihide Suga and Australia Prime Minister Scott Morrison – meet on March 12.

Can’t make this up

Explaining all the in-jokes of this British Royal Family-Bollywood movie meme would take at least a few TikTok videos...

That’s all for this week’s The Political Fix. Send feedback and suggestions to rohan@scroll.in. Thanks for reading!