Whichever room Prime Minister Narendra Modi enters, a huge elephant now follows him. Yet, he blatantly refuses to address it.
This was seen during his recent Mann Ki Baat episode. While millions of students all over the country were protesting against the government for failing to postpone the JEE-NEET entrance exams, which began today, Modi chose to talk about the importance of … adopting Indian breed dogs and making Indian games. This, at a time when India is reeling from shocking reports about students resorting to suicide because of the mounting pressure of preparing and appearing for the JEE-NEET exams during the pandemic and through floods.
So, what did Gen Z do in response? What it does best — unleash its fury online. At the time of writing this, the latest Mann Ki Baat on the Bharatiya Janata Party’s YouTube page has more than 8 lakh dislikes, while the same video on the PMO India page and Narendra Modi’s page has 1.30 lakh and 2.20 lakh dislikes respectively. This forced the Prime Minister’s office to disable comments on the video. Yes, our Prime Minister does not want to engage in an uncomfortable dialogue with us. In internet parlance, ‘Narendra Modi has left the chat’. But saying ‘imma bounce’ to lakhs of students is no longer an option, especially when they have realised the power of the dislike button.
Power of the dislike button
Prime Minister Narendra Modi often avoids addressing the country’s most pressing concerns. He did this when China was (still is) sitting on our side of the border — he acknowledged the India-China standoff in Ladakh only after 20 soldiers were killed, and even then categorically denied any intrusion. He didn’t mention the migrant workers crisis even once in his nationwide Covid-19 address on 12 May, when the exodus was at its peak.
Saying the Narendra Modi-led government does not entertain criticism is like saying the sky is blue. This government even made it a priority to incarcerate scholars and activists who have previously disagreed with its policies during the Covid pandemic. And when expressing dissent often invites the ‘anti-national’ tag, silently expressing your stand with a subtle thumbs-down icon, without having to fear rape and death threats from internet trolls, becomes an all-empowering tool.
‘Dislike’ buttons can be like ballot boxes that allow citizens to directly state their agreements and disagreements with the government. It will make political discourse more participatory, reducing the fear of lone voices getting lost in the noise of comment sections, giving users a way of engaging with their leaders in a more direct way.
Perhaps, this is why there was a clamour to introduce a dislike button on Twitter as well. And why not? Why must we engage in tiresome arguments online every time we disagree with the government’s decision? Not only will a dislike button on a political platform such as Twitter serve as a quick way of expressing disagreement, it is also a strong way for the leader of the day to gauge public opinion as well. Unless they just don’t want to hear anyone other than their average ‘yesmen’.
The dislike button saves you from whataboutery and routine verbal abuse.
The recent bombardment of dislikes on BJP’s YouTube videos also clearly rattled outspoken BJP spokespersons, such as Sambit Patra, who faced the ire of students when a video of his press conference also received 90,000 dislikes late Monday night. For once, BJP leaders can’t blame something on Nehru.
But despite the visible outrage by students regarding the government’s decision to go ahead with the NEET-JEE exams, the government remains as impervious to feedback as ever. The BJP has now cried foul, saying there was a Congress conspiracy in the recent dislike saga, claiming only 2 per cent dislikes came for India.
Hit them where it hurts
One might think it’s futile to resort to harmless ‘dislikes’, especially when months of protests and pleas didn’t deter the government. The relentless protests at Shaheen Bagh, and the rest of the country, didn’t make it withdraw or reconsider the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. The widespread outrage over the Una lynchings didn’t get much attention from the BJP, and cow vigilantism still goes largely unchecked. Protests over Rohith Vermula’s suicide didn’t make BJP leaders demand justice the way actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death has made them; they were busy seeing Congress ploy in the incident.
But one has to remember that the BJP is bracing for elections in Bihar, which will be fought with online campaigns — the party’s home turf. So, any online backlash against the party will only hit them where it hurts the most.
These dislikes will spoil BJP’s game of algorithmic politics, in which political parties can learn about the internet history of users, and feed them content that will directly play into their fears or biases. As Home Minister Amit Shah had once brazenly stated, WhatsApp proved to be the mantra through which BJP won the elections, as the party could make any message “real or fake” go viral.
But with organic dislikes, this game gets spoiled because then, viral content spirals out of the control of IT cell masters, and gives the government and parties actual feedback.
Right before a key state election, students have not only voiced their frustration with the government, they also have the potential to impact an election.They have made it clear that Modi doesn’t care about students in a pandemic-hit year, even after they have been begging him to listen. Does he then deserve their vote or the dislike button?
Views are personal.