Post-truth is the celebrated word of the year 2016. Deservedly so. Acrimonious, acidic exchanges marked the US presidential elections, which consumed unparalleled global attention. Then there was Donald Trump's extraordinary triumph to the White House. His ugly grocery list of embarrassing faux pas, egregious lies, profane outbursts and unambiguous bigotry found a willing audience. And finally, even a charmed voter. In short, 8 November 2016 left the world flabbergasted. America and Americans and their atrophied wisdom became the objects of locker-room to boardroom ridicule. But the fact is that post-truth was successfully experimented with before, about three years earlier, in the general elections of the world's largest democracy, India. Narendra Modi emerged victorious, unscathed, unscarred despite carrying humongous baggage, including an alleged genocide. Modi and Trump exuded remarkable similarities. Their ability to paint doomsday and equally appear like the blessed Messiah was breathtakingly disingenuous. It worked.
If Trump wanted to Make America Great Again, Modi sold #AccheDin (Good Days Again). They share the same intonation and promise.
Modi had remained a powerful regional satrap since 2002 in Gujarat, a prosperous state despite depressing social and economic indicators that showcased the failure of the Prof Jagdish Bhagwati-buttressed trickle-down growth model. Modi often claimed that he was being unfairly vilified by a pseudo-secular mainstream media. He nonchalantly overlooked the fact that the Supreme Court had severely castigated him as "Nero", who fiddled while violent majority-community mobs mercilessly butchered Muslims, including pregnant women. The death toll, at a conservative estimate, was at 1200. India has had several communal riots before, but under Modi it saw a new dangerous manifestation—the state-sponsorship of organised attacks against clearly outnumbered minorities. Police forces did not just abdicate responsibility, they were hand-in-glove with the murderous perpetrators of the planned pogrom. It was a moment of monumental shame. But a crafty Modi had calculated an electoral windfall amidst the human tragedy. Post-truth became the political stratagem. A polarised society voted him in with a massive mandate. His deliberate administrative insouciance in protecting his own citizens became his trademark talisman; the "Gujarat model" was born. It would one day make him the Prime Minister.
Like Trump, Modi offered instantaneous back-of-the-envelope solutions to calcified problems.
Power is poison. But Modi found the venomous concoction intoxicating as it paid massive dividends. He was to win two more state elections. Meanwhile, Gujarat became a laboratory for testing a democratically elected police state. Fake encounter killings were carried out against suspected terrorists apparently on a mission to assassinate the Hindu Hriday Samrat. Police officers who valiantly protested the obvious excesses were promptly transferred, while others faced criminal charges. Interestingly, Maya Kodnani, a former minister convicted for the death of 97 people in the Naroda Patiya massacre, was not just protected but promoted by Modi. It is a preposterous idea that Modi did not know about Kodnani's heinous deeds.
If Trump wanted to Make America Great Again, Modi sold #AccheDin (Good Days Again). They share the same intonation and promise. The American economy's macro-fundamentals were actually good; Barak Obama had rescued America from the cataclysmic collapse of Wall Street and the subsequent economic meltdown. India, despite creeping sluggishness, had survived the Great Recession, and clocked an average of 7.8% GDP over 10 long years, lifting 140 million out of poverty concomitantly. It remained the second fastest growing economy after China. But Modi rubbished it as statistical gobbledygook. He mocked the "chicken biryani" diplomacy of Dr Manmohan Singh against Pakistan as sweet surrender. He spoke disparagingly about women (50 crore ki girlfriend), kept his marital status concealed, and there still remain serious question marks over his declared educational qualifications. But it was kosher. He did not even know the correct name of Mahatma Gandhi. But even that was perhaps a Congress party conspiracy. Whatever the case, Modi's popularity remained unaffected despite flagrant bloopers. Post-truth was at work.
Six months before the elections, two activist websites produced audio tapes that indicated a massive abuse of state machinery to track the movements of a woman in an alleged relationship with the Gujarat Chief Minister. The story mysteriously disappeared from the headlines. Modi whipped up the victim card regularly and the BJP in Parliament was on full-throttle filibustering. Policy paralysis stuck, but the truth was that parliamentary gridlock did India in.
Post-truth assumed tectonic levels in 2014. From recovering $500 billion in black money within 100 days, to creating 20 million jobs a year, to reducing Pakistan to a frightened pulp, to wiping out corruption—Modi said it all to mesmerised ordinary Indians. Like Trump, he offered instantaneous back-of-the-envelope solutions to calcified problems. Modi intimidated his BJP leadership through an aggressive Twitter troll strategy that feverishly rooted for him. Trump had thrashed his Republican counterparts with nasty nicknames. In India, most meekly submitted to the social media avalanche.
Both Trump and Modi are reality TV superstars playing to a premeditated script.
Both Trump and Modi are reality TV superstars playing to a premeditated script. The authoritarian image suits their intrinsic style. They are cast in the same mould. Their charisma (if you want to call it that ) is based on being brusque and bombastic. We have begun to live in cleverly conceptualised echo chambers managed by qualified personnel, and manufacturing fake news. Syncretism is out of vogue, as clash overtakes collaboration, and cantankerousness overwhelms content. Even Modi's disastrous demonetisation decision was packaged in plastic nationalism. Everything was done to provoke an emotional outpouring.
Americans denied him a US visa for human rights violations for several years. But Modi finally made it to the White House. And now he sees an alter-ego living there.