Do you ever feel when you read an item in the news or see a tweet that it must be a joke? Only to discover that it is in fact, deadly serious. I have to say that it happens a lot to me these days.
Last week, somebody on my timeline retweeted a tweet from a Dr Prachi Sadhvi. “Have you carefully observed Cadbury Chocolate advertisement on TV channels,” Sadhvi tweeted. “The shopless poor lamp seller is Damodar. This is done to show someone with PM Narendra Modi’s father’s name in poor light. Chaiwale Ka baap diyewala. Shame on Cadbury company.”
And of course there was the inevitable hashtag “#BoycottCadbury”.
At first, I was incredulous. Perhaps the tweet was a send up of boycotters, I thought. But no, it was serious. And sure enough “#BoycottCadbury” was soon trending on Twitter.
Intrigued, I checked out Dr. Prachi Sadhvi’s profile. She had a blue tick, 2,58,000 followers and described herself as a Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leader.
I have no idea how the boycott has worked out. If we were to keep an eye out for everything that involved somebody called Damodar, I am sure we could find thousands of books, movies, ads, etc to get agitated about. So, I wondered why Cadbury was being targeted.
There was another attempt to organise a boycott of Cadbury on the grounds that the company’s chocolates contained beef products. That turned out to be false, since it was based on a screenshot of a product description posted by Cadbury’s Australian affiliate. No Indian brand would be foolish enough to sell non-vegetarian chocolates, let alone those containing beef.
Logic suggests that this boycott will not make a significant dent in Cadbury’s sales. Imagine a mother taking her child to a chocolate store. When the child says that he or she wants a Cadbury, will the mother say, “No beta, we cannot eat Cadbury’s because the company once put out an ad in which one of the characters shared a name with Narendrabhai’s father. They are bad, bad, bad people!”
Somehow, I don’t think so.
Boycott and cancel culture
We may laugh at the epidemic of boycotts but they are no fun for their targets. Some of them follow a certain twisted logic. If Aamir Khan dares speak out, then it might be useful to shut him up by boycotting companies that will do business with him. Boycotts of that nature, directed at people with influence, may serve a devious purpose. But makers of chocolates? I just don’t get it. To demand a boycott of Fruit and Nut bars, you have to be a bit of a nut yourself.
In some senses, boycotts are our version of the West’s cancel culture, which is similarly arbitrary and frequently senseless. The difference is that Western boycotts/cancel campaigns are not associated with the political right. They usually emanate from those who claim to hate the right-wing.
It is not clear to me that any of this works in the long run. In India, the boycott brigade managed to terrify the film industry. But did the boycott actually affect the box office performances of films? Would Laal Singh Chaddha have been a hit even if there was no boycott? Why was Brahmastra such a big hit if the boycott had any power? Are Ranbir Kapoor’s fans willing to abandon him because some guy on social media has discovered that the actor once said he ate beef?
It’s much the same with the cancel culture. If threats by activists to ‘cancel’ individuals had so much power, then what about British author JK Rowling who has been the target of such campaigns? Rowling’s sin apparently is that she is not sufficiently respectful of transgender rights, which may or may not be true. But even as the cancel campaign runs on, she goes from strength to strength.
The frightening thing about boycotts (though not about the cancel culture, which is nearly always wrong in all circumstances) is that morally or legally it is hard to find anything to object to. People have a perfect right not to eat Cadbury’s chocolates or to refuse to see Aamir Khan’s films. There is no way in which you can blame them for choosing to exercise that choice.
And in fact, most nations have used boycotts as instruments of state policy. For decades, much of the civilised world boycotted goods that were exported by the apartheid regime in South Africa. As Nelson Mandela later confirmed, it was these boycotts (along with economic sanctions) that brought down the apartheid.
The US boycotted the Moscow Olympics in 1980 over the invasion of Afghanistan. India often refuses to play cricket with Pakistan when tensions rise and we believe a boycott will put pressure on the Pakistanis.
So, how can we object if an easily outraged nationalist mob on social media threatens boycotts of individuals or companies?
The answer is that we can’t.
How boycotts become a success
We may disapprove of them but in a free society we must let boycotts run their own course. My own sense is that they are less and less effective. It is easy to get a boycott campaign to trend on Twitter. (Give social media consultants Rs 5 lakh and they will even make your cat trend on Twitter.) And yes, there will be a noisy hardcore that will try and enforce the boycott.
But the central assumption of all flippant boycott calls is flawed. Those who call for boycotts believe that people are sheep, or worse, total idiots. Ask them to boycott something or somebody and they will follow the lead blindly.
As we have seen, it doesn’t work like that. People are not fools. If they feel that a provocation is justified — for instance, that Pakistan has encouraged terrorism in India, that a particular person has gone beyond the pale in his or her statements or behaviour — then they will join in and make the boycott a success.
But otherwise, they are increasingly bored by the repeated calls for boycotts on one frivolous ground after another. Parents do not want to deny their children a chocolate because some VHP leader is obsessing about something innocuous. Fans of a movie star don’t suddenly stop seeing his films if they discover he once said he liked hamburgers.
The trick is for the targets to hold firm and see the boycott through. All too often, alas, individuals and companies run scared and give in during the initial phases of a boycott call. That’s how the boycotters get their strength.
But show a little courage, exhibit a little patience and the mob will give up and move on.
Vir Sanghvi is a print and television journalist, and talk show host. He tweets at @virsanghvi. Views are personal.
(Edited by Ratan Priya)