Why Pranab Mukherjee’s Morphed RSS Image Should Worry Us

Politics

Why Pranab Mukherjee’s Morphed RSS Image Should Worry Us

Illustration: Arati Gujar

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ormer President Pranab Mukherjee had the collective attention of one billion Indians when he stuck to his controversial decision and addressed the RSS event in Nagpur. His attendance was already a point of contention due to growing concerns over the Modi government’s long-time association with the Hindutva group and the fact that Mukherjee himself has been critical of the RSS in the past.

His daughter, Congress leader Sharmistha Mukherjee, also publicly cautioned him against providing fodder for these controversies, suggesting that his presence at the event would allow the BJP free reign to misrepresent him.

Today, Sharmistha Mukherjee’s dire predictions have come true, letting her fully exercise the right to say “I told you so.” While Mukherjee’s speech was lauded by some Congress members for framing tolerance and pluralism as essential facets of the Indian national identity, the RSS was equally pleased with what they claimed was an endorsement by Mukherjee.

It’s difficult to ignore the fact that a former President’s visit — especially one who has opposed the BJP — has given the RSS a new political legitimacy and visibility. Although, the immediate response to his speech was less than warm, the RSS was quick to realise how they could gain from it. Unfortunately, as his daughter warned, it involved a whole lot of misrepresentation.

Mere hours after his speech, doctored photos emerged, showing him wearing the trademark RSS black cap and doing their salute. In reality however, Mukherjee was simply standing between two black-capped RSS leaders who were doing the salute. When the morphed image promptly went viral, Sharmistha Mukherjee alleged that it had been doctored by the BJP, while some have put the blame at the RSS’s door. So far, the origin of the fake photo remains unknown.

This hasn’t been the first time a politician has been a muse for doctored images. Last December, BJP MP Kirron Kher tweeted out photos of soldiers in Siachen that turned out to be from the Russian army. And, earlier this year, two men were arrested for circulating vulgar, morphed photos of PM Modi himself. A quick Google search will inform you of its regular occurence. It even follows the same cycle: the doctored image goes viral, people believe it and outrage, only to realise its inaccuracy much later. Unfortunately, the damage is already done by then.

A new study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says examining the flow of stories on Twitter, points out that people prefer false news. As a result, false news travels faster, farther and deeper through the social network than true news, reports The New York Times.

As it turns out, in the big bad world of politics, doctored images are the preferred version of fake news. Today, a news story is judged not by its accuracy, but by how viral it is and how it can be used to manipulate popular opinion.

The doctored image goes viral, people believe it and outrage, only to realise its inaccuracy much later. Unfortunately, the damage is already done by then.

Consider how both Congress and the RSS have insisted that Mukherjee spoke for them, with the former applauding his takedown of Hindutva and the latter basking in his secular, moderate attention. A reading of his original speech shows that neither side has a leg to stand on.

In a post-truth landscape such as this, Mukherjee’s nuanced address has only given room to both left and right-wingers who want to claim him as their own.

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