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Sabarimala Case – An Agonizing Verdict

Sabarimala Case – An Agonizing Verdict

In a recent judgement, the Supreme Court of India had in a 4-1 majority judgement decided to remove the ban on entry of women aged 10 – 50 into the famed Lord Ayyappa Temple at Sabarimala in South India. The case had generated a lot of interest – during the hearings as well as post judgement – all around the world. It is indeed a significant judgement since with the stroke of their pens, four judges reversed a practice that has been going on at the temple since time immemorial.

The four judges have averred that the practice “significantly denudes women of their right to worship”. Justice Chandrachud termed the custom as a form of “untouchability” which cannot be allowed under the Constitution of India.1

Justice Indu Malhotra, the lone lady member of the bench, has attracted a lot of attention and admiration. As member of this five judge bench, she wrote her dissenting judgement. She has provided some profound reasoning for her dissent that certainly deserves examination. Former Supreme Court of India judge Markandey Katju has complimented her for “the balance and restraint required of a judge of a superior court”.2

Judge Malhotra has pointed out that that “the petitioners were not directly affected and were not devotees” themselves and hence she found it “odd that the court was deciding on the entry of women into the temple at the behest of persons who do not subscribe to this faith”. This is an important observation, and has not missed the attention of millions of Hindus in the country.

She has further strongly argued for “heterogeneity in religion that allows diverse forms of worship, even if it were irrational”. Very pointedly she states that “in a secular polity, issues which are matters of deep religious faith and sentiment, must not ordinarily be interfered with by courts.”

Continuing her telling observations, Malhotra has said that permitting such public interest litigations (PILs) “in religious matters would open the floodgates to interlopers who are not followers of that faith, to question its beliefs and practices” since it would be a matter of grave concern, especially for minority communities. She has firmly concluded that the said writ petition “does not deserve to be entertained and the grievances raised are non-justiciable”.

But the majority judges thought otherwise. Their reasoning for the majority judgement seems to be a reiteration that the practice of forbidding women in the said age group was “a form of untouchability which cannot be allowed under the Constitution.” But many legal experts have already argued that this case cannot be viewed through the limited vision lens of gender equality and a broader view of Hindu religious practices was imperative in judging the case.

It is not that these points of law were not brought before the court during the hearings. In fact J Sai Deepak, who appeared before the Supreme Court in this case on behalf of the intervener organization People for Dharma, too had presented succinct arguments. For example, he had argued that “Lord Ayyappa has rights under articles 21, 25 and 26 of the Constitution of India, and his right to remain a naisthika bramhachari – or a perpetual celibate – falls under Article 25 and hence, women’s entry to the temple should continue to be restricted”. 3

Thus, restricting entry of women into the abode of a Lord who is a naisthika bramhachari – or a perpetual celibate – may not tantamount to gender inequality or discrimination against women, when viewed though a broader lens. Be as it may, the other four judges, in their wisdom have obviously not been convinced by these arguments and hence their opinions have prevailed and the judgement is there for all to see.

The impact of the judgement is expected to be felt far and wide. From breaking its own restraint in not entering into the domain of religious beliefs and practices that are not pernicious, the Supreme Court has opened the possibility of internecine litigations between religious faiths where one practitioner is now free to question and seek the quashing of practices of another religion. The outcome could be a judicial nightmare which could easily lead to bloodshed on the streets.

In multiple discussions I had with Hindu women, particularly millennials in Tamil Nadu, I got a sense of their disbelief. Many did say that they were suspicious of the motives of the petitioners since they themselves would never have approached the courts on such a matter. Many felt violated since Hindu women had traditionally revered the practice of naisthika bramhacharya vratam of Lord Ayyappa. They pointed out that the unprecedented heavy rains and consequent damage to life and property in Kerala as a sign of Lord Ayyappa’s anger.

Plural societies like India have diverse groups and interest and by definition have differing identities and belief systems which have to be celebrated. But they also have large and vulnerable underbellies that have to be carefully nurtured and protected, not exploited. But in India we seem to be witnessing the opposite.

.But if the average Hindu, particularly the women, feel outraged, they cannot be faulted for, here is a judgement that nullifies a centuries-old practice that they did not ask for. The certainly avoidable outcome, is that a growing number of reasonable Indians now think that the judiciary appears to have abandoned all shreds of caution and sensitivity when treading on matters of religious faith, however irrational they may appear.

