The Indian obsession with Pakistan has nothing to do with Pakistan

First published in The Friday Times, 3 August 2018.

It was funny to hear Imran Khan complain about being portrayed by the Indian media as “a Bollywood villain”. The Bollywood reference was endearing, a reminder of the things that bind us. But it was unexpected to hear the prime minister-designate complain about the Indian media in his first speech. By doing so, Imran Khan gave the Indian media way more importance than it deserves.

The impression that the Indian media is so influential in Pakistan boosts my ego as an Indian journalist.

Perhaps it helps Imran Khan’s popularity in Pakistan to be told that the Indian media dislikes him. The truth is that way too many Indians see Imran Khan fondly as the accomplished cricketer and the glamorous playboy, the heartthrob of the ‘70s. Any number of aunties will tell you how they would throng to the stadium to catch a glimpse of him.

Nobody thinks that any change of leadership in India or Pakistan can make any difference to the intractable conflict the two countries have been locked in. There has, for instance, been no substantive change in India-Pakistan relations since Manmohan Singh’s chair was occupied by Narendra Modi. Imran Khan as Pakistan’s prime minister will not be able to change much, and we all know that. There will be more of the same: pretence of talking about talks, a terror attack or three, nasty exchanges at the United Nations and barbs over Kashmir.

This writer has only one request for Pakistanis: please stop taking the “Indian media” so seriously. It is not as if people who watch Arnab Goswami’s Repuberty TV take it seriously. It is entertainment, a farcical comedy. One day a Modibhakt friend (our ‘youthias’ are called Modibhakts and, yes, I have some such friends) was watching Repuberty TV and his dad entered the room. “Put on the news,” his dad said, with no hint of irony. The channel was changed to India Today. Repuberty TV is not even considered news. I call it Repuberty TV because it is Arnab Goswami trying to re-live his heydays from his earlier channel, Times Now, which has become so right-wing we now call it Times Cow.

I do not watch these channels. Not that I watch any channel because I am a cord-cutter. I don’t have a cable connection. I took out my dish antenna so violently one day my neighbours thought I was attacking Pakistan (just kidding!)

Noida to North Korea

Repuberty TV is unlikely to grow up anytime soon. Like Benjamin Button ageing backwards, our channels have been regressing with time. Donald Trump is shaking hands with Kim Jong, Narendra Modi is visiting Indonesian mosques, Rahul Gandhi is finally adulting, Pakistan has stopped having de jure coups, China is becoming the new US, Elon Musk is no longer cool…the only thing that’s regressing is the Indian media.

Repuberty TV and Times Cow will not grow up because, like their Hindi equivalents, they are fighting a race to the bottom. These channels, like the internet’s fake news industry, are competing to be more outrageous than the other. The more they shock, the more people will watch them. For TRPs, editors and owners of these channels will do anything.

The only thing they won’t do is go against the Modi government, because you don’t target Dear Leader in a democracy, not until he starts losing elections. This is why they have earned the moniker ‘North Korean channels.’ So the next time Imran Khan complains about the Indian media, he should clarify whether he is referring to North Korean channels or regular Noida studios.

It would be better, however, to not complain about them at all. There are some things that are a fact of life. We learn to ignore them, for better or worse, and focus on the good things in life. You can’t complain all the time about that garbage dump around the corner, for instance. At some point it gets ‘normalised’, to use the favourite word of 2018.

These North Korean channels exist like garbage dumps, they have great TRPs thanks to the money they pump into distribution, marketing and manipulating TRP numbers. That does not mean they are taken seriously. They have become so outlandish that they don’t serve well the cause of even being propaganda vehicles. A propaganda vehicle needs some modicum of credibility. Why will anyone trust some cartoon-like mad man shouting on TV all the time?

Pakistan as a real place

The truth is that almost no one in India cares about elections in Pakistan, who become prime minister, how free and fair the polls are, what the issues are – no, nothing. The hits on websites will tell you there’s been very little interest. The North Korean channels would bash not just Imran Khan but whoever won the election, because that’s their set script. Pakistan-bashing sells for its outrage value, not because people are actually interested in Pakistan.

Apart from the issue of terrorism and security, Indians have become indifferent to our western neighbour. Perhaps the same is true of Pakistani interest in India. We Indians are among the most inward looking people – our newspapers have the least coverage of foreign lands. That is what Pakistan has become: just another foreign country.

That may seem like a strange thing to say, given how many times we hear ‘Pakistan’ from Twitter trolls in India, and from politicians who keep invoking ‘Pakistan’ in domestic elections. Prime Minister Narendra Modi does it too, every once in a while.

Sadly, the word ‘Pakistan’ in Indian politics is code for Indian Muslims. It is a metaphor, an idea, a ruse, a chimera, a mythical land, a place of the imagination, the other world, a different planet, a fantasy. The one thing it is not: a reference to the Islamic Republic of Pakistan

So when an Indian politician says, “Pakistanis will burst crackers if I lose,” he’s trying to say the local Muslims are unpatriotic. When someone says, “Go to Pakistan if you want to eat beef,” he is trying to say Indian Muslims will have to live as per the diktats of Hindutva extremists.

As for Pakistan itself, no one cares. In the years to come, Imran Khan’s charismatic, if controversial, personality could perhaps change that. Here’s a quick-fix suggestion if he wants to become a Bollywood hero again: make the visa regime easier. Give a lot more visas. Unilaterally. Let Indians come and see the real Pakistan, as I did last winter. When they see your beautiful, colourful, diverse and warm country, they will realise how stupid they have been all this while.

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To defeat Modi, the opposition needs to woo Nitish Kumar back

(First published in ThePrint, 3 July 2018.)

Nobody asked Nitish Kumar to join hands with the BJP. He did so on his own, blaming it on corruption charges against his deputy CM, Tejashwi Yadav. 

