In the on-going war between the PM Narendra Modi-led government and the media over what constitutes ‘national interest’ there are no winners. There’s a simple reason for this. It’s not that governments are all-powerful and controlling, as critics complain, or that the media is compromised or corrupt, as its detractors cavil.
The real problem is war. Even in peacetime, what constitutes national interest is subject to discussion and difference of opinion. During a war, when propaganda is serious business, national interest becomes even more challenging and uncertain, fiercely contested and controverted.
Of course, the truth is a casualty, along with thousands of soldiers. Both losses are most unfortunate. Slain soldiers are valourised and mourned. Political parties are quick to cash in on their sacrifices. But, then, who really cares for truth, especially when we are at war?
The war I am speaking of is not just the one that is being waged on our Western front against Pakistan. It’s also the war within — a battle of narratives over who controls the ‘India story’. The latter, incidentally, has been an obsession since the dawn of early trans-civilisational encounters. India has been such a powerful territory, both geographically and ideologically, that to gain control over the meaning of India has been an ancient fixation, both Western and Eastern.
Whether it was the ancient Persian or Greek passion to conquer India or China’s India connection, driven by its fascination for ‘western wisdom’, India has been the apple of every foreigner conqueror and story teller’s eye. The Arabs were no exception to this, nor the Turks, Afghans, Mughals, and after them, the British. Each of them wanted to capture and disseminate their own idea of India.
Closer to our times, during the freedom struggle and well into the early decades of Independence, several competing notions of India struggled for supremacy. Gradually, the Nehruvian socialist secular narrative was overtaken by the rhetoric of liberalisation and Hindutva. This war of words is not across our borders, but right within: it is the most uncivil of our ongoing clashes for power and supremacy. No quarter is given to the adversary.
What complicates matters further is another kind of war that we are soon going to find ourselves deeply enmeshed in. I am referring to our scramble and scrimmage for votes, the biggest carnival—or should we say tamasha— on earth. The Indian elections. There is nothing quite like them, when it comes to size, scale, or even entertainment value.
Now that the Election Commission has announced the dates for the Lok Sabha polls, the impending war for the ballot box has begun. The tornado of propaganda unleashed by all sides will be deafening. What happens to the truth is the least of anyone’s worries. Claims are plied — and piled — upon claims without any justification or need of verification.
In the midst of all this cacophony, the easiest charge to level at one’s opponents is that they are unpatriotic. Every question, whether fair or otherwise, becomes a provocation. Every questioner is accused of being a traitor. But, one might ask in exasperation, doesn’t the citizen have a right to know? Or are governments beyond questioning?
We are told, criticise the politician, but spare the armed forces. To question the latter is considered an act of foulest perfidy and treachery. We are called ungrateful and insensitive if we raise doubts about information purveyed, no matter how changeable, inconsistent, or contradictory, put out by those who are tasked with defending the country, even at the cost of their lives.
So: how many terrorist targets were struck on 26 February? How many bunkers and buildings were actually destroyed? How many terrorists killed? Well—the armed forces don’t put out numbers, we must remember. What about our war hero Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman? Did he actually get into a dogfight with a Pakistani F-16? If so, why was an older aircraft allowed to take on a superior and newer jet fighter? Did Varthaman, against almost impossible odds, actually bring down that F-16 before he was shot down?
What really happened? Why must every question—or for that matter answer—be instantly politicised, with aspersions cast on the character of the one asking the questions? Isn’t accurate information available to an informed electorate the best safeguard for democracy?
I for one believe that we, the citizens of this country, do have a right to know. This right must not be diluted or dubbed “unpatriotic”. Of course, in matters of national security, the government may determine what is best revealed or concealed. If concealment is the better bet in any given situation, the government should say so clearly—we cannot tell what we know, at least not now, but perhaps later.
That, to me, is the healthier way forward. Government must inspire trust. And it can do so only by levelling with those with whom it has a social contract. We, the people, are sovereign. Governments serve our interests and govern us with our permission. Political parties retain or are thrown out of power at our pleasure. That is what makes us a democracy.
And in a democracy, the praja, or the people need to know what is really going on.
The author is a Professor and Director at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. His views are personal. His Twitter handle is @makrandparanspe