The idea of “alternative facts” once existed only in the recesses of academic postmodernism. It was suddenly brought into the “real” world by United States President Donald Trump’s aide Kellyanne Conway, in the immediate aftermath of his election victory. “Fake news” has probably been around since human communication became a bit sophisticated. Social media then multiplied its velocity.
Together, they have proved to be weapons of manipulation and misdirection for authoritarian “rulers” to whom the idea of transparency is anathema. Trump has, of course, taken recourse to both with breathtaking frequency. As of July this year, The Washington Post claims to have uncovered over 20,000 whoppers uttered by him after entering the White House. Unfortunately, no one has done a similar check for Supreme Leader Narendra Modi. It could have been touch and go.
The stream of falsehood coming out of 7 Lok Kalyan Marg (till September 2016 Race Course Road) for the past six-plus years—call it fake news or alternative facts—has had to jostle for space with dog-whistling, gas-lighting and misdirection. When in doubt, of course, there’s always silence, cover-ups and the disappearance of inconvenient paperwork and their keepers.
It is in this context that the citizens of this benighted country have to take whatever cues they find about how safe it is to do what and where, apropos of the Covid-19 pandemic. As in, I know the Metro’s running, but should I use it? Or, I know the bars are open, but should I really swing by for a snifter?
Over the past month and a bit, India has posted the highest Covid-19 caseload of all countries. In terms of daily increases, it has been in the 90,000+ territory for a week, with one blip. As of 14 September, India’s caseload has risen to 4.85 million, with a death toll 79,784. In September alone, till the 14th, over 1 million cases and over 1,100 deaths have been recorded. The United States, at number one, has 6.63 million active cases, with a death toll of 197,435. India’s death toll is the third largest in the world, way under Brazil’s and just higher than Mexico’s; its caseload is the second highest. But India has been registering a much higher number of cases and some of the highest daily death tolls at over a thousand for the past week-odd. In comparison, the United States had registered the world’s largest single-day rise in case numbers, 78,427, on 25 July.
India continues to be tardy in testing. At 39,915 per million as of 12 September, it was ahead only of Bangladesh, Indonesia, Mexico, Philippines and Pakistan among the 25 worst-hit countries. India’s recent rise in testing numbers, moreover, has been based on a high proportion of rapid tests, which are much less reliable.
The Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare is still not uttering two words in the same breath: community and transmission. The approach to the catastrophe is gung-ho. It keeps stressing the low rate of fatalities (a fortuitous outcome to which the intrepid warriors and genius-level strategists in Nirman Bhavan have incidentally contributed zilch), the high recovery rate and till recently, “doubling rate”.
Yet, with the economy tanking—its 24% contraction is the worst among the 20 biggest economies—the government has had no option but to keep unlocking public life. Thus, city transport facilities and retail businesses, including watering holes, are being opened up further. Suburban railway services (crucial to Kolkata and Mumbai, for instance) and educational institutions will soon start operating.
Even if numbers plateau this month and start shifting downwards, next month many parts of the country will gear up for the biggest religious festivals on the calendar: Durga Puja, Dussehra/Ram Navami and Diwali, accompanied by a host of smaller deal-breakers. That will be followed by the harsh winter of northern and central India. Has the government the duty to keep reminding the citizenry that we are nowhere near getting over the hump, instead of assailing them either with silence or gobbledegook?
It has now been revealed that in an interview with legendary reporter Bob Woodward, Trump had said as early as in February that he knew how deadly the Novel Coronavirus was but did not say so publicly because he did not want to create a panic. Look at where that got the United States. It is incumbent on the government that they treat the citizenry as a body of adults, able to digest information and act accordingly. Unfortunately, that would not suit the regime, which is actually the one behaving like a juvenile delinquent.
The delinquency of this criminally-inclined regime consists in only doing what can be done to influence electoral outcomes as favourably as possible for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) even when inaction in other spheres is inconsistent with public welfare. And that depends on what needs to be done to hobble political opponents, and punish detractors and dissenters. Thus, at the beginning of the pandemic, business-as-usual was allowed so that the Madhya Pradesh government could be toppled. Job done on 23 March, the lockdown was announced at a few hours’ notice on 24 March. Seamless and shameless.
Elections in Bihar are round the corner. Alongside, the government wants to hold by-elections in Madhya Pradesh, where the outcome will be consequential for the BJP government. It obviously suits the regime, then, to downplay the pandemic. That is precisely what Modi, the renowned canine expert who has much to say on various breeds and their suitability as pets, has been doing. Stream of consciousness on matters canine in his Mann ki Baat monologue on 30 August—mum on the pandemic.
But an evening’s disquisition on dogs is obviously not enough to divert attention. Thus comes in handy a showbiz death to be willy-nilly bumped up to culpable homicide. Straight from League Two to the Premiership. To do that, the regime first needed a stooge news channel, which it already had in place. It started a Dresden-style cluster bombing campaign with leaked and dodgy information.
The ensuing media trial has laid the ground for the election campaign in Bihar, because the man who either committed suicide or didn’t, was from there. Let’s hope the people of Bihar, trying to deal with a rampant pandemic and groaning under the weight of an economy that has gone so far south it may as well be drowning in the Palk Straits, don’t buy into this invidious appeal to primordial sentiment.
All this has had costs. It has further undermined the credibility of the “free” media, providing greater justification for seeing the mainstream (especially the unwatchable electronic) media as being captive. And it has deepened the perception, if that were possible any more, that the agencies of the central government have been completely suborned.
In human costs, it has led to the persecution of a bystander, now simply collateral damage. That is the late Sushant Singh Rajput’s one-time partner, Rhea Chakraborty. First, the regime sent the Central Bureau of Investigation after her. It came up with egg creamed all over its face. Then it sent the Enforcement Department, which had to go out and buy more eggs. At a loss, the duumvirate sent the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB), which arrested Chakraborty and her brother, after two “peddlers” were arrested in possession of 59 gm of cannabis, an amount for which a prosecution is practically never launched.
Neither Rhea nor her brother have been found to be in possession of any drug. The suggestion that either or both are part of a huge drug-peddling ring is jaw-dropping in its absurdity. The NCB itself has said it does not investigate penny-ante drug transactions. In any case, if there were at all a case to be made out against Rhea, it would be for complicity in helping Rajput get hold of his substance—after all, he was allegedly the pothead.
What was his partner supposed to do? Go to the cops and tell them he smoked the occasional spliff and should be arrested? Now, we would dearly like to see two classes of people being banged up without the option: first, sadhus, who, to the man, smoke pot, and their suppliers; and all the high-society cats who do white sugar, cocaine, ecstasy, amphetamines and opioids of various descriptions, and their suppliers.
Getting at the Shiv Sena, boosting election campaigns and covering up the scandalous mismanagement of the pandemic by targeting a bystander has further lowered a bar most people thought had been buried so deep, it could hardly be seen. Looks like we underestimated the duumvirate.
The author is a freelance journalist and researcher. The views are personal.