War rukwa di, Papa!

Recent political developments in world at times have seriously worried about collective mental health of human race

Farrukh Khan Pitafi April 27, 2024
The writer is an Islamabad-based TV journalist and policy commentator. Email him at write2fp@gmail.com


In case you are wondering about the title, it is a direct quote from an Indian campaign ad where a student girl returning from Ukraine tells her father that Modiji managed to suspend the war there to rescue the stranded Indian students. Since then, social media has been inundated with memes poking fun at the ad. This time, I am trying to keep an open mind, as I told you before. Therefore, I will not get into fact-checking. If you want to check the veracity of these claims, sift through the aforementioned memes because some of them also carry the version that the Indian foreign office had put out at the time. You can judge the rest on your own. But that is not why I have brought up the matter. Let me explain.

Recent political developments around the world at times have seriously worried me about the collective mental health of the human race. So, more than the truth of the claim, what fascinates me is the mind that thought such an ad was a good idea. Not only that. When they conceived the idea, they must have something on their mind. Like the execution of the idea and how it would affect the viewers. Finally, the quality of the media that agrees to carry this advert uncritically. This last one assumes special importance when you learn that several opposition parties, including the main Indian National Congress, have repeatedly complained that media outlets have refused to run their ads.

The first question is incredible. Think about it. Someone up in the food chain thought that not only was it possible to stop one of the fiercest wars of our times to extract a few stranded students and, that there was no harm in bragging about it. Not only that. They also thought that their followers would buy hook, line and sinker. Could this certain someone be Narendra Modi? It fits the description. Remember a similar brag about Balakot when two or three months after the episode, he came on air and disclosed that he had advised the then air chief to send his fighter jets for attack in inclement weather because then they could use cloud cover to evade radar detection. The fact that here he was three months after the incident, bragging about it on live television, meant that the air chief had failed to pluck up the courage to set the record straight. And obviously, no one had thought of correcting him in the intervening period. And this is one of those things which warp the science around you. As soon as the apparent flaw was pointed out, someone ostensibly seeking to please the government published a pseudo-scientific paper claiming that cloud cover was helpful in evading detection. In case you are wondering, modern-day technology deploys multiple radar frequencies to penetrate obstructions like clouds and Doppler radar, which can distinguish between targets and clutter caused by weather. So my beef: just to flatter a politician, you can throw science under the bus.

Let’s be frank. No politician can know everything about everything. But where they are out of their depth, it is usually the staff’s responsibility to bring them up to speed so that similar public blunders don’t happen. That is if the staff is not too worried about their own safety or, for that matter, lacks that useless little thing called a spine. This brings to one’s mind a quote from LK Advani’s autobiography. The remark was made about the media’s behaviour during Indira’s emergency: You were asked to bend, but you crawled.

Now, the execution. It is the job of a professional actor to be as loyal to the script as possible. But someone must have written the script. These high-profile messaging videos are not shot in a vacuum. Large professional teams are involved. And then such videos have to be shot in public. So, did nobody snigger while this went on?

And now reception. You will notice that I am leaving the medium for the end. Because that deserves a longer discussion. The greatest tragedy in this case is neither the conception nor the execution or even the media but reception. If the receiving public is as uncritical and vapid then the war is already lost. But at least the memes that I mentioned above show that there is some pushback. Now, the problem with social media is that you do not know if the trending content came from an ordinary citizen’s mind or the IT cell of a political party. The worrying bit, however, is that people can be trained to despise critical thinking, especially the young ones. Today’s new voter would be eight years old when Modi first became PM. That is enough time to indoctrinate a new generation. For the sake of humanity, let us hope that that isn’t the case.

Finally, the media. India’s electronic media has been obsessed with war, conflict and power projection. That bit would most certainly be by design. A lot of these channels found their voice during the Kargil War. There must be both push and pull factors. But even their approach towards domestic issues displayed some critical thinking. In the past five years of consolidation of Modi Raj, we have seen the voices of reason being squeezed out. So, the travesty now called media can’t seem to pass the basic test of propriety, let alone media ethics.

Big business’s incursion into media space is a concern worldwide. But there are some great examples where the big business takeover did not impact the editorial freedom and standards. The Washington Post, as an immediate example, comes to mind. In electronic media, too, journalists have fought hard to uphold their core principles. I do not know what is wrong with South Asia. Even quite affluent media owners here cannot withstand the big business’s spell. And the journalist community cannot seem to stick together to promote the core values of objectivity and impartiality.

The crux of our discussion, dear reader, is that critical thinking is under threat. India, the most populous country in the world, is of great importance. And over the past few decades, its influence has grown exponentially. If its rulers invent a formula that permanently exterminates critical thinking, we are all doomed. Just think about the ripple effect.

An election is the ideal time to pressure all premiership candidates to sign a joint pledge to protect knowledge and critical thinking. Ultimately, it matters little if it is Modi ki guarantee or Rahul’s as long as it works. But sadly, India’s intellectual elites have better things to do.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 27th, 2024.

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