Guest Post by SAIF AHMAD KHAN
The year 2004 saw the Indian electorate defying the verdict of psephologists by voting out the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party led National Democratic Alliance government at the Centre. The fundamental reason behind the defeat of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government was the slogan of “India Shining” which was perceived by the voters to be nothing more than a poll gimmick as millions of ordinary Indians were trapped in the vicious cycle of poverty and struggling due to high inflation.
However, a decade after 2004, one has reason to believe that “India Shining” was a blessing in disguise for the BJP. Traditionally, BJP was an anti-technology party owing to its Swadeshi leanings. When computer technology was being introduced by the Rajiv Gandhi government during the 1980s, the socialist parties opposed the move and argued that mechanization would lead to unemployment. The Sang Parivar echoed similar sentiments.
The general elections held in 2004 brought about a paradigm shift in BJP’s approach towards technology as the saffron party ran India’s first computer-centric, Hollywood-style electoral campaign. The most talked about thing of the 2004 elections was the “Indian Shining” slogan of the incumbent government. Prathap Suthan, National Creative Director of Grey Worldwide, was the man responsible for coning the term. India Shining was originally an initiative of the Central Government which sought to promote the country’s economic achievements and industrial progress on a global scale.
Between December 2003 and January 2004, the “India Shining” blurb was aired for more than 9000 times on television. It was second only to the anti-polio advertisements put out by the government of India. However, as elections approached, the leadership of the BJP hijacked the slogan and started using it aggressively while on campaign trail. This prompted the Congress, the principal opposition at that time, to bring the matter to the Election Commission’s notice which viewed BJP’s usage of the slogan as a violation of the model code of conduct and barred the BJP from using the same till the end of polls on May 10, 2004.
The campaign did cause an electoral debacle as it alienated the voters but it enhanced BJP’s acceptance of computer technology and made the saffron outfit realize the power of media communications in 21st century. The campaign also forced the BJP to sit into opposition, a period which lasted for a decade, during which the entire world underwent a path-breaking technological revolution. It was during these ten years that the social media spread its tentacles all over the globe. The decade was a witness to the rise of several social networking websites including My Space, Orkut, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Another significant development was the utilization of the social media for social and political mobilization.
After having been passive recipients of information supplied by the mainstream media for a very long period of time, the common people finally had access to a platform using which they could publish and broadcast their own views and opinions. Online signature campaigns were being initiated to raise social and political awareness. The social media also helped in political mobilization during several protest movements. Egypt’s Tahrir Square protests and the Anna agitation in India are fine examples.
As per estimates of the World Bank, 2% of India’s population had access to the internet in 2004. This was the same year when the BJP lost power at the Centre. By 2009, this figure had gone beyond 5%. But the most significant increase in the percentage of Indians having access to the web was during the time of Congress led UPA-2. In 2013, more than 15% Indians were using the web. The percentage of internet users almost tripled in a period of four years between 2009 and 2013.
Politically, this was a very difficult period for the UPA government. The reputation of the incumbent government was tarnished due to an array of corruption scandals which included the 2G spectrum, commonwealth games and allocation of coal blocks. An anti-congress wave engulfed the nation and the BJP, being the principal opposition party, was the natural beneficiary of the same. During this time period, a large number of Indian internet users started expressing their frustration in regard to the status quo on the web. Many of them happened to be right leaning thinkers for whom the “development oriented” BJP was the appropriate alternative to the corrupt Congress.
These politically articulate, BJP sympathizing internet users started vehemently attacking the Congress and the domestic media on the web. They were of the opinion that the Indian media was run by a group of pseudo-secular intellectuals who were staunch supporters of the Muslim-appeasing Congress party, dubbed as “Khangress.” News organizations like NDTV became a frequent target of venom spewing right wingers. NDTV was referred to by means of a Hindi word which meant “prostitute television.”
After having faced a lot of abuse on social media for her liberal views, Network 18’s former anchor Sagarika Ghose described BJP’s online supporters as “Internet Hindus,” a controversial term which led to a number of debates including one on the channel Al Jazeera in which Sagarika Ghose and Subramanian Swamy participated. Eminent historian Ramchandra Guha also pointed at the abuse which he was receiving from “BJP bhakts.” In his book “Patriots and Partisans: From Nehru to Hindutva and Beyond”, Guha wrote an entire chapter called “Hindutva Hate Mail” which described the threatening emails he received from world over whenever he wrote something on a controversial subject be it concerning Ayodhya or Muslims.
The disdain which the “Internet Hindu” has for the mainstream media has not diluted even after Narendra Modi came to power at the Centre. A few months back, when Finance Minister Arun Jaitley gave an interview to NDTV, #ShameOnArunJaitley became one of top Twitter trends. Though Jaitley defended the Modi government on the channel, the online army of Modi bhakts decided to castigate Jaitley simply because he chose to give an interview to a channel which they consider to be “prostitute television.”
