Manufacturing Modi’s popularity

Jan 12, 2022 | Kashmir Coverage (General News)

REVELATIONS of a secret app apparently used by Hindutva affiliates to inflate the BJP’s popularity or to intimidate political opponents reinforces the belief many hold that it is bluster more than substance that shores up the make-believe political invincibility Prime Minister Modi flaunts.

The Wire news portal last week reported that a little-known app called Tek Fog was used to inflate the BJP’s clout. It can unleash a barrage of orchestrated trolls also against critics through a secret set-up.

The Wire is among a clutch of courageous media outfits that have refused to be cowed by the state’s daily intrusions and intimidations. The portal observed for two years the existence of the app when a former insider turned whistleblower revealed its use “by political operatives affiliated with the BJP to artificially inflate the popularity of the party, harass its critics and manipulate public perceptions at scale across major social media platforms”. The orchestration was visible quite pronouncedly in the phrases used and references made, for example, to Mr Modi’s convoy, which last week got stranded in Punjab for all of 15 minutes. “Menacingly close to the Pakistan border” was repeated ad nauseum by the chorus of TV anchors to enlarge the threat Mr Modi faced after a change in his travel plan hit a roadblock of protesting farmers who had no clue he was travelling by.

The opposition wants a parliamentary committee on home affairs to urgently take up the Tek Fog exposé as it concerns national security. Trinamool Congress MP Derek O’Brien’s description of the app seems worrying. “This application is capable of penetrating encrypted messaging platforms and secure social media conversations, in order to heavily manipulate and exploit narratives on said platforms.” The existence and usage of manipulative technologies like Tek Fog, O’Brien said, posed a big danger to national security and to citizens’ rights. The Wire said its investigation found the app could hijack Twitter hashtags, take over “inactive” WhatsApp accounts, and direct the online harassment of journalists critical of the BJP. “Another important functionality present in the app screens was the ability for app operatives to delete or remap all existing accounts at a moment’s notice. This feature theoretically allows them to destroy all incriminating evidence of their past activity.” 

Anyone can see how the app’s alleged capabilities dovetail with the BJP’s image building endeavour despite Modi’s ordinary numbers compared to his bête noire Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. Nehru won 371 seats from 494 in 1957, seven more than in 1952. His vote share improved from 45 per cent to 47.8pc. His lowest performance was 44.72pc in 1962. In 1967, Indira Gandhi won 283 seats with 40.78pc votes, and picked up 352 seats in 1971 at 43.68pc. In the post-emergency defeat of 1977, her tally was 154 seats at 34.52pc votes, and she returned with a thumping 353 seats and 42.69pc votes. Rajiv Gandhi, of course, got the highest tally of 414 seats with 49.1pc vote share. Modi, in 2019, added 6.4pc over 2014, taking his score to 37.4 pc. The BJP’s seat tally improved from 282 to 303 in his five years.

The BJP stirred communal violence in Uttar Pradesh in 2014, and exploited the Pulwama terror attack to reach 303 in 2019. Mrs Gandhi won 49 more seats than Modi’s best in 1971 at 43.68pc votes and 50 more in 1980 at 42.69pc, effortlessly.

Mrs Gandhi flirted with authoritarianism but people fought back, and she relented. She made fatal mistakes, like sending the army into the Golden Temple, but refrained from again targeting students, intellectuals, academics, opposition parties, bureaucrats or judges critical of her policies. Few felt threatened or intimidated by any leader’s numbers, including Rajiv Gandhi’s imposing tally. The BJP trolls will manipulate the straightforward narrative to spice up Modi’s showing. Less watchful newspapers would then pick up the narrative, and the TV channels are nicely primed to tom-tom the packaged tidings. 

Let me give a glimpse here into the servile media’s idea of national interest. Way before Modi was tapped as a likely PM, A.B. Vajpayee was to address the press at Delhi’s Hyderabad House on Feb 28, 2002 in the company of visiting Afghan president Karzai. News of the Godhra violence was trickling in. The entire Indian media covering the joint press conference ‘decided’ they wouldn’t ask Mr Vajpayee anything about Gujarat. Mr Vajpayee would make a statement, which he did, after seeing off the visitor. Compare this with the US media covering the White House. PM Rao had finished his meeting with President Clinton. But the questions at their joint press meet were all about the US invasion of Grenada. Nobody thought of not ‘embarrassing’ the US president or avoiding ‘anti-national’ questions in a foreigner’s presence. Rao just stood by pouting silently. Come back to India, and combine the prowess of the Tek Fog app with a very pliable set of reporters and TV anchors.

Consider another aspect of steamrolling public opinion. The BJP rules so many states under Modi, goes the unchallenged claim. Look again, how many of the states did the BJP win with the help of Modi’s so-called popular appeal? The BJP grabbed Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh not by winning, leave alone charisma. It just subverted opposition alliances to topple their governments. Where was the popular appeal here? Same was the case with Meghalaya, Manipur, Goa and Arunachal Pradesh. The BJP never won there despite its overstated popular appeal. It simply crowbarred its way to form governments. Modi attempted a similar jiggery-pokery in Maharashtra, trying to install his chief minister in the wee hours, but found the opposition alliance there more than a match for him.

An effective way to dampen the appeal of BJP’s myth-making apps is for a united opposition to show the party its place in a tiny corner of parliament, as used to be the case.

The writer is Dawn correspondent in Delhi.

Jawed Naqvi | Dawn