In the late 1980s, when V.P. Singh used to travel the country speaking to audiences to drum up support, he used to hold up a piece of paper – “Do you know what this is? This is the secret account number when the money from the Bofors commission has been kept.” The crowds loved it.
Singh had quit first as the defence minister in the Rajiv Gandhi government, and then the Congress to form his own Janata Dal, after the Bofors scandal came to light and was proving to be a thorn in Gandhi’s side. This way, he formed his own persona of being an ultra-honest politician who couldn’t stomach corruption, in contrast with Gandhi, who turned a blind eye towards it or was possibly himself corrupt. Much of what was said during those days was full of innuendo and suggestion, with little or no hard evidence. Names were tossed about freely – Hindujas, Win Chaddha, Quattrochi and Rajiv Gandhi himself. Gandhi, who was known as Mr Clean, was now looking dirty – Singh was the new Mr Cleaner.
Nobody ever saw the piece of paper closely, and no one knew whether it did contain any numbers at all, forget secret account details. But the message went through. This way, Singh brought a complex story — the purchase of 155 Howitzers from Sweden by the Indian Army — to the level of the ordinary voter.
Now something like this is happening again, except that in this digital age, pieces of paper are redundant. Social media offers a variety of ways to disseminate information, factual or otherwise, and not just to politicians but to everyone else too.
When the Hindenburg report was released, showing that the valuations of the Adani group were inflated, it was all deemed much too technical. Adani stocks fell and kept on falling, but the ‘common man’ was hardly affected. It remained within the business community.
Then the opposition began demanding answers from the government and Rahul Gandhi, who had been alleging that Prime Minister Narendra Modi was close to industrialists, upped the ante. He raised the question in Parliament, and showed a photo of Modi lounging in Adani’s aircraft. That bit was not shown on television and expunged. The Surat judgement came soon after and Gandhi was expelled from Parliament. The opposition was even more charged up.
By then an interesting thing happened – the Adani story, too remote and full of stock market jargon, began seeping down to the common citizen. This time, the medium was digital – tweets, memes and songs. And the message began to go viral.
Today, the Adani-Modi connection is reaching far and wide, not because of the opposition (not many parties are taking it up even now), but because of popular culture, where the message is far more direct and visceral and therefore, more potent.
Type in Adani Modi memes in a search engine or on YouTube and countless short bits pop up – some indifferent, some so-so, but many quite funny and sharp. Songs? Check this out, which riffs on Naatu Naatu. Again, there are many out there, and some may not be even on Youtube. And there is no saying what kind of jokes and serious comment being passed around on WhatsApp. All this information is presented in a pithy and chewable, easily digestible form, which gives the gist of the issue.
Social media has been the domain of the BJP, which was first off the block; no longer, because individual creators, some who may not have any party affiliation at all, are commenting on important stories and at the same time having fun. And Modani has become a legitimate word.
It is not as if opposition parties are not needed – they are, because it is they who need to ask the questions and speak on behalf of their constituents. The Congress has been pointed and focussed in its attacks, the others less so, but the more they demand answers, the more the BJP goes on the defensive. And the prime minister’s complete silence on this one subject has not gone unnoticed. Coming soon after the shutting down of the BBC documentaries, which brought up the subject of the Gujarat violence of 2002, and then the subsequent raid on the BBC, the total maun vrat of Narendra Modi, who otherwise is quite voluble on every subject under the sun, shows him to be extra touchy about a few subjects. The Congress has found his weak spots and will not let it go. And thanks to its sustained campaign and the memes, jokes and songs, even the aam aadmi is beginning to understand that there are questions Modi must answer.
Satypal Malik has predicted that the Adani affair will cost Narendra Modi heavily and he is being proven right. The matter has trickled down to the villages, Malik says, adding that the prime minister must sever all ties with Adani otherwise it could sink the BJP.
Malik’s other shocking revelations on the Pulwama killings, on Modi’s advice to him to stay silent, and on Modi’s blind eye towards corruption will also all become social media fodder, to be dispensed in easily digestible form, far and wide. Already the satirists have got into the act. The ‘mainstream’ media continues to maintain its silence, and the social media fills that space.
Is Malik, an insider, giving voice to what many in the BJP are also thinking? Though party spokespersons have been very vocal in defending Modi and also Adani, senior party leaders have tended to remain diplomatically silent. Maybe they have seen the memes too and understood the message – the common citizen is now aware and will be asking questions about Adani, Pulwama and everything else and that their leader’s Teflon coating is wearing thin.
A version of this piece was first published on The India Cable – a premium newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas – and has been republished here. To subscribe to The India Cable, click here.