17/04/2017 5:09 PM IST | Updated 18/04/2017 12:09 PM IST

When Will Indian Liberals Stop Falling Into The Right-Wing Trap?

Liberals have forgotten the art of setting the agenda.

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Man and maze

If you search Sonu Nigam on YouTube, the most-watched video of all time with his name on it is the title track of Kal Ho Na Ho, a movie released in 2003. Sonu Nigam posts a few tweets about being disturbed by the morning prayer call to Muslims from his neighborhood mosque, and Indian liberals decide to resurrect Sonu Nigam in the public sphere. Nigam's publicist must be laughing his way to the bank.

Maybe it wasn't a well thought out conspiracy. Maybe Nigam genuinely felt what he wrote and didn't expect it to blow up and see Sonu Nigam trending. Even so, Nigam must be very happy with the opportunity to become the Anupam Kher of 2017, a celebrity spokesperson of the Islamophobic agenda.

Liberals are unable to understand that in the public sphere, opposing something gives it the oxygen of publicity, makes it the topic of conversation.

Liberals expressing outrage over Nigam's tweets are only helping spread his views far and wide. By now, his tweets must have reached remote villages of digital India in Hindi translation through a million Whatsapp groups. The liberal outrage over them must have been discussed threadbare as an example of their hypocrisy.

Liberals are unable to understand that in the public sphere, opposing something gives it the oxygen of publicity, makes it the topic of conversation. The views you oppose thus become the agenda, from news headlines to Whatsapp memes. That is how Donald Trump becomes president because liberals say 'Anybody but Trump', instead of telling people why they should vote for Hillary.

Across the world, the right-wing gains traction by saying or doing the most offensive things, getting attention through the outrage of liberals and moderates, consolidating their supporters, then changing the narrative so they continue the conversation. The Hindu right openly uses the word polarisation, even with its Hindi translation, dhruvikaran. Issues like Babri Masjid, Shah Bano, Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses, cow vigilantism, love jihad, nationalism, triple talaq – all such issues are raised for the purpose of polarisation. When liberals, secularist parties and Muslim groups respond, polarisation happens. If you ignore them, if you refuse to take sides, the polarisation attempt fails.

Liberals need to define the agenda rather than allow themselves to be defined by it. They need to set the narrative rather than respond to it.

Setting the agenda

Not responding to the right-wing agenda doesn't mean liberals should do nothing. They need to define the agenda rather than allow themselves to be defined by it. They need to set the narrative rather than respond to it.

For instance, instead of making Sonu Nigam trend, they should have trended Ramu. An 18 year old Dalit boy in Gonda, Ramu accidentally killed a calf. His village responded by ostracizing him, leading him to commit suicide.

Words matter. It matters how much we outrage over Sonu Nigam's tweet as compared to Ramu's death. It matters what questions we are asking. Instead of asking how Sonu Nigam feels about non-Hindus not being allowed to eat beef, liberals should have asked what action the Uttar Pradesh government is taking over Ramu's death. Has there been an FIR? Are the villagers who ostracised Ramu being booked for abetment of suicide?

We know that the Hindutva agenda was on a back-foot over the Una incident in Gujarat, where Dalits were lynched for doing their caste profession of skinning dead cows. We know the Hindutva agenda received a set-back as the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad's campus vigilantism drove Rohith Vemula to suicide.

We know that when Hindutva polarised India along Hindu-Muslim, communal-secular lines, what stopped it in its tracks was Mandal. Is caste no longer an issue in India?

Why do liberals see Hindu-Muslim as the only narrative worth fighting for?

Why do liberals see Hindu-Muslim as the only narrative worth fighting for? Hindu-Muslim polarisation seeks to unite Hindus against Muslims. The politics of Mandal served to fragment the Hindutva cause. We have known this since the '90s, but our liberals never learn.

Great that liberals spoke up for Pehlu Khan, but if only they had raised their hashtags for Jaysukh Madhad, a Dalit who was recently killed in Gujarat for the crime of winning a panchayat election.

Are there no farmer suicides anymore in India? No crime other than gau raksha lynchings? Is manual scavenging a thing of the past? Is there no malnutrition, no hunger deaths? No dowry killings, no child marriage? There is no dearth of issues for liberals to take up, if only they decide to set the agenda. But they are so used to playing into the right-wing's hands, it's force of habit.

The Milo Playbook

Indian liberals would do well from the Milo Playbook. In 2009, writer Ryan Holiday helped a blogger create a false controversy around his film and book.

Holiday writes, "We sent fake tips to Gawker, which dutifully ate them up. We created a boycott group on Facebook that acquired thousands of members. We made deliberately offensive ads and ran them on websites where they would be written about by controversy-loving reporters. After I began vandalizing some of our own billboards in Los Angeles, the trend spread across the country, with parties of feminists roving the streets of New York to deface them (with the Village Voice in tow)."

Holiday sees this in operation regularly these days. He writes:

Most brands and personalities try to appeal to a wide swath of the population. Niche players and polarizing personalities are only ever going to be interesting to a small subgroup. While this might seem like a disadvantage, it's actually a huge opportunity: Because it allows them to leverage the dismissals, anger, mockery, and contempt of the population at large as proof of their credibility. Someone like Milo orMike Cernovichdoesn't care that you hate them—they like it. It's proof to their followers that they are doing something subversive and meaningful. It gives their followers something to talk about. It imbues the whole movement with a sense of urgency and action—it creates purpose and meaning.

...he can acquire massive amounts of negative publicity by pissing off people in the media? Well now all of a sudden someone is absorbing the cost of this inefficient form of marketing for him. If a CNN story reaches 100,000 people, that's 90,000 people all patting themselves on the back for how smart and decent they are. They're just missing the fact that the 10,000 new people that just heard about Milo for the first time. The same goes for when you angrily share on Facebook some godawful thing one of these people has said. The vast majority of your friends rush to agree, but your younger cousin has a dark switch in his brain go on for the first time.

Indian liberals are doing themselves a disservice by reducing themselves to complaining about abusive trolls. What trolls seek to do is to set the agenda, dominate the narrative. The day Indian liberals learn this, they will begin blocking the trolls and setting their own narrative.

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