BJP was quick to realize the large presence of right wing elements on the web. Several leaders of the BJP were embracing social media with Narendra Modi leading the charge. But to consolidate the votes of internet supporters, portals devoted to the ideology of the BJP were required. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) had for long been involved in publishing ideological magazines and newspapers. Organizer, the English mouthpiece of RSS, started publishing on 3rd July, 1947 and was edited by a number of prolific thinkers including LK Advani. Similarly Panchjanya, the Hindi mouthpiece, initiated publication on 14th January, 1948 with AB Vajpayee as its first editor.
However, to tap the support of right wing online supporters, there was a need to go beyond Organizer and Panchajanya. A new kind of ideology centric journalism was required on the web to organize and gain support of the “Internet Hindus.” This led to the birth of websites like Centre Right India, Niti Central and Swarajya Mag. The landing page of these websites gives a clear assertion of their ideology. Centre Right India, founded in 2010 by Amarnath Govindarajan and Prasanna Vishwanath, believes in contributing a “centre-right perspective to the pubic sphere.” During the 2014 General Elections, they visibly supported the BJP with the website evaluating candidates fielded by the BJP in different constituencies.
In 2014, the duo of Govindarajan and Vishwanath, went on to start Swarajya Mag with Swapan Dasgupta on its Editorial Advisory Board. Though Swarajya Magazine claims to be “fiercely independent, big tent of right liberal ideas” and not “politically partisan”, the presence of Dasgpta on the “EAB” speaks volumes of the political affinity of the publication as Dasgupta is a known right wing commentator who was recently awarded with the Padma Bhushan by Narendra Modi’s government. Among the recent contributors to Swarajya is BJP spokesperson Sanjay Koul. Moreover, Swarajya’s tagline of “Read India Right” is an open declaration of its ideological moorings.
However, the most instrumental role in furthering the agenda of the right wingers on the web has been played by Niti Central. The website is a part of Niti Digital, which is owned by trusted Modi ally Rajesh Jain who was made Director of Gujarat Informatics Limited. As per an article titled “The rise of right wing journalism” on TruthofGujarat.com, “On August 14, 2012, the who’s who of right wing journalism including Arun Shourie, Ashok Malik, Tavleen Singh, Swapan Dasgupta et al. conglomerated and penned articles for a new propaganda website – Niti Central.” The website uses the words “bold” and “right” alongside its masthead. It is noteworthy to mention that all the three websites (Centre Right India, Swarajya Mag and Niti Central) make use of the word “right”.
Niti Central makes no secret of the assistance it handed out to the BJP in the lead up to the 2014 General Elections. Its website says, “Between August 2012 and May 2014, Niti Central played a critical role in shaping the political narrative in the run up to the 2014 Lok Sabha Elections.” The websites adds, “Our mission at Niti Central continues as India begins a new chapter after the historic 2014 Lok Sabha elections.” The usage of the word “historic” while describing the 2014 Lok Sabha Elections hints at Niti Central’s euphoria arising out of Narendra Modi’s victory, some credit of which definitely rests with the propaganda generated by the website.
Hindutva websites command a decent following on the web. Niti Central has 1,38,270 likes on Facebook and 60,800 followers on Twitter. Swarajya has 30,907 followers on Facebook and 7,584 on Twitter while Centre Right India maintains a relatively small following of 7,999 and 4,585 on Facebook and Twitter, respectively (figures as recorded on April 17, 2015). The content on these websites is an interesting blend of emotive Hindutva issues and developmental concerns. While Centre Right India has published articles with the headlines “Love Jihad: Is it all smoke without fire”, “The enemies of Sanskrit learning” and “What every Hindu should know about Christianity – Book Review”, IBTL has uploaded videos and published pieces titled “Hindu Temples & Government Control” and “Guilty, until proven innocent – A note on Mayaben Kodnani’s conviction in Gujarat.” These websites often publish provocative statements, for instance, an article on Swarajya Mag titled “Why can’t the Pope learn to live with irreverence” suggested that the Pope should learn irreverence from the Hindu community.
While articles on Hindutva issues cater to the ultra-conservative religious right wingers, economically right wing thinkers are provided with success stories of the Gujarat model. The focus has now shifted towards the initiatives taken by the Central Government. Centre Right India has a section called #Agenda2014 wherein one can find articles discussing what should be the new oil and gas policy of the Central Government. Similarly, Swarajya has a section called ‘Ideas’ where one comes across pieces titled “How Baniyas do business” and “Co-opting the Railways to build India’s Smart Cities.” The strategy which has been evolved to maintain content on such websites consists of three primary players. The foremost among them are staff reporters who maintain the website and update content. Niti Central publishes most of its write-ups under the byline of “Staff Reporter.”
Crowdsourcing is a significant feature of Hindutva media as websites like Swarajya invite contributions from its readers. TR Vivek, one of the co-founders of Swatajya, criticized the crowdsourcing model of the start-up in a blog post titled “The J-Minus Model: Can Digital-Media Outfits Survive Without Journalists In Their Newsrooms” published by The Caravan Magazine. He wrote, “Every second piece that came to our desks for publication, be it on cricket, cinema or civic pride – would inevitably be an evisceration of Nehruvian socialism written by someone not yet twenty-five. In one such instance, an irate community correspondent, when asked to substantiate a passage bordering on the perfidious, argued that since there would be a statutory disclaimer at the end of his piece, the editors should confine themselves to issues of grammar and syntax.” He added, “The risk of upsetting such writers, I was told, was two-fold. One, the supply of content would dry up and two, there could be a potential loss of subscription revenues and readership. The disgruntled authors who happened to be Twitter titans could influence their followers – who ran in the thousands – into believing we were yet another mainstream media mimic.”
