On February 15, N. Ram, chairman of The Hindu group of publications, Chennai, which recently ran a series of reports on the Rafale fighter jet deal, posted the link to an article on his Twitter timeline. Written by the military historian and strategic affairs commentator Srinath Raghavan and posted on the Carnegie Endowment website, the article argued that the Comptroller and Auditor-General of India was on infirm ground when it certified Rafale the most advantageous among all options the Indian Air Force had at the time.
Ram’s tweet was met with scepticism, if not outright abuse. Some accused him of selectivity in presentation of facts, others questioned the propriety of pursuing a story ostensibly banished from public attention by the terror attack in Kashmir’s Pulwama district, which killed over 40 personnel of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) on February 14. The Carnegie Endowment soon pulled the article for reasons still unexplained.
Over the next few days the news cycle was dominated by the escalating spiral of unreason, for vengeance against Pakistan and the boycott of all Kashmiris. Public figures, journalists and social media users who argued that this feverish over-reaction aligned perfectly with the terrorists’ objectives, faced a tidal wave of abuse.
Phone numbers of individuals resisting the rush into unreason were shared, with open invitations to the faithful to ply them with unwelcome attentions. And in the midst of the trauma of Pulwama, CRPF personnel were compelled to fight another battle against the fake news torrent.
Pulwama was a gigantic security lapse. It also bears testimony at another level, to the failure of the Narendra Modi government's hardline approach on Kashmir, eponymously named after National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, which dispenses with earlier rituals of conciliation and piles on the daily humiliations and violence inflicted on ordinary people.
The "Doval Doctrine" has been no part of the interrogation following Pulwama because the national political opposition has opted for restraint. Yet they earned no reciprocal courtesies. Modi and his associates briefly deferred their political campaign schedules, but soon returned to the trail. Vengeance would be assured, they declared, since a government imbued with the true nationalist spirit was in authority.
An immediate consequence of the explosion on TV channels and social media, was the silencing of disclosures on the Rafale deal. However, the players in the drama did not for long remain out of the limelight.
On February 20, the Supreme Court held Anil Ambani guilty of contempt for successive default of money owed the Swedish telecom firm Ericsson.
In April 2015, as Prime Minister Modi concluded a visit to France, Ambani secured a share in the contract for the IAF's acquisition of Rafale jets manufactured by Dassault Aviation. Ambani had registered a firm, Reliance Defence Ltd., just two weeks prior and as media reporting has since revealed, visited Paris and met with senior officials in Dassault and the French government around the same time.
The Inter-Government Agreement (IGA) signed on the occasion superseded an earlier contract concluded after negotiations originating in a 2007 "request for proposals". As a joint statement after Modi's visit to Paris put it, the IGA offered better terms than the "separate process underway”.
The obvious questions were suppressed both within the political establishment and the media (other than The Citizen at the time), an outcome of the "shock and awe" the Modi regime has imposed on critical thinking. Yet as time went by, it became obvious that the numbers simply did not add up.
At last count, the younger Ambani and his companies had filed 28 defamation suits, 20 of them against media outlets. The sums claimed varied between Rs 5,000 and 10,000 crore.
The slogan of "development" and the unsubtle dog-whistle politics of minority-baiting, had fetched Modi's BJP rich dividends in 2014, but were not guaranteed tickets to a new term in office. That new ticket had to be fashioned in claiming sole ownership of the mantle of national security.
That stratagem though, may have been deployed a little too early in the race. Operations against Pakistani forces across the Line of Control have been a part of the repertoire of India's special forces since the troubles in Kashmir began.
In September 2016, Modi chose to blazon one such operation as an unprecedented action, that he alone had the determination to enable. This "surgical strike" as it was branded, soon entered the calendar of official commemorations with a directive in 2018 to all government agencies and universities to mark the day. And in an assist for the BJP's upcoming election campaign, Bollywood recently put out a splashy film suffused with fanciful imagery, on the cross border operation.
Modi has chosen also to open up the secret intelligence playbook to the public gaze. India’s exploitation of a weakness in Pakistan’s security matrix – the separatist insurgency in Balochistan province – became a matter of the public record when at an August 2016 meeting to discuss a cycle of violence in Kashmir, Modi announced that Pakistan would be held to account for “atrocities committed against the people of Balochistan and Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir”.
A few days later, at the Prime Minister’s customary Independence Day address from Delhi’s Red Fort, Modi bowed in elaborate homage to the “people of Balochistan, Gilgit, (and) Pakistan Occupied Kashmir” who had extended thanks to him for advocating their cause.
The threat of covert action may once have deterred adventurist actions from the other side of the deeply antagonistic, even existential, relationship between India and Pakistan. But once the political leadership has appeared in public and chest-thumping bravado, basking in the glory of covert action, it risks a loss of face from one solitary action that strikes inside India’s security perimeter.
The Rafale revelations, indicating that the regime has been engaged in transactions that impinge on national security, are another severe embarrassment. The Modi government's keenness to suppress public discussion is perfectly understandable; the media's willingness to play along, less so.
Strategic litigation by the Anil Ambani group may have induced a degree of media reticence about vigorously following the trails of the Rafale deal. Process is punishment in the Indian legal system, but media organisations have in the past, run the entire gauntlet to assert a point of principle. Fear of missing out on the plentiful advertisement revenue the upcoming election campaign promises, may be another deterrent to media investigations. But again, there was a time when the separation of editorial content and advertisers' interests was zealously maintained, at little or no cost.
The organised media industry is prey to gnawing worries. News platforms are losing their identity as social media and cellphone networks enable "distributed information discovery", when users create their own communities and withdraw into echo chambers where they only hear what they want. Advertisers often find the information bubbles created by social media users a more congenial environment to display their wares. And one way that traditional media seeks to slow down the exodus of advertisers towards digital platforms is to mimic the content of these information bubbles.
Political entities that leverage this conjunction of forces in the media universe, potentially gain a major propaganda advantage. The BJP has forged its identity as standard bearer for the anxieties and unmet aspirations of an emerging strata of Indian society, that drives the public conversation with a mixture of rage and disregard for fact. In the absence of a determined pushback by older news platforms, this is the definitive recipe for the abject impoverishment of political life.