Over the ages, Hindu social memory has been burdened with a lot of baggage – from flawed to gross miscarriages of justice – more than what many other social systems have experienced. But they have been absorbed and digested in the sands of time. So too this will be.

Despite the judgement, out of reverence for Lord Ayyappa, Hindu women have not come forward to visit the temple. And they are steadfast in their resolve. Nonetheless, many Ayyappa Sangams – groups or forums of Ayyappa devotees – do expect the usual suspects – activist women who have a track record of protesting against Hindu practices – to visit the temple. But like always, most of them will be a flash in the pan.

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Posted by on October 2, 2018 in Hinduism, Indology, Media, Sabarimala

 

The curious case of Justice Chelameswar

The curious case of Justice Chelameswar

The Supreme Court of India in its recent judgement on a public interest litigation (PIL)  filed by Shanti Bhushan (TOI July 7th 2018), has reiterated, for the third time in eight months that the Chief Justice of India (CJI) will have sole authority on allocating cases in the top court. The judgement although pertains to the internal administration of the apex Court, has huge implications, particularly with regards to the powers of the CJI. The judgement also firmly puts to rest the unseemly controversy raised by Justice Chelameswar and three other judges in their well-publicized press conference in January 2018.

It may be recalled that Mr. Chelameswar and three of his fellow judges had hurriedly convened a press conference in New Delhi to “inform the nation” about ‘happenings’ within the Supreme Court of India.  A startled nation watched the drama unfold, hoping to hear some radical steps to reform the judiciary or something to that effect.  Instead, the justices raised the banner of revolt. It turned out, much to the disappointment of millions of Indians, to be another case of washing dirty linen in public.

The anguish of the four judges was over the CJI’s powers to allocate cases to his subordinate judges. An eager opposition jumped onto this ‘rebellion’ that ultimately led to the tabling of the motion for the impeachment of the CJI in Parliament. That the motion was rightfully defeated is not the issue here. It certainly opened the doors to the ‘happenings’ within the Supreme Court. This power play or the quest for control over judge’s case load unabashedly played out in front of the nation, masquerading as concern for the ‘functioning’ of the highest judicial body of the land.

The press conference of Justice Chelameswar et al. or the failed move to impeach the Chief Justice cannot be a surprise if one looks into what is happenings within this high judicial body. That Justice Chelameswar later met with a communist leader and other opposition politicians and that the likes of Shanti Bhusan had filed a follow up PIL to wrest control of the muster from the CJI speaks volumes for itself.

That the said judges seem to be so oblivious of the humungous challenges and problems faced by the courts in the country is indeed hurting. It certainly shows that a section in the judiciary has consistently put personal career aspirations over and above the sacred function of delivering justice. No one can fault them for personal ambitions, but to cloak it as a concern for the judiciary does not lend them dignity at all.

In this context it is worth looking at the problems and challenges confounding the judiciary in India today. Take a look at the data presented by National Judicial Data Grid (NJDG). According to the NJDG the backlog of cases in the judicial system in India was approximately 3.3 crores including 43 lakh cases in High Courts and 58,000 cases in the Supreme Court. (Business Today, June 28 2018). In a related news report (The Pioneer 24th November 2017), it was pointed out that almost two thirds or 67% of the prisoners in Indian jails are under-trials. This is indeed shocking.

But amidst all the pendency, ironically, the Supreme Court, did find time to convene, in the middle of the night, to pass its considered views on the election outcome and the state Governor’s decision to give two weeks’ time for the BJP to prove its majority in the recently concluded elections in Karnataka. The apex court, it appears, can definitely find time and resources to hear cases of the mighty and powerful almost immediately while the average citizen may have to wait for years, if not decades to get justice.

I have not heard any statement or action plans to solve this heart rending problem of pending cases from Justice Chelameswar or his brother judges. Maybe I missed it. But their silence on the real problems of the judiciary is indeed deafening.

The huge backlog of cases also indirectly impacts the daily life as well as the long term economic well-being of the country. For example litigations relating to land acquisition delays new road and rail infrastructure. Putting corrupt politicians in jail too is impacted by these backlogs. It can thus be argued that the inefficiencies in the delivery of justice and other judicial services in India has contributed a great deal, albeit indirectly, to its economic backwardness.

