Why India needs more than a ‘ministry’ to fight propaganda

We Indians need to have the collective determination and clarity to recognise the power, nature and history of propaganda as a global force ranged against India as one of the last lands still standing against it

Vamsee Juluri January 24, 2022 10:59:10 IST
Why India needs more than a ‘ministry’ to fight propaganda

Screen grab showing Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaking at the 54th convocation ceremony of IIT-Kanpur on Tuesday. Twitter/ @narendramodi

My recent article in Firstpost titled Why India urgently needs a Ministry of Counter-Propaganda seems to have caught the attention of many readers, and I offer a quick response to some of their comments below.

I should begin by emphasising that countering propaganda is not propaganda: It is the telling of the truth after wiping out the lies. But to do that effectively, especially when propaganda has a powerful institutional history and deep investment of hundreds of millions of dollars in it, we need to understand the problem and possible solutions clearly.

With this aim in mind, my article talked about the institutionalisation of modern propaganda in the United States (the Creel Committee, set up by President Woodrow Wilson during World War I) in relation to the longer history of mass persuasion that I believe is endemic to proselytising cultures like the Christian West. I also tried to contrast this with the lack of institutional investment in mass persuasion (especially on a global scale) by India.

Aucitya and anti-propaganda

I took this approach because there is a kind of “aucitya” involved in a media studies professor writing about propaganda. It is not my place to call for propaganda, much less for government or party propaganda. It is my duty to share what I have learned about propaganda as a global phenomenon, and certainly urge action from readers and concerned citizens in whatever may be the appropriate form of response from them, as their own sense of “aucitya” permits.

With that in mind, here, below, are some of the reactions to my article.

First, a number of people expressed concern that the government was the wrong institution to take on the task of fighting propaganda (my guess is that some of them did not read beyond the headline):

“Sorry I disagree. India needs a professional, multi-specialist, multidisciplinary, multidimensional organisation for fighting information warfare, not another ministry.”

“A ministry is a waste of time. A counterpropaganda or info warfare organisation with specific tasking, involving civil and military experts, functioning under the NSA is the need of the hour.”

“But isn’t Ministry of I & B supposed to counter propaganda… if these bureaucrats want to work, every ministry’s IEC division is also mandated to counter negativity.”

One reader thought that the GoI couldn’t do it, but then…

“Trolling success of BJP’s IT Cell can be scaled and optimized under the MIB to encompass all media.”

Another reader cautioned me about the “crab” phenomenon (at least I think)!

“Why you are wasting your energy. 1 IT cell is doing without any investment… They will think, your idea is for developing a business interest only favour you.”

I should be discouraged, but then some readers also got to the core idea:

“I would say the need is first to recognise the need for competent professionals”

In response to these comments, for the record, I should state that: a) I have no business interest with the non-existent Ministry of Counterpropaganda, nor even an aptitude for business in general b) a “Ministry” is not literal, nor was even the Creel Committee one, for it was a “professional, multispecialist, multidisciplinary, multidimensional organisation” as one (non)reader said c) “Trolling” should stay under the bridge because the whole crisis with the present government’s “image” globally is in part due to its association with trolls, troglodytes, haters etc. and general failure to look respectable in today’s liberal, mainstream society.

Will bad press against India change if Modi goes?

In addition to these tweets, I also received a thoughtful longer comment privately from someone somewhat critical of the present government. Their position was that Prime Minister Narendra Modi does not need any help with propaganda, but his government has failed to establish just exactly what is “India’s message” globally. So, although China’s image has suffered in recent years, India’s image hasn’t done well either; when the present leadership goes, India’s story will improve again.

I’ll respond to each of these parts.

One, has the government failed to establish India’s message globally?

On this, I agree. Our cliches about global harmony combined with tweets and entreaties to do business with us are weak and unconvincing. By contrast, some nations get their lobbyists to march to Washington and get half the politicians there to vote for a bill about Islamophobia. Now that’s a message being established, powerfully, whether you agree with it or not.

Two, does Prime Minister Modi actually need no lessons in propaganda?

I agree that Prime Minister Modi is a master communicator who has more credibility among Indian voters than many of his opponents in politics. But it is hard to deny that his machine has come to rely on communication tactics that have diminished that credibility on several occasions. His messaging has relied extensively on the credulousness of the converted, to put it politely. This might help with domestic, electoral communication (convince voters that his opponents are not just “anti-Modi” but “anti-India” quite easily) but does nothing to challenge the normalization of extreme Hinduphobia and Indophobia in mainstream institutions abroad like colleges, schools, media, corporate HR policies, and so on.

Three, did India really have a “good story” in the world press before 2014?

Maybe Thomas Friedman and a few others offered a bit of optimism about India’s business potential, but The New York Times was consistently lying and fearmongering about Hindus and Hindu nationalists (often interchangeably) since as early as Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in 1991. The massive terrorist attacks of the UPA years, including 26/11, were systematically obfuscated by the Western news media, with their blame-the-Hindus/don’t-name-the-terrorists rules for reporting. Outrageous falsehoods and morbid fascinations passed off for their expert interpretation on Hinduism, such as The Economist’s phrase “penis-shaped lump of ice” for the Amarnath Lingam. The tropes were consistent, persistent, and altogether motivated by something other than professional journalism. They were always racist.

Global propaganda is bigger than domestic party politics

For the past few years, I have seen only helpless flagellation (or alternatively, delusional self-aggrandisement) in India’s political establishment about “changing the narrative” on the basis of disjointed and ludicrously light-weight ideas like forwarding lots of WhatsApps messages from Delhi to friends in New Jersey, Texas and California so they can steal China’s business for Bharat Mata. Or some such stuff.

We have grassroots (or should I say “provincial”) party apparatchiks who may be good at what they do in grassroots Indian politics being deployed to take on an elite global establishment that sniffs out their weaknesses quite easily. They are, all their patriotic entreaties notwithstanding, equipped to promote politicians, not nations, and certainly not in the face of a hostile, globally dominant propaganda system.

Building a messiah image, frankly, is still different from restoring a whole nation’s message, and a nation which fails to figure out what exactly its story is will only continue to have others write that story for its people, from Macaulay to the multinational NGOs and corporations of today.

So the way ahead is not whether there should be a “department” or “think-tank” or “ministry” of “counterpropaganda” or “anti-disinformation” or “soft power,” but simply whether we have the collective determination and clarity to recognise the power, nature and history of propaganda as a global force ranged against India as one of the last lands still standing against it.

If we have that will, then perhaps we can begin by recognising what it takes to work together; self-awareness of limitations, recognition of expertise, and respect for truth, creativity and art most of all. We are a people who never had a Pope start a college for propaganda to teach missionaries how to persuade others to change their thinking, as the Vatican did in 1622. We are perhaps five hundred years behind on a game that others have played well. But we have a goddess of learning, still.

The writer teaches media studies at the University of San Francisco. Views expressed are personal.

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