How did the tragic death of a young Bollywood actor escalate into a battle between the “good” nationalists and the “bad” anti-nationals? A symbiotic enmeshing of the ecology of television and social media enabled fake narratives, based on half-truths and innuendo, to be spun around the case.
These narratives were then dovetailed to the continuing, contemporary political war of the good “people” against “evil elites”.
Evil elites conspiracies
The use of the conspiracy theory that evil “elite” cabals are at war with the “people”, to drive and sustain political polarisation, by populist leaders is currently very much in vogue. In the US, it has reached absurd proportions – the president is apparently waging a secret battle against an elite cabal that worships Satan and runs paedophile rings!
In India, nationalist forces are valiantly battling the elites pejoratively referred to as the “Khan market gang”.
People versus elites
The distinction between the “people” and the “elites” is based neither on any notion of wealth or privilege nor on any structural mechanism, such as capitalism which differentiates between those who are owners and those who are workers. The current distinction is based on whether one supports the populist, religious-cultural ultranationalist ideology or not; it thus creates two neat categories: a nationalist “people” and an anti-national “elite”.
Hence, Trump is “people” despite all his wealth and privilege, as are numerous rich and powerful persons. This is also true in India where many rich or upper caste persons identify as “people” standing against the “elites”.
The elites are guilty of many sins: nurturing poverty and cultivating minority vote banks, preventing the nation from becoming great (again), and obstructing an aspirational middle class by denying them meritoriously deserved jobs. Much of this upper-caste middle class now identifies as “people”. Finally, the greatest sin of the elites is that they siphoned off ill-gotten money into their offshore accounts.
A new sociology
Such narratives have now given rise to a broader “sociology” that distorts complex issues into easily comprehensible binaries of the good versus evil variety. Elites are no longer just some hazy, abstract group that is victimising one’s caste or religious group; they are now present in one’s personal life – petty cabals all over the place, in offices, factories, universities, communities, and so on, operating continuously and unceasingly to “subjugate”.
There is, in Umberto Eco’s words, “an obsession with a plot”, literally – my job was taken away by a member of a minority group; my family is threatened by the neighbourhood refugee (who also happens to be a savage). The elite is held guilty of facilitating this for nurturing electoral vote banks, or perhaps just an inexplicable inherent love for being “anti-national”.
Death of a young man: one of the “people” killed by the “elite”
The mysteries surrounding the apparent suicide by the young Bollywood actor, Sushant Singh Rajput (SSR) found tremendous public traction. Much speculation arose when SSR died, as to why he would have taken such a step. This hinted at professional frustration, lack of recognition, relationship issues, depression and so on.
But the key thread that ran through these narratives was that of unfair treatment at the hands of the “elite cabal” that controls Bollywood, because he was not from these “inside” families. This was truly a nepotist conspiracy and it came to be projected as a local, smaller-scale version of the national “people” versus “elite” conspiracy. SSR thus became one of the “people” who was driven to death by the machinations of the Bollywood mafia. There was also talk that he was murdered by some members of this elite cabal because he saw things at a party gone wrong, so the insiders got rid of the outsider.
Some of the traction to these stories was perhaps nucleated spontaneously by “fans” who were conditioned to a regular diet of conspiracy theories. But beyond that, it has been seized upon and expanded broadly by ideological interests that would electorally benefit from the dovetailing of this story with the larger, populism-driven political polarisation. SSR was thus appropriated as a mascot of the “people” by political parties, as revealed by this study from the University of Michigan, who are the vanguard of the nationalist “people” fighting against the anti-national “elites”.
The first vehicle for the spread of this imagery have been some television channels that lean to the right. In their quest for higher audience engagement, they spawned a macabre reality show through their news programmes, hounding those they chose as the “accused” by hurling every possible innuendo and unverified allegations at them.
The second vehicle is the legions of right-wing warriors on social media where everyone is ostensibly fighting for “Justice for Sushant”. The full might of these media have been brought to bear on his girlfriend – the “chosen” one – for crimes ranging from financial swindling, supplying drugs, and even accessory to murder. She was, ultimately, an “agent” of the “elite”, that “killed” him. Numerous central agencies are investigating these crimes. Meanwhile, all possible misogynistic tropes have been on full display: the wily seductress, the stone-hearted gold-digger, and the whore-witch who engages in black magic. Not surprisingly, hateful and abusive videos on Youtube by SSR “fans” are still available online.