Hindutva media’s star attraction has obviously been the political honchos and ideologues who have penned articles for their portals. From Arun Shourie to Swapan Dasgupta to Sr Sri Ravi Shankar, all have chipped in their bit of content to help in the growth of an alternative media narrative. Niti Central also has bylines adorning the name of Narendra Modi. But the fundamental question pertains to how are Hindutva websites born? If one takes the example of Kovai Media Private Limited, run from Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu by Amarnath Govindarajan and Prasanna Vishwanath, one might argue that Hindutva websites are started independently by right wing thinkers and later on co-opted by the BJP and larger Sangh Parivar. However, other examples tend to suggest that such initiatives have the backing of the Sangh right from the word go.
Let us take the case of Citizens for Accountable Governance or CAG, a voluntary initiative which propped up in 2013. The story goes as follows: In June 2013, a group six individuals (an entrepreneur, a graduate, a lawyer, a software engineer and two investment bankers) were discussing the state of affairs prevailing in the country at a restaurant. They decided to come together and establish CAG to fulfil their dream of making “India a model of accountable governance.” Within months, the organization spread across the entire country with 45,000 chapters. They organized an all-India youth competition called Manthan which culminated in October with a grand closing ceremony. The closing ceremony held in Delhi saw participation from over 6000 students belonging to different colleges of India including IITs and IIMs.
At the event the students were addressed by none other than the then Chief Minister of Gujarat Narendra Modi. Not only this, the occasion also saw Modi sharing the stage with Chandrababu Naidu, a clear hint at cementing of BJP-TDP ties for the upcoming elections. A few months later in December 2013, CAG volunteers organized the “Run for Unity Marathon” with the help of BJP workers. The marathon was a part of Modi’s plans of building a “Statue of Unity” in the honour of Sardar Patel. What was bewildering was the pace at which CAG was growing. It’s impossible for a start-up to manage events of such magnitude on its own. How can “CAG” organize an event like “Run for Unity Marathon” with the “help” of BJP? One requires an extensive network of individuals to successfully pull off an event like that. A six month old voluntary organization doesn’t merely require the help of a political organization to achieve such a feat. It requires its active assistance and cooperation.
To say that CAG was able to do so without the Sangh’s backing from the beginning is to live in a fool’s paradise. The important thing is that CAG eventually launched a media portal called The Indian Republic which amassed over 200,000 followers on Facebook. The website, like all other Hindutva media websites, was a saffron propaganda tool with pro-BJP content. However, the website is no longer available online. If one traces the events carefully, it becomes obvious that CAG’s TIR (The Indian Repulbic) had short term goals which was to flood the internet with pro-Modi, pro-BJP content in the lead up to the 2014 General Elections. After the task was realized, the portal died a silent death but it provides for an interesting case study which indicates at the evolution of Hindutva media.
In an article for The Caravan Magazine titled “The ethical vacuum at the centre of the campaign for Narendra Modi”, Hartosh Singh Bal analyzed the profiles of 85 professionals involved with CAG. He found minimal representation of minorities on the platform. He also pointed out that most of the persons were upper caste Hindus. However, his most critical observation was that a majority of the professionals had technical education. Out of a total of 85 people, 38 were engineers while 22 held MBA degrees. Hartosh’s analysis was strikingly similar to Guha’s assessment of the people who had bombarded him with hate mails. Guha wrote the following about them, “They are largely young, almost all of them upper caste, many of them live abroad and virtually without exception they are male.”
The observations made by Guha and Hartosh are integral in figuring out the phenomena of Hindutva media and the similarities between the founders and followers of Hindutva media. The two belonged to the same group of educated upper caste Hindus who were frustrated with the so-called appeasement politics of India and thus, came together on the web to reorient India towards a majoritarian philosophy with deep contempt for secularism. These were not old school RSS pracharaks but educated Indians. Sadly, there wasn’t much difference in their thinking pattern.
It’s a known fact that a large section of people, owing allegiance to the Sangh ideology, consider the mainstream media to be pseudo-secular and ultra liberal. The pioneers of the Hindutva media have been smart enough to identify such “Internet Hindus” as their target audience. Freedom of Speech and expression is a constitutional liberty which extends to all Indians irrespective of their ideological background. The founders of Hindutva media have exercised their right to free speech by means of their news portals. But no freedom is absolute. While Hindutva media portals have the right to contribute and shape public opinion in the country, they do not have the liberty to spread misinformation and hatred as they often do. This is precisely the reason why they are a dangerous development and are causing an online upheaval.
Saif Ahmad Khan is a freelance journalist.