Scoring a self-goal in a game is bad enough. Insisting that it was an honest goal and taking apart the referee for calling it out is worse. Yet, this is pretty much what the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party did last week in yet another “toolkit” case.
On his social media timeline on 18 May, the BJP’s pugnacious spokesperson Dr Sambit Patra shared eight screenshots of two documents of the All India Congress Committee ostensibly expose the latter’s nefarious designs against the Centre. One document was the Congress party’s internal paper or toolkit put together by its research wing to oppose the controversial Central Vista project. As toolkits do, they had the basics of the project, talking points, and so on. The second document, Patra claimed, was a toolkit to take down Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his pandemic (mis)management. The BJP’s social media cell then doxed a researcher of the Congress party, forcing her off Twitter.
In no time, fake news busters called out Patra on the second document. By piecing together technical information about the two documents and confirming with AICC’s research head Dr Rajeev Gowda, Alt News was able to all but conclude that the second “toolkit” titled “Cornering Narendra Modi & BJP on Covid Management” was not generated by the Congress and was likely a fake one on a forged letterhead. It looked authentic, but it was not, as Alt News head Pratik Sinha detailed on his Twitter timeline after confirming with Gowda that the Congress research cell had not prepared such a document. “When our country is devastated by Covid, instead of providing relief, the BJP shamelessly concocts forgeries,” Gowda tweeted.
What seems to have occurred is that the BJP illegally acquired a pdf copy of the Congress party’s toolkit--a valid one--to oppose the Central Vista as Modi’s vanity project, then extracted basic properties such as the letterhead, logo, colour, font and more to create (more accurately, fabricate) the second “toolkit”. When called out, Patra reportedly used metadata of the Central Vista document to pass off as metadata of the fabricated one to show that the latter was genuine, adding a second layer of duplicity and untruth.
Politics of perception
In the warped world that its social media cell manufactures and inhabits, this “toolkit” would help to show up the Congress party’s grand design to oppose Modi on Covid catastrophe and paint it anti-national for not rallying around during a national crisis. The BJP’s media ecosystem, which includes influencers on social media platforms and pliant editors-anchors in mainstream media, would amplify this toolkit. They did. Union ministers, BJP leaders and its influencer supporters happily shared the fake “toolkit” on social media to help manufacture outrage over the Congress party’s priorities, never mind that the party’s youth wing earned high praise for providing oxygen cylinders and arranging hospital beds during the peak of Covid-19 second wave, especially in Delhi-NCR.
As the latest “issue” to outrage over, it helped take some heat off Modi’s uninformed, ad hoc and awful management of the pandemic and vaccination programme. From allowing, encouraging and participating in super-spreader events such as massive rallies for state elections and the Kumbh Mela, to disregarding scientific projections of the second wave of Covid-19 which eventually turned devastating for the country and messing up the vaccination programme, there is much that Modi has to answer for. He and the BJP are, without doubt, on the defensive. As anyone who has taken the field in a sport knows, the best defence strategy sometimes is to go on the offensive. This was the BJP’s version of the sporting maxim, except that in its excitement to launch the offensive, it scored a self-goal.
Twitter, otherwise happy to donate to Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) fronts for Covid-19 relief, tagged Patra’s post as “Manipulated Media” after Sinha outed him. It could have suspended him for posting fake and fabricated content given his position as the BJP’s spokesperson. However, that perhaps would have been taking it too far for a company that pretends to be a champion of free speech and neutrality but allows hate speech on its platform and accedes to the government’s diktats from time to time.
The “Manipulated Media” tag brings humiliation, shame and loss of credibility for any user, more so for a spokesperson and influencer like Patra. The Union Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY) stepped up to his rescue. It demanded that Twitter take down the tag from Patra’s post and that the government—not Twitter—would determine the veracity of his tweet. It also added that Twitter’s content moderation had raised questions about it as a neutral and unbiased intermediary. The lines blur ever so often between the party and the government; this is one more instance.
“Lie, deceive & divide” screamed a tweet soon after, in all caps. It could have been the Congress party’s response. Instead, it was Union Health Minister Dr Harshvardhan who said that while amplifying the fake “toolkit”. He brazenly called out the Congress party for something it had not done and labelled it “misinformation”. But he was not the only one. Ministers Smriti Irani, Piyush Goyal, Anurag Thakur and others amplified Patra and manufactured outrage. Do BJP leaders have no shame at all, no sense of moral right and wrong, one is forced to ask.
Distraction as strategy
It is not accidental misinformation but a deliberate act to manufacture disinformation and amplify it using social media and pliant mainstream media. The intention is to change the public discourse, shift the anti-Modi narrative that got wide international traction, including in The Lancet, and distract both the public and the Congress party. It must be part of the BJP’s media strategy to handling a situation unfavourable or unflattering of the Prime Minister by deflecting attention away from him.
