Dear Chowkidars of Twitter, What About the Real Watchmen of Indian Democracy?


Dear Chowkidars of Twitter, What About the Real Watchmen of Indian Democracy?

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Spring is here, and so are the general elections. One heralds joy and warmth, the other, mischief and irony. As poll dates inch closer, claims become taller, promises bigger, and the ironies sharper. Yet, between these dishonest political persuasions meant to woo and sway, sordid realities of state power and ideological control squirm with pain. And ironies, like they say, die many deaths.

Today, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a chowkidar (watchman), just like he was a chaiwallah yesterday. Once he served tea; today, he stands firm to protect us. The transformation appears complete and even, poignant.

The message is loud and clear: Modi is the watchman that India needs to protect Indians from “corruption, dirt, social evils” and probably Pakistan. The rest are either dishonest or incompetent. If you agree with that, grab the prefix and welcome yourself into the coveted guardians’ club.

Politically, it is a compelling strategy. But, in reality, a rude joke.

First things first: Modi and his ministers have little triumph to claim on cleaning India. From absconding economic offenders who continue to roam free to a failed monetary reorganisation that couldn’t even touch the surface of the black economy, the last five years have seen India’s economy slowly crawl into the doldrums. Sample these:

Last October, an RTI by The Wire revealed that the Modi government failed to take action on a list of serious loan defaulters that former RBI governor Raghuram Rajan had handed over to the PM’s office back in 2015. Last week, NDTV reported that the government failed to respond to multiple procedural queries and requests sent by the British government to investigate the absconding diamantaire and serious loan defaulter, Nirav Modi (he was recently seen strutting around London in an Ostrich-hide jacket and has been arrested today).

On tackling institutional corruption, further, Modi’s track record is unenviable. Only after five years of stalling and repeated nudgings by the Supreme Court, did his government finally appoint a Lokpal (ombudsman) this week. The Lokpal, which returned to the fore with the India Against Corruption movement spearheaded by Anna Hazare in 2011, is mandated to serve as a key institutional mechanism for checking bureaucratic corruption. Modi, however, showed little political will to appoint anyone to the post.

If anything, the Modi government has only made it easier for political parties to rope in dirty money through opaque financing tools like “electoral bonds”.

The PM’s demonetisation policy, primarily aimed at eliminating black money, was also a grand failure. As per media reports, 99.3 per cent of the demonetised cash had returned to the banking system, confirming that the parallel black economy remains intact. Contrary to what the PM promised, it even failed to check the fake currency menace, with large scale rackets still in operation. If anything, the Modi government has only made it easier for political parties to rope in dirty money through opaque financing tools like “electoral bonds”.

Let’s not even talk about the missing job data, the stolen Rafale papers, the dodgy terrorist casualty figures in Balakot, the falling defence budget shares, the cow lynchings, the Dalit floggings, the garlanding of convicted killers, the Kathua and Unnao rapes, the injunctions on critical media reports, the assaults on dissenting university students, and attacks on Kashmiris.

So much for chowkidari. So much for protection.

Besides the disingenuity of it all, the BJP’s ridiculous Twitter spectacle is also hugely insulting to our democracy. As the circus on the internet runs on, the true chowkidars of Indian democracy – including journalists, activists, lawyers who challenge the government – continue to live an imperilled existence.

It was only last year that five such prominent lawyers, activists, and public intellectuals – Gautam Navlakha, Sudha Bharadwaj, Arun Ferreira, Varavara Rao, and Vernon Gonsalves – found their residences raided by the police and later, arrested for their alleged role in instigating caste violence in Bhima Koregaon in January 2018 and having links with Maoists. While Navlakha was later released, the others remain imprisoned. A sixth person – renowned professor-activist, Anand Teltumbde – was also arrested by Pune Police last month in contravention of a Supreme Court order.

The politics of these incarcerations is obvious: all of them are fierce critics of the ruling party and prime minister.

Besides, they have worked closely and persistently with the same marginalised communities in central and southern India that the Maoists claim to fight for, thus making them usual suspects for the government. Many of them have also represented Dalits, putting them at loggerheads with entrenched upper-caste interests. Their community work, further, has brought them head-to-head with big corporate interests. Doesn’t take a degree in political science to guess why the government would want them behind bars.

By parading in town with a faux identity, the PM is only glossing over the many leaks and gashes that his government allowed under its watch.

The fate of some real chowkidars of our democracy has been even more ominous. Since 2015, suspected right-wing forces have murdered at least two prominent progressive voices – Gauri Lankesh and Narendra Dabholkar – who spoke and wrote fervently against Hindu fascism, caste discrimination, and superstitious social practices. The killings found positive traction in the menacing communal narrative of Hindutva that RSS, BJP’s ideological mentor, has fostered nationally. The sickening manner in which right-wing trolls celebrated Lankesh’s murder is a case in point.

Under the current regime, the true protectors of democracy – the media – have been silenced in one way or another. In 2017, India fell three spots on the World Press Index, according to Reporters Without Borders. “With Hindu nationalists trying to purge all manifestations of ‘anti-national’ thought from the national debate, self-censorship is growing in the mainstream media,” media watchdog said.

Yet what is particularly jarring is Modi’s admission that the media too can be a chowkidar. It sure can (and should) be. But, coming from a PM who hasn’t given a single press conference in the past five years, it’s a little hard to stomach.

How does our Chowkidar-in-Chief expect the fourth estate to guard the country if it isn’t allowed to scrutinise, question or investigate the powers-that-be without the fear of punitive action? How does he expect journalists to do chowkidari under constant threat of abusive trolls, injunctions and even the Official Secrets Act?

It’s difficult not to see through the hollowness of #MainBhiChowkidar campaign. The Twitter spectacle might play out finely in strengthening the BJP’s voter base in the upcoming polls. Truth, however, is that the campaign is yet another mean jab. By parading in town with a faux identity, the PM is only glossing over the many leaks and gashes that his government allowed under its watch. He knows the power of manufactured narratives, and he is brazen about employing them.

All of these while the dead turn in their graves, the jailed writhe in their cells, and the million other real chowkidars languish in their low-paying day-night jobs to protect India’s political, economic, and social infrastructure. We can only hope that the polls answer back in fitting measure.