When you find yourself in times of trouble

When you find yourself in times of trouble

Sitaraman Shankar lives for the space between the headline and the story

In the 2,045 days it has been in office as it enters 2020, the Narendra Modi government has seen its share of public relations ups and downs.

At one point, when it walked on water, it seemed that there would be no downs at all. But the events of the last month, when politicians of the ruling party delivered PR blunder after blunder on the CAA/NRC, show that the government’s spin merchants are only human, after all.

Indeed, until laid low (for now) by the CAA/NRC fiasco, the government’s spinners could have given Bedi, Prasanna, Chandra and Venkat a run for the money. For five years, after all, they extracted turn from wickets that were often unhelpful; flight, dip, loop, doosras and teesras (and even the odd straight one) were their stock-in-trade.

In other words, their arsenal was so impressive that it warrants junking a cricketing analogy and looking at it in dead seriousness, as such matters deserve. So here goes.

There are essentially nine defences the government (and its trolls) applied when confronted about a failure, or indeed, when criticised for anything at all.

The ‘what-did-they-do-for-70-years’ defence: As the name suggests, it refers to a comparison with the hapless party from whom mukti is proving strangely elusive. We may have done badly for two months or two years, but this is nothing compared to failure stretched over seven decades under the Other Lot, is the line. Quibblers will point out that the Congress was in power for less than 55 years. Mischief-makers will add that perhaps it is a denunciation of all others who dared to run governments until May 26, 2014, when Time began, including Janata Dal governments, but also Vajpayee?

The ‘anti-national’ defence: Also known as the Defame, Discredit and Destroy defence. Any critic is quickly characterised as a person inimical to the national interest. Therefore, the argument goes, their criticism is coloured by a hatred for India. Former friends on WhatsApp will warn you to not give in to anti-national negativity; a normally sober finance minister will point to “national interest” being hurt when an aged industrialist dares speak up.

The ‘Aurangzeb’ defence: This is an extreme case of (1) above. When faced with a particularly egregious piece of misbehaviour by your lunatic fringe, dial A for Aurangzeb. The last Mughal emperor of consequence is a by-word for bigotry, and hence very useful. So “And what did Aurangzeb do?” is a question that’s difficult to counter. Annoying argumentative types may point out that this is no defence: if it were, any act of vandalism or racism across the world could be justified by wheeling out Hitler or any one of the luminaries from the Apartheid era.

The ‘stature-in-foreign-eyes’ defence: The last prime minister for whom this defence did wonders was Rajiv Gandhi. Similarly, with Narendra Modi: Supporters will gush about how dapper the PM looks next to a sagging Donald Trump, how his building of toilets and personal honesty have won the country plaudits abroad. Of course, the same crew will complain bitterly of a Western bias when CAA/NRC protests make the front page of dailies abroad, but this is just a case of their imposing the same code of behaviour on the foreign media as they do on the Indian media: Thou shalt speak only praise to power.

The ‘defence-of-the-realm’ defence: This has been used by PMs over the years, some more than others. Indira Gandhi had the “Foreign Hand” to fall back on in times of trouble. But Pakistan is the ultimate weapon, a sort of Aurangzeb-on-steroids. This defence can be summarised in one line: You need me, and only me, to protect you from the enemy within (see ‘anti-national’ above) and without. It finds particular resonance at election time; also, when things are getting uncomfortable on the economy, you will see a fit of on-command sabre-rattling by some of those charged with protecting our borders.

The ‘Look-Who-I-Screwed’ defence: This was pressed into service three years ago when demonetisation was sprung on an unsuspecting nation. The poor struggled but drew solace from the fact that the rich stood in the same ATM lines and suffered equally. Schadenfreude compensated for personal misery. As is the nature of such things, this effect disappeared quickly as the rich effected a handsome recovery, but not before an election had been won in Uttar Pradesh.

The ‘namby-pamby’ defence: This is a relatively new one, given voice to by one of the ruling party’s tyro MPs. An ideology that militates against your own is swiftly consigned to the rubbish bin with the damning epithet namby-pamby, which means weak or ineffectual. For a regime that prides itself on its machismo, calling secularism namby-pamby is a deliciously satisfying put-down, never mind that practising it in the true sense requires a strength of character and steely resolve.

The acronym/slogan defence: In times of stress, reach for an acronym or easy-to-memorise slogan. There’s nothing like a rhyming or alliterative piece of micro-literature to enthuse the faithful, or so the thinking goes. So, the Defame, Discredit and Destroy defence above would have been handily compressed to DDDD by the PM’s speech writers, or even set to music with a de-di-de-de beat.

The look-behind-your-left-shoulder defence: This is also known as headline management. A bad piece of news on the economy? Organise a press conference announcing a new road scheme. Death anniversary of a non-Sangh PM? Swamp the media with announcements from the birth anniversary function of someone else. The defence is so named because you distract someone from what is in front of them by forcing them to turn around and look at something else.

 

Note: Given the ingenuity of Indian spinmeisters, this list is not exhaustive. And future governments of any political stripe will draw on some or all of these mechanisms, and add to them.

 

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