In truth it was a brazenly opportunist decision made with the calculation that the opposition had no prospect of dethroning Modi in 2019. “Nobody can defeat Modi in 2019,” Nitish Kumar had declared after switching sides.  Continue reading “To defeat Modi, the opposition needs to woo Nitish Kumar back”

The inside story of what Cambridge Analytica actually did in India

(First published in ThePrint, 27 March 2018.)

Alexander Nix and others of SCL Laboratories tried working in India on a project in 2011, but it collapsed in 2012 as Nix’s secret plan was accidentally outed. 

New Delhi: Cambridge Analytica, the controversial UK political consultancy, claims on its website that it worked on the Bihar assembly elections in 2010, and its clients won a landslide victory.

Formed in 2013, Cambridge Analytica’s parent firm is Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL). It has worked in India through an Indian company called Strategic Communication Laboratories Private Limited. Company records show the firm has four directors: Alexander James Ashburner Nix, Alexander Waddington Oakes, Amrish Kumar Tyagi, and Avneesh Kumar Rai.

The first two are British citizens who were among the four co-founders of SCL in the UK in 2005. Amrish Tyagi is the son of Janata Dal (United) leader K.C. Tyagi. He also runs the firm Ovleno Business Intelligence, which now works with Cambridge Analytica in India.

But who is Avneesh Kumar Rai, the fourth director of SCL India? Continue reading “The inside story of what Cambridge Analytica actually did in India”

How Narendra Modi avoids the ‘India Shining’ trap

[This article first appeared in ThePrint on 22 February 2018.]

One of the reasons for the defeat of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA coalition in 2004 was the election slogan: “India Shining”. Instead, a better slogan would have been “India Rising”, as L.K. Advani later admitted.

There’s a fundamental problem in politicians trumpeting their success and saying “I did it”. Once the story is over, the audience moves on to something else. It looks for other, newer stories.

A successful election slogan doesn’t seek to end the story but keeps you hooked to it. When a movie ends, you don’t even wait to see the credits before you get up and leave. But a TV series ends with some suspense that makes you want to watch the next episode. That is also how successful politicians present their work. Continue reading “How Narendra Modi avoids the ‘India Shining’ trap”

Modi Has A One-Point Economic Agenda And It’s Succeeding

By Shivam Vij

[This article first appeared in HuffPost India on 12 October 2017.]

In October 2015, a little over a year after Narendra Modi became prime minister, the price of pulses suddenly saw a sharp increase. It was, as it often is, election season. Narendra Modi had staked his own persona in the high-pitched battle for Bihar. Lalu Yadav’s supporters came up with a biting slogan: Arhar Modi, a pun on Har Har ModiGhar Ghar Modi – the slogan for the PM’s Lok Sabha campaign in Varanasi. Continue reading “Modi Has A One-Point Economic Agenda And It’s Succeeding”

Why Demonetisation’s Failure Didn’t Benefit The Opposition

[This article first appeared in HuffPost India on 2 September 2017.]

It is easy to give post-facto explanations for anything. The Delhi commentariat consensus is that demonetisation’s real intention was political — in other words, the Modi government knew the economic disaster it would beget. Secondly, we are told demonetisation helped the BJP win the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections. Continue reading “Why Demonetisation’s Failure Didn’t Benefit The Opposition”

Kashmir is a prison with three walls

(First published in HuffPost India on 5 May 2017.)

File:Kashmir region 2004.jpg

‘Every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty.’ — George Orwell Continue reading “Kashmir is a prison with three walls”

In UP, The Akhilesh Yadav Campaign Is Losing Steam

[This article first appeared in HuffPost India on 22 February 2017]

ALLAHABAD: Elections are those strange things in which no claim should be taken lightly. One of those claims could capture public imagination, metamorphosing into reality. The perception is the truth.

In UP’s month-long election, there’s a round of polling every fourth day. Every fourth day, the key players have an opportunity to alter the perception for the next four days. The Jat desertion of the BJP in the state’s western corners helped create the perception that the BJP was a weak force. Continue reading “In UP, The Akhilesh Yadav Campaign Is Losing Steam”

In Bellwether Kasganj, Caste Equations Are Firmly With One Party

[First published in HuffPost India on 7 February 2017.]

In Kasganj, the election ‘hawa’ became clear the moment it became clear who the candidates are.

The Bhartiya Janata Party’s candidate is a Lodh, Devendra Singh Rajput. The Bahujan Samaj Party’s candidate is Ajay Chaturvedi, a Brahmin. The Samajwadi Party candidate is a Muslim, Hasrat Ullah Sherwani.

If you ask them, they will all say they are getting votes from all castes and communities. “Saaton jatiyon ka vote mil raha hain,” is a refrain you hear often, the metaphorical reference to seven castes a reminder that this is a mathematical exercise.

Not just politicians and journalists, even ordinary voters seem to know the caste maths of Kasganj, though the figures get changed in travelling by word of mouth.

Depending on who you ask, Kasganj has 16,000 Brahmin voters or 42,000. There is similar confusion about other castes. The only matter of absolute unanimity is that Lodhs are the largest in number.

Here’s a rough caste breakup of the voters from local journalists who insisted these are the real numbers, not politically motivated ones: Continue reading “In Bellwether Kasganj, Caste Equations Are Firmly With One Party”

10 Raghuram Rajan Comments That Made Modi Government Squirm

[This article first appeared in HuffPost India on 23 January 2017.]

When Raghuram Rajan took over as RBI governor amidst a gloomy economy in 2013, The Economic Times showed him as James Bond in a graphic. The headline read, “The man who predicted world’s future set out to correct India’s present.” Continue reading “10 Raghuram Rajan Comments That Made Modi Government Squirm”