Distraction as a political strategy is neither new nor exceptional to India. Academic studies show that politicians strategically time controversial actions or statements when major news events distract the public or keep it occupied. Such actions or statements can also be used to guide the public mind away from politically stressful or embarrassing situations. “Basically, it’s a story of strategic timing,” economist Ruben Durante, who has co-authored papers on the politics of distraction, told the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy in a podcast.
“There’s a lot of research on how the media, by putting the spotlight on policy makers, can make them more disciplined, right and accountable. But...if you look from the politician’s side, then you can spot good opportunities to do unpopular things when the media is not watching and when the public opinion is distracted by something else,” he said, speaking in the context of his research into how Israel attacks Palestine when the US media is consumed by other news events.
Similarly, there is work to show how politicians often use the media to set or change the agenda and divert public attention away from an inconvenient truth. Distraction or diversion is integral to political communication. The manufactured outrage provides a cover to do a host of things such as passing bad laws. No party uses distraction more efficiently than the BJP in India. The scale and frequency with which distraction is manufactured or information is distorted and then amplified into a public agenda, are staggering. The BJP may not be the only party to do this but it is certainly the one that uses distraction or distortion with maximum salience. Despite being called out for the fake “toolkit” with which they wanted to corner the Congress, neither Patra nor ministers and others deleted their tweets or apologised for the fakery. How will they do that when it was part of a strategy?
Toolkit is not a dirty word
In the deliberate disinformation, for the second time in four months, the BJP has imbued an innocuous word—toolkit—with menacing or sinister meanings that it does not have. In February this year, when the young climate change activist Disha Ravi was arrested for her participation in creating or amplifying a toolkit on farmers’ protests, the BJP turned the word into a seemingly dangerous and nefarious one. The BJP-friendly media even ran stories and hashtags on the “toolkit gang” which wanted to destabilise the Modi government and “hurt India”.
Patra’s original tweets must be seen in this context. In using the word “toolkit”, he was gas-lighting the party’s faithful into believing that the Congress party was indulging in something sinister and anti-national. Since his tweet and its amplification by India’s union ministers, regular WhatsApp forwards began doing the rounds. There’s already buzz among the brain-washed bhakt brigade that the Congress, a favourite target of derision, was up to some dirty tricks using the “toolkit” to bring down Prime Minister Modi.
In the Cambridge English dictionary, a toolkit is simply a set of tools used for making or repairing something. When used in the context of protests or campaigns, a toolkit has essential reading material related to that issue, links to news stories or opinion pieces, talking points on the issue, one-liners or slogans to be used, methods of protests especially on social media with suggested hashtags and so on. The purpose is that anyone slightly familiar with the issue should be able to understand it better and participate constructively in its discourse with the right language.
In a non-social media age, there were simple backgrounders, campaign documents and so on. As social media campaigns or protests picked up, these came to be expanded with hyperlinks to resource material and called toolkits. The word toolkit is an inherent part of social media politics. And, this need not be said, but toolkits are not supposed to have anything intrinsically sinister or treacherous in them. The BJP, riding a social media wave itself, has ironically twisted the word and invested it with ominous meanings.
The Congress filed a police complaint in New Delhi against BJP leaders including party president JP Nadda, Sambit Patra and unions ministers who connived with each other and “forged, fabricated, and manufactured the said document…(which) is being utilised by the BJP to spread fake news which has the potential to be escalated into violence and fuelling hate at the hands of the BJP leaders directly”. If the police do not register an FIR in this case, the party has threatened to approach the judiciary.
Should the case play itself out, it may well become a landmark one in the disinformation and lies that the BJP uses as its political strategy. India’s largest and richest party should not go scot-free in its diabolical designs.
Then, of course, there’s the important story of Modi’s gross mismanagement of the Covid-19 crisis and vaccination programme, the mismanagement so severe and deep that it has earned him international media censure in addition to non-pliant Indian media’s criticism, and stirred nearly 116 top-ranking former bureaucrats to write him an open letter. They pointed to the Centre’s failure to take timely advice of experts in handling the pandemic or coordinating with state governments, managing the narrative rather than the situation, and stated “…what numbs our senses daily is not just the cries of the citizenry for medical assistance and the death toll in its thousands, but the manifestly casual attitude of your government to the magnitude of the crisis.”
Prime Minister Modi and his ministers urgently need to evolve a real toolkit to address the pandemic rather than fabricate one to discredit the Congress.
Smruti Koppikar, a senior Mumbai-based journalist and columnist, writes on politics, cities, media and gender. The views are personal.