City City Bang Bang, Columns

An ecosystem of fear?

The arrest of several rights activists across the country on charges of having Maoist links has created deep disquiet among many commentators. Accompanied as it is, by a new label- ‘Urban Naxals’, it is being seen as a sign that this government is determined to act against all signs of dissent and build a narrative of the country being under threat from organised internal forces.

And yet, there are those that argue that nothing dramatically new is happening. The law under which the action has been taken was strengthened by the UPA government, and some like Varavara Rao, Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira have been imprisoned even under previous regimes. Also, the fact that so many commentators have been able to criticise the government in the harshest possible terms is being pointed to as a sign that the freedom of expression is alive and well.

While it is true that previous governments also have a poor track record when it comes to dealing with dissent, there is no question that there is a difference today. That there is a clear attempt to create an atmosphere of fear, is possible to discern when one examines all the actions taken by the government. The production of fear at scale is being achieved not only through harsh punitive measures, but through a complex and elaborate network of actions, real and symbolic.

The case of media is illustrative. Media, for instance, has been subject to pressure and arm-twisting before. The raid on NDTV apart, most other actions deemed coercive, including the removal of key voices critical of the government, have been taken by the owners of media platforms and not by the state directly. One can infer that the state was indirectly responsible for the same, but the question is, why should media owners, hardly unused to facing political pressure give in this time around? There is no special leverage that this government has that previous regimes didn’t. But the clear feeling among media circles is that this time around, the sense of threat is more palpable. This government is deemed capable of much more than what it has actually done; the fear is evoked by latent violence in the body language of the government rather than in its actions alone. ‘Violence in the air’ is a more effective way of fostering self-censorship than any direct method.

But there is another variable at work. In the case of media, the problem does not stem only from fear, but also from greed. The taming of media is largely a voluntary phenomenon, guided by a desire to cater to one’s commercial self-interest by deferring to the needs of the market. When one outlet of the same media house can take an ideological line completely at odds with another, it is clear that fear alone is not at work. Market segmentation is. The state uses both levers, fear and greed to get most of media in line.

And then there is social media where keyboard warriors create a new vocabulary of fear with predictable regularity. Individuals are targeted, new labels are created, lists are generated and campaigns are launched to build a narrative of fear. The reward for these non-official soldiers is a dizzying rise from obscurity and in some cases, the promise of official recognition and rewards. Even bureaucrats and serving officers have an incentive to speak and act on behalf of the government. The differential treatment meted out to those that amplify the government’s line and those that don’t is stark.

The orchestration of fear is carried out with finesse. Fear reproduces itself thanks to the elegant design of the ecosystem of intimidation that is in place today. The more commentators connect the dots and discern larger intent from everyday actions, the more actively they participate in the production of fear. Showing signs of fear itself becomes proof- unless you are an anti-national, why should you be afraid?

The calibrated use of reward and punishment, the taking of action against victims rather than perpetrators, the penetration of virtually every institution that matters, the creation of voluntary and vocal cheerleaders for the actions of the state, the regular encouragement given from the highest level of the government to those that carry out intimidation, the periodic acts of brutal violence that indicate that the threats are not only symbolic in nature, the breeding of several kinds of private armies that publicly display their muscle, the succession of violently intemperate statements made by minor party leaders, and actions like the arrest of activists on charges that that align with the larger narrative that is being built- these are all part of this ecosystem of fear.

The electoral advantages of such a strategy are unclear. The fear of ‘Urban Naxals’ is unlikely to galvanise a significant number of voters, for it is difficult to correlate this with any observed experiences in our everyday lives. The argument that the nation is under threat from such forces, is one that might have great resonance with a small group of diehard supporters, but is unlikely to connect with a wider audience. The conspiracy outlined is far-fetched even by the standards of contemporary political discourse. From the perspective of voters, the ‘enemies’ identified have neither currency nor deep emotional resonance. As a political gambit, it is weak given that it leaves out most key opposition parties from this line of attack. The production of fear might have been carried out very effectively, but it looks unlikely to deliver great electoral effect.

Those that believe that things will change if the BJP is defeated might be deluding themselves. It does not matter who is in power; what matters is who sets the agenda. The power of a negative agenda is that even when one counters it, only more negativity is produced. The fear that has got manufactured does not come with an expiry date. That might well be the abiding legacy left by this government.

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