Dealing with the perception battle The Statesman 09 Feb 2021 Maj Gen Harsha Kakar

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Dealing with the perception battle The Statesman 09 Feb 2021

          Comments on twitter by a former porn star, Mia Khalifa, pop singer, Rihanna, and a school dropout, self-styled environmentalist, Greta Thunberg, on supporting farmers agitation in India led to a massive response by the Indian government and known Indian personalities. These pro-agitation comments were supported by politicians from UK and US, including US representatives, Jim Costa and Ilhan Omar as also Claudia Web from UK. They were also backed by Meena Harris, niece of US Vice President, Kamala Harris, and few others.

          Lawmakers representing UK and US, who supported agitating farmers, are ignoring the fact that their countries have approached WTO for unfair trade practices involving Indian agriculture. These governments have complained of Indian subsidies to agriculturists, including MSP, thus making the Indian agriculture market difficult to penetrate. In 2018, the US claimed that, ‘India gives 60%-70% subsidy for rice and wheat against the stipulated 10%.’ It is equally surprising that none of them commented when Capitol Hill was stormed last month.

          The three who tweeted are influencers on social media with large followings. Rihanna, with over 100 million followers, has the fourth largest follower base on twitter. An article titled, ‘What is an Influencer- Social media influencers defined,’ of Jan this year, states, ‘Mega influencers are people with a vast number of followers on their social networks. Although there are no fixed rules on boundaries between different types of followers, a common view is that mega-influencers have more than 1 million followers on at least one social platform.’

          It adds, ‘Many mega-influencers are celebrities who have gained their fame offline – movie stars, sportspeople, musicians, and even reality television stars. Their services will be costly.’ While the article refers to commercial activities, there is no doubt that celebrities occasionally offer support on political issues, either on personal request or payment. As per an Indian investigative site, Rihanna was paid by a PR firm, linked to Khalistan supporters. Very rarely do mega-influencers comment on global matters on their own initiative.

          The Indian government reacted with a statement which read, ‘We would like to emphasise that these protests must be seen in the context of India’s democratic ethos and polity, and the efforts of the Government and concerned farmer groups to resolve the impasse.’ It added, ‘It is unfortunate to see vested interest groups trying to enforce their agenda on these protests and derail them.’ Similar views were espoused by prominent Indians from all walks of life.

          Greta Thunberg inadvertently spilled reality by including in her tweet a ‘Tool Kit’, which displayed these tweets were part of an extensive strategy which included holding protests across the globe. The document proves that none of those who tweeted were aware of reality but roped in as part of a strategy of degrading India’s global reputation. When the truth was revealed, Greta deleted her tweet and pushed another, claiming to be a victim, stating, ‘hate, threats and violations of human rights will ever change that (her support).’ Similarly, faced with a violent backlash on social media, Meera Harris was compelled to defend herself.

These comments by non-government entities, but social media influencers, with little to zero knowledge on issues concerning the Indian farmer, should have been challenged by all Indian political parties, standing together, discarding their political affiliations. After all, it was a planned action by anti-India elements to damage Indian global image, not that of the current government alone. Political differences should never come in the way of countering comments being pushed by known India haters.

Alas, the silence of Indian political parties displayed a different story. Chidambaram tweeted, ‘When will you realize that people concerned with issues of human rights and livelihoods do not recognize national boundaries?’ It was almost as if most political parties welcomed anti-India propaganda, and that too for just a few votes or seats in forthcoming elections. It displayed the selfish mentality of Indian politicians. It also conveyed to the global community that Indian polity can never project a unified front, as long as their livelihood depends on vote banks.

In 2013, when Nawaz Sharif, in an interaction with Indian and Pak journalists in New York, termed Manmohan Singh as a ‘dehati aurat’ (rural woman), it was Modi who led the charge against Nawaz. He stated in a rally even before Manmohan and Nawaz met in New York, ‘There can never be a greater insult to the Indian PM. There cannot be a greater insult to India. We will not tolerate any insult to India.’ Should the Indian polity have followed suit?

          Another question which arises is whether the Indian government should have reacted to comments by a pop star, ex porn star and a self-proclaimed environmentalist, supported by few others. Their tweets may provide international traction to the protests as also draw in social media comments by few wayward global politicians with known leanings, however, they do not represent views of governments. The Indian government claimed it was essential to respond, to influence those supporting the tweets, without being unaware of reality.

Had the government remained silent and let the debate continue on social media, it could have projected an image of power, strength and unwillingness to not get drawn into policy issues which are solely internal. In my opinion, countering the tweets displayed weakness and hurried decision making. It also provided additional publicity to the tweets, which may otherwise have been ignored. To back the Indian government and discredit comments by its citizens, the US and UK governments stated they supported the new laws and hoped protests would end with dialogue.

Within the nation, these comments have united the masses, which views them as interference in India’s internal matters, as against our polity. Indians should not fall prey to planned and targeted propaganda aimed at breaking the fabric of our nation. We must accept that protesting is a right in a democracy and our internal differences should be resolved through democratic means of dialogue and courts, rather than through violence and intimidation. Foreign pushed propaganda must be ignored.