Have elections in India turned nastier? The question springs to mind when you see the horrid exchange of abuse among not just the underlings of party leaders, but leaders themselves in the ongoing campaign for the 12 May Karnataka Assembly election. The answer is 'No', and 'Yes'.
'No', if you see that elections continue to be business — literally, business — as usual: Hired or uninterested crowds, hypocritical speeches, sham ideologies, false promises, lies, half-truths and paid musclemen. The answer is a big 'Yes' if you see the addition of verbal violence of digital hooligans who populate the internet to the physical cruelty of musclemen on the streets. As a reporter who has covered elections since the Assembly poll in Karnataka in 1983, I am as familiar with political musclemen as I am with potholes on Bengaluru’s infamous roads, although the online samurai are relatively new political creatures.
The thugs, the ones who unleash physical violence, became an integral, even if invisible, part of India’s election scene by 1980s, when the Congress began to be seriously challenged by other parties across the country. Other parties didn’t take too long in recruiting musclemen and making physical intimidation a key part of the democratic process today. You could call them chamchas, henchmen, cronies, sidekicks or minions, but they are just what they are: Musclemen.
In the Congress, many of them masquerade as Youth Congress "workers" — the reason why my stomach turns when a "leader" reveals he launched his "career" as a Youth Congress worker. Whichever party they belong to, they are endowed with an impressive range of talents from stone-throwing to bone-breaking. Some can be seen flanking their leader, carrying a briefcase or, these days, a mobile phone. And some are content with staying on the sidelines, ready to do the needful at the leader's bidding at any time of the day or night, especially the night.
One such political thug once told me with touching humility: "God has given me the talent for beating up a man badly without killing him. Murder cases are a waste of time." I met another one equipped with a police wireless set that kept him abreast of VIP movements.
The election-time utility of political thugs is mind-boggling. They break furniture in party offices when the leader is peeved at high command over ticket-allotment, pull crowds for a rally, stop audiences from attending a rival's roadshow, dole out cash and freebies ranging from nose rings to refrigerators to voters, ferry them to booths on polling day, cast bogus votes, intimidate voters and election officials when necessary and so on. All for a price that may be cash, or the lure of a ticket to contest a future election.
Any inadvertent exercise of freedom of expression or other rights by opponents would attract 'A Visit From the Goon Squad'. Molotov cocktails, stones, sickles, sticks and cycle chains join the choicest expletives in the settlement of political arguments that follow. Politics isn’t cricket: There is no draw, only a winner.
Then came the digital goons
The credit (or blame) for taking election battles to the internet must go to the BJP that started it all in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. Action begets reaction, right? Faced with a nearly Congress-mukt Bharat and bereft of any legitimate issues with which to fight the BJP, Rahul Gandhi and his team have embraced digital diatribes as a primary tool to save their party from extinction.
Now with the Congress as well as the BJP being desperate to win Karnataka, both have taken to social media in a big way, making political use of technology and taking it to a new high (or low, if you wish). Even the Janata Dal (Secular) is not lagging behind.
Balalji S, who is in charge of the BJP’s social media wing, told Bangalore Mirror, "Of the five crore voters (of Karnataka), as many as three crore use the internet on an everyday basis. Further, 3.5 crore voters possess smartphones with around 2.5 crore having their own Facebook account. An interesting 2.4 crore voters subscribe to YouTube alerts. Considering these figures, reaching out to voters through social media will have a considerable impact."
It’s not surprising that all three parties have set up buzzing IT war rooms that would make the Bombay Stock Exchange look like a prayer hall.
But it’s clear from the "content" they dish out that they do a lot more than "reaching out to voters". Many internet warriors push the boundaries of human decency in making or rebutting allegations. And as with physical goons, their digital versions too indulge in proxy battles, by turning themselves into ghost tweeters for their masters. In the process, semi-literate and crude leaders overnight turn into experts in mean and smart repartee with a turn of phrase that a satirist would envy. When the "tweet wars" fought by leaders (read as paid proxies) hit newspaper front pages and channels, they serve the purpose more than a dozen public rallies in the hot sun can.
Outside these war rooms and apparently beyond the control of leaders, hundreds of other party "supporters" spread the message of hatred. And in a city that boasts of being Indias IT capital, talent for morphing photos and doctoring videos is not in short supply. The result goes by the name of Fake News. The first thing that gets killed in this verbal violence is truth, but, sorry, nobody is mourning it. If one WhatsApp group can disseminate enough lies and half-truths to cause a riot, the three parties together in Karnataka have thousands of them.
Worse is to come—or has it already? The Times of India warns that internet fakery is now taking an even more vicious avatar called "Deepfakes", which uses Artificial Intelligence to make anyone say or do just about anything on video. Social media may have made the world a more democratic place, but it also produces fakery that plays on gullible minds, and polarises society more menacingly than the rampaging mobs during riots.
Digital wars may win elections, but the scars they leave run deeper and last longer.
The author tweets @sprasadindia
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Updated Date: Apr 23, 2018 13:05:54 IST