Needless to say, the impact of the backlog of cases on India is huge and often not easily quantifiable and has the potential of even destroying the country’s democratic framework. Hence the need of the hour is a collective effort from all three branches of government – legislature, executive and the judiciary to quickly clear the backlog of cases. The government’s Digital India and other initiatives to use technology to enhance delivery of services is something the judiciary can learn from.

In this context it must be reminded that the Supreme Court is not just made up of its CJI and the other justices who sit on its benches. Any number eminent judges have occupied its high offices   as judges and Chief Justices. But as an institution, it is larger than all of them – the current and past incumbents put together. In fact it stands tall as the last and final beacon of hope in a democracy and India is no exception.

To trade its stature and importance for few minutes of national spotlight on television or media is nonetheless a sacrilege that most ordinary Indians cannot easily countenance. For them, the career fortunes of individual opportunistic judges is of no consequence when crores of cases are pending and every day unknown numbers of lives are lost or wither away in prisons just because justice could not delivered on time. If this is not rank opportunism, what else could be? Any amount of tall talk and no action will not cut ice in a resurgent India we are witnessing today. The writing on the wall is clear.

 
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Posted by on July 13, 2018 in India, Media

 

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Chidambaram Peddles False Narratives on Indian Economy

Chidambaram Peddles False Narratives on Indian Economy

Two news items in the recent past caught the attention of many. They deserve closer scrutiny since it provides good insights into a thriving business in India. It is indeed representative of a deep and well entrenched industry that has prospered by profligate peddling of false narratives in India.

The first was observations made by none other than the former Union Finance Minister P.Chidambaram. He led the economic fortunes of the country during his days in the Union Cabinet and arguably presided over an economy that tanked the fastest despite strong fundamentals. That he is in the news for investigations by concerned agencies and related court cases for alleged corruption is beyond the scope of this piece.

The erudite former Minister – a Harvard alumni – has opined that the country’s current economic conditions were akin to a vehicle with three punctured tires. He went on to paint a very dismal picture where almost everything about the economy was wrong. If one were to believe him, it would appear that most Indians are rotting in poverty and even unable to sell pakodas to make a living. As a politician in the opposition camp, this was not unexpected.

As expected, this statement was lapped up by the media and reported 24/7. Many pseudo experts and self-acclaimed economists joined the fray, pontificating on why all these imaginary ills can be attributed to none other than Prime Minister Modi himself. Mercifully, the false narratives did not carry on for more than a few days of print and airtime.

The second item was a glibly written piece that subtly casts doubt on the sustainability of the high growth rate that India is currently witnessing. It again questions PM Modi’s statements where he called for a double digit growth rates in GDP. Eminent economist Dr. Subramanian Swamy has also talked about India’s inherent capacity to grow at double digits. With a touch of finesse the article cites other pundits who are not sanguine about double digit growth for India. It is certainly reminiscent of the days when socialists lectured us on why India can only grow at a “Hindu rate” of growth of 3.5% or less. The article pompously advises that it would do India better to aim for growth rates of less than 8%.

India has seen too many of these arm chair pundits and ministers of bygone eras attempting to water down the unprecedented growth we are witnessing. The fact is that this is not well intentioned advice or political strategy, but churlish rant emanating from those quarters where the sun has begun to set. It is indeed incumbent on Mr. Chidambaram, in particular, to tell the nation the initiatives that he had undertaken to stimulate the economy that provided better results, if any. That would garner better Television Rating Points (TRP) than the story of a vehicle with three flat tires.

The point is to not question anybody’s freedom of expression or the right to have an opinion that is different or even counter intuitive. On the contrary, such cross winds fertilize the idea pool and the ultimate winner is the country. But this virus strain is different. At a minimum, balanced punditry is morally duty bound to signal and call out the existence of a thriving industry that peddles false narratives.

Many politicians, together with some sections of the media, have excelled in consummating this art of creating false narratives via obfuscations, distorted and skewed opinions that is ably supported by presenting selective data.

