Cracks in cabinet
Top ministers defy Narendra Modi's pro-troll doctrine
For a long time now, many have suspected Narendra Modi of being the patron saint of the army of trolls that stalks the social media, spewing vitriol against all those deemed to be secular and liberal - or "sickular" and "libtard" - and, of course, "anti-national" in their preferred venomous vocabulary.
The prime minister was given the perfect opportunity to refute that suspicion. He chose instead to confirm it. On June 30, which was Social Media Day, the prime minister tweeted: "I would particularly like to congratulate my young friends for their innovative usage of social media. Their frank method of conveying opinions is extremely endearing. I urge youngsters to continue expressing and discussing freely."
The timing of the tweet could not have been more significant. For the preceding few days, the external affairs minister, Sushma Swaraj, had been subjected to vicious abuse on social media by Hindutva, right-wing trolls after her ministry had come to the aid of an inter-faith couple who had been denied a passport by the Lucknow passport office.
Narendra Modi, as we all know, has seldom spoken out against hate crimes or hate speech by those who proudly claim to be his bhakts. He has, in fact, tacitly endorsed their actions. Ten months ago, after Gauri Lankesh was shot dead outside her Bangalore home, the social media was awash with vicious tweets celebrating her murder - and some were posted by people followed by the prime minister. In spite of an outcry at that time, Modi not only maintained a toxic silence on the murder but refused to "unfollow" the trolls.
But Sushma Swaraj is no left-wing activist. She is among the senior-most members of Modi's cabinet, a top leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party. An elementary job of a leader is to stand by his team members. Yet, neither the prime minister nor the BJP chief came out in defence of Sushma. Taking a cue from their silence, no party leader dared speak out on the subject for more than a week in spite of the thousands of abusive tweets that flooded Sushma's Twitter account. They even targeted her husband, Swaraj Kaushal, with one troll telling him, "When she comes home tonight why don't you beat her up & teach her not to do Muslim appeasement."
On Social Media Day, the prime minister could have taken these trolls to task, or at the very least, asked people to be more careful with their language, more sensitive in their remarks. But his tweet sought to humiliate Sushma more than his silence did. It was a ringing endorsement of the "innovative usage" and "frank method" adopted by the the troll army; an explicit encouragement to their hate-mongering.
But what followed is far more curious. Two days after the prime minister's tweet, the Union home minister, Rajnath Singh, broke the official silence and said the attacks on Sushma were "unfortunate". On July 3, another heavyweight cabinet minister, Nitin Gadkari, echoed him.
And on July 4, Rajnath Singh directed the home ministry to ask the Mumbai police to register a case and identify the person behind the rape threat directed at the 10-year-old daughter of the Congress spokesperson, Priyanka Chaturvedi. A day later, the ministry of external affairs came out with a detailed statement defending the decision of issuing passports to the Lucknow couple that had caused so much ire in the Hindutva camp.
On the face of it, these are disparate developments concerning separate ministries. But for any discerning political observer, the real significance of the last few days lies not in the "strategic" silence of the prime minister and his cohorts but in the "strategic" actions taken by Sushma Swaraj and Rajnath Singh through their respective ministries. If calculated silence is part of Modi's pro-troll doctrine aimed at keeping the hard-line Hindutva base happy, the two top ministers of the cabinet have taken deliberate steps to irk that very base.
Take the case of the passport. Tanvi Seth and her husband, Mohammad Anas Siddiqui, accused the Lucknow passport granting officer, Vikas Mishra, of harassment. They said he slammed Seth because she was married to a Muslim but had not changed her name in the official documents, and also asked Siddiqui to convert to Hinduism.
On June 20, the lady reached out to Sushma Swaraj on Twitter. The very next day, a senior official of the MEA stepped in. The passport was issued. Mishra was transferred out of Lucknow to Gorakhpur.
When the Twitter storm broke out, Sushma Swaraj claimed she was not responsible for the decision. "I was out of India from 17th to 23rd June 2018. I do not know what happened in my absence," she tweeted on June 24, after sharing some of the abusive tweets she had received.
It is unlikely that ministry officials would have acted unilaterally without the minister's go ahead. Sushma has made a name for herself by helping out hapless Indians abroad once they reach out to her on Twitter. But this case was different. To take up cudgels on behalf of an inter-faith couple - the target of vitriolic 'love jihad' campaigns in Yogi Adityanath's Uttar Pradesh - was a politically risky step.
Perhaps Sushma had not realized the repercussions of the move. But after the massive trolling she faced, and the humiliating lack of support from her party and her prime minister, the external affairs minister seems to have become more determined to defend the case. On June 26, reports emerged that the Lucknow police had found discrepancies in the passport application: the name given by the applicant in the passport form differed from the one in her marriage certificate; and the applicant lived at an address different from the one given in the form. Sections of the media had a field day speculating that the passport would be withdrawn and criticized the decision to transfer Vikas Mishra for "doing his duty".
But in an uncharacteristic move, the MEA spokesman issued a detailed statement on July 5 to counter the "misinformation". It clarified that under new rules effective from June 1, 2018, police verification of a passport application had to ascertain only two things: whether the applicant was a citizen of India and whether the applicant had any criminal case against him or her. A marriage certificate was not necessary; and the address given by Tanvi was the same as on her Aadhaar card and bank account.
If the MEA statement was a stinging rebuttal to the trolls and inspired media reports, the home ministry's decision to take action against the troll who threatened Priyanka Chaturvedi's daughter was even more remarkable. Trolls routinely abuse and threaten "liberal" women with rape and worse, but seldom has any action been taken against them. But within a day of the home ministry directive, the Mumbai police arrested a 36-year-old man from Gujarat named Girish Maheshwari for the rape threat. Maheshwari describes himself as an "accounting associate at Bharatiya Janata Party" in his Facebook account. The BJP has not made any comment on his claim or his arrest.
Let us be clear. Rajnath Singh and Sushma Swaraj are no great liberals. They are no rebels either. Both have quietly acquiesced to the assault on constitutional values, the physical attacks on minorities and Dalits, the abuse and intimidation of activists and liberals that India has witnessed over the last four years.
But they have not actively pushed an aggressive Hindutva agenda either, preferring to sit quietly on the sidelines while the Modi-Shah duopoly went about their "Opposition-mukt" mission with the help of their trolls-and-vigilante cadres. That Rajnath and Sushma - far senior to Modi in national politics and belonging to the bygone Vajpayee-Advani era - have chosen to take actions that go against the core Moditva base are signs, perhaps, of a new churn.
They signal that towards the end of his term, Modi is no longer as invincible as he once seemed. There is a chance that he may not lead the BJP to a sweeping victory in 2019. In such a scenario, Rajnath and Sushma and even Gadkari espy a chance to be the Vajpayeesque leader of an expanded coalition. If Modi returns to power, they will anyway be consigned to a Margdarshak Mandal 2.0. By distancing themselves from Modi at this stage, they have much to gain and little to lose. That is why taking on trolls can be a useful political gambit too...