Lies as State policy

Lies as State policy

The Path to Authoritarianism

New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves during the 74th Independence Day function at Red Fort, in New Delhi, Saturday, Aug. 15 2020. Credit: PTI

Lies, half-truths, suppression of truth, misrepresentation of facts and exaggerated promises are common tools of political tradecraft and politicians often employ them to win votes. Let us not go into such trifles as the promise of Rs 15 lakh in every Indian’s bank account etc., which after the elections was dismissed as ‘jumla’ (a repartee meant to win gullible minds) by those who played the game themselves. It’s perhaps in the nature of democratic politics that competitive lies contest the market and the bigger lie wins. Lies during elections may be ignored but what about lies told when one has won the election and is now charged with governance of the nation? A democratic government is ultimately based on votes. And the vote is an expression of trust.

What happens when high authorities of State claim false achievements or blatantly lie on the outcomes of their actions? Some lies fall in the category of an unreal or exaggerated projection of power, such as the ‘surgical strikes’ and the ‘Balakot attack’. Both had no evidence of their success. 

Politicians are known to exaggerate, but how does one explain the Solicitor General (SG) making false averments to the Supreme Court? This was evident when the SG handed over a ‘sealed cover’ to the judges of the Supreme Court in the Rafale case and misled the court by stating that the information sought by the petitioners was too sensitive and that it had been provided to the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) and that the latter would table a redacted version in Parliament. Later, after the SC had dismissed the petition seeking investigation into the Rafale deal, the SG filed an amendment to his affidavit stating that the required information had, in fact, not been provided to the CAG but would be in due course.

Now, the CAG has decided not to submit the report on Defence purchases to Parliament because “China and Pakistan are watching”! A constitutional authority that is duty-bound to ferret out the truth and place it before Parliament has declined to do so. 

What about the Home Minister telling Parliament, on August 5, 2019, when he introduced the legislation to change the status of Jammu and Kashmir from statehood to Union Territory, that Farooq Abdullah was free to attend Parliament while he had actually been placed under house arrest. And on  July 30, 2020, when Congress MP from Kashmir Saifuddin Soz was kept under house arrest but the J&K administration lied to the Supreme Court that he was a free man and was not under detention. This is how the ‘Majesty of Law’ is being repeatedly diminished.

Lies are different from the Big Lie. While lies are used to hide the reality or misrepresent the intent behind policy, the Big Lie is the Policy itself. That requires an audacity beyond the level of political chicanery. For instance, when the Prime Minister told the nation, on June 19, that “no one has intruded into our territory nor have any of our posts been captured”, after 20 of our soldiers had been brutally killed by the Chinese army; that was declaration of a new policy. The contours of this policy are not yet clear, but they are being tortuously drawn up by our Generals negotiating the Chinese withdrawal from ‘territory they have not intruded into’. Of course, it may be argued that this was not a lie as our border with China is neither delineated on the map nor demarcated on the ground. That may indeed be so, but then why did the PMO rush with an explanatory note the very next day and why was the video of the PM’s speech on the subject deleted from the PMO’s YouTube channel? 

And another Big Lie is unfolding. That’s the denial of the reality that is staring everyone in the face. The massive unemployment crisis and the pauperisation of both the organised and the unorganised sectors. We may be witnessing the sharpest-ever decline in GDP growth rate since Independence, as some have postulated. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, however, continued to ignore it in his speech on Independence Day, just as he has refused to name China as the aggressor and intruder. Name it and you accept the reality, so best not to name it.

For both the problems, the PM has one slogan -- Atmanirbharta. The reality is, some 122 million people had lost their jobs by April 2020, out of which 90 million were daily wage earners and small traders, according to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy. They were Atmanirbhar before March 24, for they were not even visible to the government, let alone getting any help from it. With the sudden lockdown on March 24, they lost their livelihoods. Eighteen million businesspersons are estimated to have gone out of business in the same period. They too were Atmanirbhar, but that did not prevent their bankruptcy.

These facts may not be on government records because the head of the National Sample Survey Office was forced to resign in December 2019 after leaking out a report that the government would not make public--that unemployment levels had reached a 45-year high. There is no Ministry of Truth yet, but probably the Home Ministry has been given additional charge.  

Lies may help lull your followers into a make-believe world, but the reality cannot be wished away. Of course, there is the media to provide an alternative reality. It can distract and engage the nation in bizarre and irrelevant narratives. The TV news channels that are obsessively trying to distract the country from the terrible state of the economy or of China’s occupation of our territory with a relentless coverage of the ‘suicide/murder trial’ of a Bollywood actor shows not their disconnect but a massively orchestrated cover-up.      

The lies of the State are pernicious. This is a deliberate process of hollowing out institutions and corroding people’s faith in democracy. When people lose trust in democracy, they question its need and utility. That’s when the clamour for the Great Leader gains legitimacy. 

(The writer, a former Cabinet Secretariat official, is currently Visiting Fellow, Observer Research Foundation)

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