Now let’s look at another set of data that provides a counter or shall we say a neutral narrative. In a recent article published by World Economic Forum (published well before Mr. Chidambaram’s statement), a researcher using World Bank data has shown the performance of the Indian economy over the last fifty years. Please refer to chart.

WB1The author argues that India’s growth rate has been consistent and has accelerated over the long run.  The author further projects “…..  GDP growth to be 6.7 percent in 2017-18 and accelerate to 7.3 percent and 7.5 percent respectively in 2018-19 and 2019-20”. (Emphasis added). The observation of the author – derived from data presented in the chart – seems tenable. Since the readers themselves can visually verify the data, it irons out any potential for mischievous interpretation that may ensue when data over a shorter window is observed.

This chart belies both the news items referred to above. The Indian economic vehicle does not have three flat tires, as alleged by Chidambaram. On the contrary it seems to be kicking and doing very well, despite pessimistic projections. Secondly, if we look at the performance over the last fifty years, a high trajectory i.e. double digit GDP growth may well be within India’s reach.

That leads us to the well-known truism that most Indians are aware of. In the worst days of socialism that beggared India, many exasperated but wise Indians would remark that no government rules India, for India governs itself. For them, India was on auto pilot on “Ram Bharosa”, meaning India was governing itself on the will of Lord Ram. The chart referred to earlier just seems to reinforce this dictum on India’s potential, well known only to ordinary Indians, and apparently not to some Harvard educated elites. In short, India’s growth is unstoppable, albeit it can be slowed down by the likes of Chidambaram in the short to medium term.

But that should make reasonable Indians stop on their tracks and ponder. Fashionable opinionistas in India and their allies elsewhere, as is their wont, have repeatedly lamented that India has missed the bus. But has it really? Today, when data is democratized and can be accessed by anyone in a matter of few clicks, it is indeed easy to review and draw their own conclusions.

But India has always been a paradise for peddling false narratives – be it economic growth, religious freedom, Aryan invasion theory or even the latest fad – intolerance. Some wisecrack puts out a skewed misinterpretation or blatant falsehood and this gets lapped up by the media like hungry wolves and then repeated ad nauseam. Finally, this becomes the established narrative – completely obliterating the underlying facts.

That has been the established and well tested strategy of the narrative peddlers who sell their views for a price, for a motive, in full disregard for India. And many of them happen to be politicians and opinion makers who presume they preside over the economic future of India.

The necessary and sufficient condition for the false narrative industry to thrive is a grossly ill-informed society. They had a free run for so many decades, but not anymore. Digital India has bought internet to every home and now information is free and the biased are being called out. This is the new ground reality politicians in India have to contend with. False narratives, be it from the government, the opposition political parties or for that matter from any quarter, will now be easily spotted and called out.

 
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Posted by on June 30, 2018 in Economics, India, Indian Economy, Media, Modi

 

Cambridge Analytica Scandal – Is Data Privacy A Mirage?

Cambridge Analytica Scandal – Is Data Privacy A Mirage?

The unauthorized “harvesting” of personal data of over fifty million Facebook users by Cambridge Analytica is the latest in a continuing saga of data related scandals. Breaking his long silence, Zuckerberg apologized to his billion plus users worldwide and called it a “breach of trust” and vowed to take steps to protect user data. But the damage has been done.

As many averred, Zuckerberg’s apology inherently assumes Facebook users will continue to trust it and that all will be forgiven and it will be business as usual. That may well turn out to be true. But given the seriousness of this “breach of trust”, this may have serious consequences on its fortunes. One immediate fallout is the #DeleteFacebook campaign that quickly went viral. Also Facebook stock lost almost 9% in value.

Facebook’s supreme success rests on a business model built on profiting from customer data and its priceless derivative – customer insights. Notwithstanding Zuckerberg’s apology and promises to clean up, it is anybody guess if he will really follow up or implement only cosmetic changes.

This brings into focus the importance of consumer data in today’s data driven economy. It is common knowledge that vast amounts of data are being generated every day, particularly by social media users. Using sophisticated analytics, this data can be mined to yield powerful insights about users. In fact it is a common practice for marketing companies to use these insights to create a full behavioral personality profile or characteristics of an individual.

Products and service or even a political ideology could then be effectively tailored or custom fitted for that profile in what is called micro targeting. This data driven super customization has wide applications – in retail marketing, business espionage, political campaigns etc. It is for this reason that today data is seen as the most important resource and companies would do anything to get their hands on it.

