LET’S outdo Prime Minister Modi in what he does best: invent an acronym. But then we need to also move on to the next steps. Today’s unpronounceable offer is: OASWNBRIBNGOOFOT. Short for: Our autocratic state will not be reined in by NGOs, or Facebook or Twitter. True, it’s useful to connect with informed friends or inspirational intellectuals or committed comrades on social media platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp. It probably helps to speak one’s mind on Twitter and Signal, or respond to right-wing illogic with scientific assertion. However, it has proven to be a poor investment in time and energy if a political change is what one seeks.
The right-wing is on Twitter with boots on the ground. Social media is like air cover to the armour of mobs that have state support. Pernicious apps such as Tek Fog have a multiplier effect when they can direct mobs with falsehoods clothed as facts. The remaining ‘virtual’ activists are free to feel elated by the farmers on the move or to join an online candlelight vigil or feel angered by the jailing of courageous comrades over trumped-up charges. What’s true of Modi’s hijacking of social media is true of his kindred spirit, Donald Trump.
Read more: Manufacturing Modi’s popularity
The New York Times got it right recently about the ascendant pattern of political activism in the polarised politics of America. It quoted a 2020 book, which caught the eye for a description that fits online activists in India and others in South Asia where people are fighting oppressive regimes. The Times discusses Eitan Hersh’s book Politics is for Power as he critiques “a day in the life of many political obsessives in sharp, if cruel, terms”.
An excerpt reveals an experience many Indians and possibly fewer Pakistanis feel helplessly exposed to with friends, including a large component of ‘virtual friends’, as together they strive to deal with a murderous political reality stalking their world. “I refresh my Twitter feed to keep up on the latest political crisis, then toggle over to Facebook to read clickbait news stories, then over to YouTube to see a montage of juicy clips from the latest congressional hearing. I then complain to my family about all the things I don’t like that I have seen.” Hersh says the addictive phenomenon is distinct from political activism that people experienced before the advent of the internet. Comrades used to meet at the barricades, not on laptop screens.
Only state power with a resolute agenda can curb the menace. Neither an NGO nor a determined netizen is equipped for that.
About his country, Hersh says, it’s close to a national pastime. “A third of Americans say they spend two hours or more each day on politics,” he writes. “Of these people, four out of five say that not one minute of that time is spent on any kind of real political work. It’s all TV news and podcasts and radio shows and social media and cheering and booing and complaining to friends and family.” India is getting there.
This could not be said before the ‘NGOisation’ of politics occurred around the 1990s in India, not unrelated to the end of the Cold War. The US embassy in New Delhi trimmed the size of the Span magazine to cut its propaganda budget, and the USSR cultural centre at Barakhamba Road shut operations, handing over the assets to successor embassies. Neoliberal reforms that followed in India required a degree of depoliticisation among the masses. The events in Ayodhya helped take the focus from politically untenable neoliberal reforms. Simultaneously, assaults on the environment intensified with corporate raids on tribal habitats, their forestlands, water and mineral resources. The crucial annual budget, which wove the lives of ordinary people became an event for TV analysts and corporate boardrooms. Intrepid journalists would once wait in queues to collect the budget papers in bulging sacks to comb through them dispassionately.
As political parties turned to parochial passions to find their feet in the new political milieu, NGOs moved in to help stall the plunder and organise people to fight for their basic rights. Some put up an impressive resistance, which NGOs do well when democracy has not been reported missing in action. For example, they couldn’t then and cannot today prevent an M.F. Husain from being forced to die in exile. They can critique a controversial hologram or slam the communally inspired removal of a Christian hymn from the military’s Republic Day repertoire, but NGOs cannot change the situation, not against a determined, coercive state.
They can organise protests against state atrocities in Kashmir, but only a political mobilisation would reverse the break-up of the state and trampling of its people’s rights. As for one’s well-meaning online activist friends, they might pick their battles sensibly. To punish the Haridwar communalists would be a logical idea in any democracy. Can online campaigns get us there in India? Communalists are known to go to prison to come out as heroes, or even become MPs and on one occasion the home minister. Only state power with a resolute agenda can curb the menace. Neither an NGO nor a determined netizen is equipped for that.
That’s when one needs a hundred more farmers’ movements to show the way. Imagine a powerful movement fighting its battle on social media. The fact is the farmers defied a very hostile internet to fight their fight and win it, albeit in hindsight, only partially. And that is pretty much how a number of opposition parties have also been able to defeat Modi’s candidates in important states, with swarming millions who outnumbered the Hindutva forces on the ground.
NGOs, civil society, or netizens — call them by any name — will do well to do what they alone can do well. They could mount pressure on a fractious opposition to fulfil their promise last August about launching a second freedom movement, to restore democracy in India. Anything less will mean a life woven in more intolerable acronyms.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
Published in Dawn, January 25th, 2022