As the “show” plays out, the “people” who are witnessing these spectacles have taken their seats on social media platforms from where they cheer the TV anchors, egging them on to draw more blood. This intensity of synergy, between TV shows and social media, has never been seen before, not even in the media trials of the Aarushi murder case or the Sheena Bora murder case. This time a raw nerve of the “people” has been touched because it is one of “them”.
Experiencing “subjugation” through the prism of nepotism
Nepotism is perceived as a key mechanism by which the elite reproduces itself and ensures that all its power and privileges are monopolised by it. The most touted example of this in national-level politics is the leadership of the Congress party being in the hands of the Nehru-Gandhi family for generations. The nepotism issue has always been present in Bollywood also because there are so many families whose generations have been a part of the film industry.
These narratives obviously exaggerate the importance of nepotism as if it is the only thing that matters. Nepotist conspiracies are a convenient prism through which feelings of victimhood are experienced by people who are full of discontent and anger at their own adverse circumstances. It allows individuals to avoid other possible reasons for their “failure” such as their own incompetence, lack of qualifications, or simply just the unavailability of jobs.
A discourse analysis applied to what the “people” have said on various platforms, shows how this psychological hook operates. We look at some representative tweets (Facebook posts are full of similar stuff) and comments.
1. The first step is to blame the entrenched “elite”.
2. The next one is to identify oneself with the victim.
These comments capture the sentiment: “#IAmSushant ….. I am drugged. #IAmSushant ….. I was killed.”
3. Then comes the digital vigilante mob baying for blood.
“Man do not worry, custodial interrogation is on cards. … When CBI grills she fries the person so let there be slow frying so that truth rushes out fast. I am fully with you to knock them all inside the room by hanging them upside down but the problem is victim card will be played.”
4. Melding of personal rage with “nationalist revenge”
The larger actors in this saga are the police forces and politicians of two states – Maharashtra and Bihar – as well as the central investigative agencies. Prominent political personalities have been “implicated” as being part of the conspiracy against SSR. Bollywood personalities are having a never-ending jibe slugfest over nepotism. There is a sneering exchange of tweets between politicians and film folks. The air is rife with war cries. And how do the “people” perceive this?
5. This is also the “voice of our country”.
How media sustains the war of the “people”
Here is a TV show sampler of dubious and sensational reporting. Everything is “Breaking News”, “Revealed”, “Deep”, “Confirmed”, “Explosive” – conspiracy written all over it. Channels have been so eager to carry on spreading their disinformation that they have no idea what they are talking about. This channel thought that millennial lingo, “Imma bounce” (“I am leaving”) referred to a bounced cheque!
Another channel has the anchor screaming at anyone he does not agree with, and the “people” take this to be a sign of bold journalism. A fawning comment says, “It’s republic media who’s exposing everything every person, what a courageous job ull ve dob actually, …”. Another viewer thinks that “SSR was martyred. He had give his life to protect future generation from drugs, human traficking and kids sex abusing racket”. And then there are “people” who suggest that immediate justice be rendered. “Seriously speaking, SSR’s murder should bring out a revolution, Arrests should be made, This should be a prime example, Of janta and media power”. The conspiracy-enamoured mob waits, “When will the arrests start? PEOPLE NOW FEEL UNEASY”.
We also have finely curated “explainers” on sharing websites, like Quora. These posts tell us about how the perseverance of a specific TV anchor has driven the “progress” in the case. Another bunch of posts provide “information”, in gory detail, about all the shenanigans that went on, the timelines, the people present, who did what, and so on, resembling a live commentary. The small details that speckle these conspiracy-loving posts lend them an air of natural authenticity.
Despite the report from AIIMS stating that there is no evidence of murder, the conspiracy only deepens in the minds of the “people”. Now AIIMs too is a part of this elites-sponsored conspiracy. “Fans” are disappointed and still hope that they will be proven right. Unrepentant channels meanwhile continue with their “coverage”.
The “people” in a trance
A self-righteous “people” seems to have lost all critical agency or even a basic awareness of the legal rights of every individual – innocent until proven guilty – in their state of suspended disbelief. They have become a frenzied, cheering mob watching and waiting impatiently for the blood to flow, all in the name of justice. This is the digital equivalent of the Roman “damnatio ad bestias” – “people” enjoying the spectacle of their “enemies” being fed to the beasts.
Anurag Mehra teaches engineering and policy at IIT Bombay. His policy focus is the interface between technology, culture and politics.