Given the multiple use of this cutting edge knowledge resource born out of the confluence of technology and high end quantitative skills, it is indeed awing and worrisome at once. It is like a knife that can be used in the kitchen as well as to kill. The exploits of companies like Cambridge Analytica have justifiably caused disquiet among large sections of society.

Cambridge Analytica, like many other companies, are way ahead of the curve in using these precious insights in seeking to “change audience behavior”, or to generate  favorable outcomes in the targeted populations in a general election. Hence their popularity with political parties worldwide, including India.

As can be seen, there is nothing illegal per se in Cambridge Analytica’s business model. In fact all major corporations worldwide are engaged in exploiting data in one form or other for their bread and butter. But the illegal gathering of profile information of millions of users without their express consent is what is under scrutiny.

But what has been a rude wake up call for many is the fact that companies like Cambridge Analytica can potentially disrupt a democratic process like an election. Undercover videos shared by Britain’s Channel 4 News show how the company actively planted news – typically fake news in the “bloodstream of the internet and let it grow” to achieve desired social and electoral outcomes.

This it very much akin to what the Soviet Union was doing decades ago to brainwash its people. The distinctions between legal and illegal is often blurry and Cambridge Analytica and its ilk appear to have exploited it to the hilt. To confound the issue, in many countries, regulators have still not woken up to combat this malefic use of data.

The problem is indeed acute in countries like India where political parties have shrewdly worked off radar to use the services of Cambridge Analytica and its subsidiaries to “influence social behavior” in the election process. How far the election processes have been subverted is anybody’s guess. But it is equally futile to point fingers at the Congress party or the BJP since all of them have at some point in time used these services.  It is like the Democrats in the US blaming the Republicans because the Trump campaign used them in 2016. But it came back on the Democrats when it was revealed that they too – the Obama campaign in 2012 -had extensively used these services.

The scary part here is that the users whose data is being fought over, have practically no say in the matter because they have already shared their private information on the internet. It has left their hands and there is no way they can get it back. How this will be used and shared or who will use this is being decided by companies like Facebook who are primarily motivated by profits and not overly concerned about user privacy. That such breaches and data hacks occur regularly speak volumes of the gap between current laws and their rigorous enforcement.

And this will definitely not be the last of data breaches or breaches of trust. But the real problem is that we are confronted by an insurmountable issue here that threatens individual liberty and the inalienable right to lead a private, yet social life.

In the end, these social engineers who stole personal information of millions of unsuspecting users in reality turned out to be deadly data terrorists who deployed their stolen assets to disrupt cherished democratic processes and skewed election outcomes in so many countries at the bidding of their paymasters.

The bitter truth is that we live in a world where nothing is private.  Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon and any number of known and lesser known companies already know more about us than we can imagine. We have to reconcile ourselves to the fact that, however unpalatable it may be, data privacy is just a mirage.

The need for agile, yet draconian laws on data usage together with forensic monitoring of disposal of data has been repeatedly pointed out by experts in the field. Hopefully, the wait may not be long. Social media companies have long taken the naïve user for a ride. It is time they stepped off the roller coaster.

 

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Anything but fire and fury

Anything but fire and fury

The State of the Union address on 30th January 2018 by President Donald Trump was welcomed by many as a great speech in which he highlighted the achievements of his first year in office. In his speech, Trump called for unity among law makers and urged them to rise above party lines – something which went well with the American public. One would have thought that this would signal an end to political flame throwing which has so far unsettled the administration and kept it on the defensive in a perpetual firefighting mode.

Apparently not so. The book – “Fire and Fury – Inside the Trump White House” by Michael Wolff that came out in early January of this year – has been the latest in a string of distractions for the administration. It has been a hot favorite of major television channels, social media and chatterati. The author has definitely capitalized on the wide publicity on prime-time national television and made it to best seller lists.

Some background on this book will definitely not be out of place.  Firstly, the book is well written and offers an excellent read for the discerning reader. Michael Wolff, the author, has spent a lot of time in cherry picking anecdotes and weaving them into colorful fabric to showcase to the world what he calls “the insider’s view of the Donald Trump White House”.

