India losing ground
Mastering the art of creating and managing perceptions of the public takes great skill. The United States was the best at it. The Americans decided not to break the Soviet Union with B52 bombers, but with charismatic prose, pop culture and freedom. For this, they relied on their press to project core tenants of American culture all of which revolved around freedom.
The U.S media would also play with words very cleverly to demonize the Soviet Union. The ‘Red Scare’ was used in their literature to cause widespread fear of a communist invasion. Books were also a major weapon to undermine Soviet influence. The legendary Dr. Zhivago and Gulag Archipelago were examples of that. This is not to say that the U.S ‘bought’ the authors to write the books, but once they were written, the U.S saw the opportunity to distribute them in order to bolster their position. In the 1950s, the CIA created the Congress of Cultural Freedom with a mission to weaken the Soviets and win over the hearts and minds of Europe’s left-leaning intellectuals. In the end, it was America’s soft power that triumphed over the Soviets. During the heyday of the Cold War, the U.S decided to defeat their enemy by displaying their tolerant, attractive and progressive way of life through their powerful media.
If we fast-forward to today’s India, it is evident that they have sought something similar. Through their robust media, the message consistently projected is of a modern, secular, democratic and romantic India. It has worked to a great extent. They are propped up by the West as this shining example of what a successful South Asian democracy looks like. Their media has also been successful at promoting attractive aspects of their culture throughout the world. If you have travelled even a little, you would have run into the grungy, unbathed, self-righteous hippy sort obsessed with the idea of travelling to India and doing yoga in a forest in Karnataka.
While India did an admirable job at marketing themselves for many years, the façade is finally being exposed. Since the BJP has been in power, they exploited conventional and social media to project their nationalist agenda. Many primetime Indian channels decided to project the government’s nationalist narrative with vehemence and conviction. Through social media, BJP nationalist propaganda has been spread far and wide to the public causing division and hate.
The BJP’s aggressive media machinery, which was supposed to be their strength has turned out to be their biggest weakness, and it will likely show in the polls this year.
Passionately and constantly arguing that India is being threatened by ‘anti-nationals’ and ‘Pakistani funded terrorists’, the media has been successful in bringing many under the nationalist sphere of influence, which was always their prime objective. However, what the constant promotion of the nationalist ideology has done is reveal the true face of Indian democracy. When the self-confessed nationalists took control of the media, they overplayed their hand, to the point where the perception of a romantic and exotic India is beginning to wane globally. They got too loud and too hysterical for their own good, which are clear symptoms of misguided hubris.
The fact that the appalling human condition has been covered up for so long is astonishing. The reality is that the majority in India is living in utter destitution. The democratic institutions have consistently let the people down. More than 70% of the country is living in extreme poverty. Despite a fast-growing economy, more than one third of the world’s malnourished children live in India. When economic progress does not improve the lives of the majority, it becomes pointless. If the measure of success is high rates of growth over the human condition, then serious introspection is required.
When you look at India’s relationship with its neighbors, particularly Pakistan, their antagonistic behavior is extremely telling. The hysteria in the mainstream media has reached depths which go beyond the imagination. After the recent mini scuffle with Pakistan, where they were outwitted militarily and politically, the Indian media exposed the government’s destructive nature. Their lack of nuance and blind support for the government’s hasty decisions during this conflict has backfired within and without. The BJP’s aggressive media machinery, which was supposed to be their strength has turned out to be their biggest weakness, and it will likely show in the polls this year.
If the perception a country has created is not based on even a little bit of truth, it will come crashing down. Even with its mass media and all its wealth, they could not make the narrative of unity and progress stick.
The purpose of this article is not to demean India or Indians. The argument is that managing perceptions of the public for a long period is a difficult task. The Americans during the Cold War worked extremely hard to win the world over. However, through a lack of maturity and subtlety, the Indian leadership and media took it too far. To be fair, this is not just an Indian problem. Primetime media the world over is more interested in being subjective and entertaining rather than objective and factual. It is heartening to see that sane Indian voices are finally coming out against the hysteria on mainstream channels. The reductionist narrative of ‘nationalists’ vs. ‘anti-nationalists’ is finally losing steam, which is good news for India and the entire region.