Speaking Power to Truth: The government versus plain facts

Image courtesy New Indian Express

From day to day, the gap between citizens’ experiences and the official narrative grows wider, as the government’s response to a range of national issues looks increasingly like an assault on clarity. We examine the context and consequences of recent attempts at spin, as the government’s fogging machine went to work.

  • The much-touted thirty-nine per cent jump of the stock market in March-June is proffered as evidence of an economy on the rebound, but could it be simply a case of the rich getting the fidgets? Journalist Aunindyo Chakravarty (on NewsClick, July 10, here) explains the stock market’s rise as a symptom of the country’s wealth inequality. These days, the one per cent of our population that holds seventy-three per cent of private wealth is hard put to find decent returns on its income from property holdings. Interest from banks, after taxes, is lower than the rate of inflation. Hence, this income makes its way into day-trading in the shares market, investments of such short duration that a transaction moves from purchase to sale before the share delivery can be formally acknowledged. The delivery volume for June 2020, at 15.1 per cent, is the lowest since 2003, while June’s inflow into mutual funds saw a ninety-five per cent drop from May. How does gambling for daily stakes amount to an economic recovery? And what does it tell us about investor confidence?
  • Given the times, to set much store by investor confidence is a confidence trick in its own right. Barkha Dutt (Mojo Story, July 11) interviews rapper Dule Rocker, or Duleshwar Tandi, of Kalahandi. Once a migrant worker employed in a restaurant at Raipur, he saw signs of the approaching lockdown and made it back to his village just before it began. Both interviewer and guest marvel at the lengths to which mainstream news will go to avoid covering millions like him. She recalls her three months of frantic road trips across the country, documenting disrupted lives. Dule’s story rebukes tall claims about the economy. The crises of his life – whether due to an interrupted education, casual caste discrimination or insecure employment – speak of an uncaring state, but his sympathy with others goes further. He presents an Oriya rap composition, about a pregnant woman making the long journey home, and asks us to imagine the kind of India we have created for her unborn child.
  • Along with biscuit consumption, vegetable vending emerged as a new marker of Covid-era economic distress. If biscuits were a staple during the forced marches of April and May, vegetable selling became the fastest-growing occupation. The trend continues. Sabrang (July 12) reports on Sapan Pal, an advocate in Bhubaneshwar, who now sells vegetables outside the High Court. “How are the families of advocates to survive?” he asks. There is as yet no relief package for them in Odisha.
  • Certainly, anecdotes and personal testimony are not macro data. The government has played up a CMIE report stating that unemployment in the week ending June 21 was back to pre-lockdown levels. On the Newsclick show, Aaj ki baat (July 1), Urmilesh notes that on June 30 Modi promised to extend the scheme of free rations to eighty crore people till November. Do the two figures add up, he asks. Are we to believe that a burgeoning population of the employed depends on government handouts for bare subsistence? And why did the prime minister feel the need to address the nation in order to announce that a scheme was being extended? Was it a useful change of subject amid the galloping spread of infection in the country?
  • There is no counting the buzzwords introduced in these last six years. “Aatmanirbhar” now takes its place under the spotlight, a space vacated by Swachh Bharat, by Make in, Start Up, Stand Up India, among others. In the penumbra is “green-lighting ecological decimation amidst a pandemic”, write Chitrangada Chaudhury and Aniket Aga (The Hindu, July 9), pointing to multiple recent clearances given to industrial, mining and infrastructure projects. The clearances ride roughshod over environmental safeguards, threaten biodiversity and the rights of forest communities, and contribute to exactly the sort of conditions that have led to multiple outbreaks of pandemics in this century. In the face of industrial disasters during the lockdown – two leaks of noxious gas at Visakhapatnam, and the blowout of an oil well at Baghjan – the environment ministry has been tweeting about “seamless economic growth”. 
  • The project of fogging up the public lens is enabled by multiple systemic failures, and by societal complicity. Delivering the third Neelabh Mishra Memorial Lecture – on June 16, uploaded to YouTube by the Karwan e Mohabbat (here, July 1) – Harsh Mander speaks of an eroded and demoralised system. He contrasts the institutional pushback Modi had faced after the Gujarat pogrom of 2002 with the way institutions seem to have rolled over and subsided in 2020. From the mass media to the courts, political parties or the human rights commission, they have failed to resist assaults on the people, whether through the misuse of police, February’s communal violence in northeast Delhi, or a lockdown comparable to Partition in its disruptive effects. As much as other factors, the change may be attributed to a well-off section of society that no longer makes common cause with the poor, wishes to remain ignorant of their suffering, and absolves institutions of their responsibilities. 
  • The result: punitive sections of the Constitution have become its operative parts, outweighing guarantees of rights, participation and empowerment. Writing in The Caravan (June 30, here), anthropologist Dwaipayan Banerjee notes the BJP government’s reliance on repressive laws – the UAPA, the Public Safety Act, the sedition law – and the way the colonial-era Epidemic Diseases Act has been weaponized against civil society, along with the Disaster Management Act. Covid-19 arrives as an opportunity for the government to crush dissent and reinforce surveillance. As Banerjee points out, this response isn’t exactly novel in the annals of pandemics, but if we are looking at history it bears remembering that governments don’t have a good record of surviving a pandemic.
  • What about the Constitution’s immune system? The Shudra (July 12, here) live streamed a lecture by Prof Vinod Kumar of the National Law University, Delhi where he explained this immune system in terms of basic features such as federalism, guarantees such as the right to constitutional remedies, and checks on state power through an independent judiciary. Perhaps what is in question today is not the Constitution’s inner resistance but that of its functionaries, he suggests. And that appears to be under grave stress.
  • Does it matter what the Constitution says if it is not to be applied? The vacuum of rights yawned wider last week, when a basti of sanitation workers – “corona warriors”, as Modi was pleased to call them – was demolished under court orders, in Delhi. Some seventy houses were brought down, and their inhabitants left homeless – among them three Covid-positive people. Left with no income, no home, no resources even to feed themselves, the evicted now spend their days guarding the rubble of their homes, where their possessions lie buried under the debris. Watch NewsClick’s (July 11)  report from the scene.