Michael Wolff seems to be convinced that Trump does not deserve to be the President. He is at loggerheads with Trump’s well-known penchant for undying loyalty from his team and highlights this to underscore his unsuitability for the high office. The detailed depiction of the President, his idiosyncrasies, his disbelief at being elected and the purported disdain of his close advisers may all be true. Regardless, the fact remains that, much to the disdain of media pundits and Beltway lobbyists, it is the American people who fairly and squarely elected Donald Trump and put him in office.

Wolff all along gives the impression that he had unfettered access to the White House. But former Press Secretary Dana Perino and others in the know have asserted that it is impossible for someone to be hanging around in the West Wing of the White House even with proper authorization.

The book contains much of what can be adduced as rumors, unsubstantiated anecdotes and water cooler gossips that seemed to play into the agenda of Trump’s political foes. The glaring inaccuracies, insinuations and innuendos expose the true intentions of the author.

Wolff asserts that the 25th amendment was an issue that was constantly on the mind of the White House. The 25th amendment to the US constitution provides for removal and succession to the office of the US President and Vice President in the event of death or disability of the incumbent. But Wolff admitted on national television (CBS This Morning show) that he never met anyone in the cabinet or the Vice President Mike Pence. If he did not meet or interview any of them nor was he allowed into any of the meetings of the senior leadership of the administration, how could Wolff tell that the issue was on their minds?  No wonder Wolff’s credibility has plunged.

Wolff’s reference to the purported endless discussions on the 25th amendment fueled the media narrative that portrays Trump as mentally unsound and hence unable to discharge his duties as the President. In fact, on the sets of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe”, co-host Mika Brzezinski bluntly declared that she agreed with a North Korean official’s assessment that President Donald Trump is “mentally ill.”

Throughout the book, the discerning reader cannot miss Wolff’s angst and obvious inability to come to terms with the reality of Donald Trump in the highest office. The author does little to screen the obvious impression that he is an obsessive dirt rat on a mission to dig out half-truths, peddle distortions and blatant factual inaccuracies. Many pundits have expressed the view that Michael Wolff in many ways echoes the deepest disappointments of the Hillary campaign and hence it was no surprise that he became the instant darling of the liberal media.

The delectable presentation of anecdotes that appear to be no more than off-the-cuff remarks by administration insiders in unguarded moments or at the height of frustration must not be mistaken as fair impressions of a sincere author that went awry. It boils down to the work of art of someone who, in the words of Democrat Steve Rattner, the former head of President Obama’s Auto Task Force, “turned out to be an unprincipled writer of fiction”.

But what has rankled many are the outrageous insinuations that Trump and Nikki Haley, the US Ambassador to the UN, were having an affair. Wolff gives no details or proof, except that the two were in private meetings. Even the liberal media which was using Wolff to take potshots at Trump, suddenly dropped him like hot potato. Mika Brzezinski abruptly ended her show with Wolf when he struggled to defend his innuendos at Ambassador Nikki Haley.

By his own admission Wolff used his proximity to Steve Bannon to open doors to the White House. Much of his writings appears to be a view of the West Wing of the White House through the eyes of Bannon. It is no surprise that in hindsight, Bannon had to leave.

But herein lies an enormous threat to the integrity of the highest office as well as the inner circle of power of the ruling dispensation from seemingly innocent book writers. Senior administration officials have exposed their lack of experience in putting in place the right checks and balances in clearing people like Michael Wolff. To that extent this episode is a costly learning process for the Trump administration. The White House must acknowledge its lapses and quickly revamp the process of providing access the highest office.

Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury too has had its two minutes of fame on national television and is now well on its way to being forgotten. The book has proved to be anything but fire and fury.

 

 

 
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Posted by on February 4, 2018 in Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Media, Press, US

 

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Modi’s Killer Media Strategy

Modi’s Killer Media Strategy

It is no exaggeration that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the one among the select band of leaders– probably a cherry picked few among Indian politicians in recent memory – who have been hounded by the main stream media (MSM) – both print and electronic. In that sense, he shares a common experience and can empathize with President Donald Trump of the US. But their similarities probably end there.

The two leaders are upright public figures who take their responsibilities and public duties seriously. Both have been repeatedly pushed to the wall by the media. But their responses and how they handled MSM has been vastly different.

The all-powerful President of the US has often taken to social media – and particularly Twitter – to vent his anger against the media. He has gone so far as to brand them liars and peddlers of ‘fake’ news. His huge twitter following -32 million followers and counting – has keenly followed every minute of these exchanges.

But Prime Minister Modi’s response to an offensive media, on the other hand, has been totally different. He has not publicly uttered angry remarks or expressed his frustration on twitter. Yet Modi’s stealth, yet killer media strategy seems to have sapped the very life out of the main stream media in India. This can be vouched by discerning insights gleaned over the last few years by piecing together publicly available data on declining readership / viewership, as well as the prime-time space yielded to new players like Republic TV in the tough Indian television and entertainment market.

Ever since Modi came to the limelight as the Chief Minister of Gujarat state and started making waves, the media and his political opponents have been after him.  In hindsight, they were probably the first to correctly identify him then as a future prime minister material and set in motion their game plan to stop him.  Hence his hounding by the media and his political adversaries who often, worked hand in glove.

As a shrewd politician, Modi never had illusions about the role of the press. He had experienced first-hand how a press that was ‘friendly’ to his political opponents had almost destroyed his political career. But that was when they held complete sway on the media outlets and network infrastructure. On becoming the Prime Minister, he sought to marshal all available resources and deploy a clever strategy to gain a toe hold for his own view of the world. He embarked on one of the most comprehensive overhauls of the information dissemination machinery, rebuilding it from scratch, one brick at a time.

Barc1As with his anti-corruption drive, Modi relied heavily on technology. The range of tools he has used is mind boggling – from social media to mobile apps and everything in between.  But the real show stealer is his use of Twitter. With over 30 million followers, he has one of the biggest twitter followings in the world. Every tweet from the Prime Minister will reach an audience that is more than the combined weekly viewership of all major English news channels in India. See table below, courtesy Broadcast Audience Research council India (BARC). Most importantly, he is assured of a distortion free transmission to his target audience.

Modi has not simply stopped at building a huge following. He has engaged them creatively to sustain and retain this massive following. For example, there is a two-way flow of information as he often seeks to crowd-source ideas from them. Many have contributed topics and discussion items for Modi’s monthly radio broadcast program, Mann KI Baath. His radio address is a runaway success particularly in rural India where large numbers gather to listen to him.

The biggest coup d’état of sorts is his use of YouTube.  Videos of every public event addressed by Modi, his foreign travels, visits of dignitaries, election campaigns – all are posted to his YouTube channel. The Narendra Modi channel with over 650,000 subscribers is another huge captive viewer pool he has meticulously cultivated. This platform by itself has helped Modi take on the biased electronic media, obviating the need to commit time and resources to fight and fix distorted versions that the media in India has been dishing out for so long.

The Narendra Modi mobile app is equally powerful. With nearly 10 million downloads just of the android version, it delivers his messages directly to the mobile phone and tablets.

Modi’s personal familiarity and comfort level with information technology has been central to the evolution of this alternative media resource. In India’s political spectrum there are very few who can match or even come close. The Prime Minister’s media strategy reveals a shrewd awareness of the ingredients for success – India’s high tele-density (84%), high broadband subscription (192 million) as well as a huge younger ‘demographic dividend’ of the population. His personal political acumen knitted all this into a killer strategy that now dominates the discourse in India.

In totality, Modi has created an alternative media resource, a complete information dissemination platform and infrastructure, that has bypassed and even ignored the mainstream media. He has successfully retained the audience and slowly over the years has changed the narrative and now controls it. Modi successfully turned the tables on the media.

There are important lessons for both the media and politicians in a technology driven century. With new technological innovations popping up regularly that can disrupt existing business models or the way things ‘used to be done’, it is imperative to not take things for granted. A determined leader with a clear vision, riding on the back of disruptive technologies can usher in changes in any sphere of human endeavor – faster than many can imagine. And that could be a daunting challenge for the media. The media can no longer have a free run in pushing an agenda driven spin, for the hounded can now strike back. The spin doctors may have to pay the ultimate price of becoming irrelevant, as the Indian experience testifies. Therein lies a media lesson for President Donald Trump and other political leaders of the world.

 
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Posted by on June 13, 2017 in India, Media, Modi, Press

 
 
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