The dance of participative democracy entails a vivid drama in the run-up to the final ritual of pressing the preferred button on the Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs). The theatrics surrounding the electoral passions in the formation of the 17th Lok Sabha has had its own share of political one-upmanship, promises, accusations and “manufactured emotions” that have livened up the debate surrounding the national urgencies. The “backroom boys” and “spin-doctors” of all political parties are in the midst of preparing political ammunition that is robotically and dutifully fired out, much to the glee of the party cadres and to the chagrin of the opposing parties. The phenomenon of “creative licence” in the political spiels is in full display, with the occasional unpardonable speech, opinion or “fact” catching the eye and ear of the Election Commission, or even the courts.
In the political melee and whirlpool, it is no longer about “shaping opinions” with hard facts, as much as it is about succeeding with the winning narrative in the last lap by “creating facts”! Sadly, truth is the foremost casualty at the apogee of our democratic traditions and vibrancies.
In mature democracies like the United States or the United Kingdom, a highly developed culture and ecosystem of political and policy “fact checking” exists that posits various statements, positions and opinions made by the political parties at the altar of truth by independent and hardnosed bodies for its ultimate veracity and honesty of spirit. The societal empowerment by ensuring ready access to the “truth” is protected by the strength of landmark legislations like the “First Amendment” to the US Constitution. Herein, a free and independent press becomes the proverbial cornerstone of democracy by reiterating, “people have a need to know. Journalists have a right to tell. Finding the facts can be difficult. Reporting the story can be dangerous. Freedom includes the right to be outrageous. Responsibility includes the duty to be fair. News is history in the making. Journalists provide the first draft in history”.
Such an aspirational insistence of “truth” can militate against the instinctive sensibilities of meone like US President Donald Trump, who has spoken about reducing the import of the “First Amendment”, ironically, whilst railing against what he frequently slams as “fake news” on the press reports that are either uncharitable or unwelcome from his perspective. Such progressive and protective statutes of the US’ constitutional values ensures a relentless culture of “fact checks” to continuously call the bluffs of the most important office in the US, if not the world.
Frightening data that was published by the Fact Checker’s database in the US revealed that Mr Trump had made 8,158 false or misleading claims in the first two years of his tenure — with the pattern of regression escalating from an average of 5.9 false or misleading statements a day, to tripling in the second year to an average of 16.5 “untruths” a day! The tendency to take liberties with the “truth” witnessed a steep spike in the mid-term election season — and the only period of lull in falsities came during Mr Trump’s golfing days!
The hawk-eye on every word uttered by Mr Trump has led to a systematic documentation of all false statements made in terms of issues, with those pertaining to “US trade deficits” topping the list, followed by statements on the “US-Mexico border wall” and “Trump’s tax cut”. The rigour afforded by analysing, countering and reposting the “truth” as opposed to the presidential statement made has ensured that the American public has ready access to the “truth” beyond its intended sophistry, in its unfiltered form and essence. Such relentless pressure on Mr Trump has led to his frequent name-calling on independent news channels and newspapers as “hoax”, “fake news” and an incredulous gem-like “what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening”! Befittingly and on cue, the US has slid to amongst the “most dangerous countries for journalists” in 2018 — the “truth” has now come under severe pressure, and recently a lawsuit has been filed by PEN for violating the First Amendment.
In India the same spirit resonates in the recently institutionalised lexicon with inelegant expressions like “presstitudes”, “bought-media” and “jumlas”, to drown any uncomfortable query. All political parties in the country have unreservedly tinkered with facts and the spirit of words to suggest narratives of falsities or untruths in the electoral season. The quality of debate, assessment and opinion-forming could go up manifold in our context too, if only we could replicate the slotting of our voluble politicians under categories of a “truth-o-meter” by Politifact (a fact-verifying institute) which retrofits statements made as “True”, “Mostly True”, “Half True”, “Mostly False”, “False”, “Pants on Fire”, “No Flip”, “Half Flip” and “Full Flop”!
Imagine the power of statistical and unbiased tracking of various political promises, as captured in the US as “Obameter” and “Trump-o-Meter” which allows for a comparison of the presidential promises kept without the chicanery of playing with basic instincts and emotions to steer the “truth” towards “alternative truth”, as is the wont in the new normal.
Such a political-cultural transformation in India would necessitate the strengthening of various administrative institutions and protective laws like the Right to Information (RTI) Act. Sadly, such a prospect seems to be waning and instead openly partisan media channels who have seemingly abdicated all pretences of journalistic ethics and professionalism are ruling the airwaves. In such times, attributing, alluding and appropriating “facts” to other institutions like the “Indian soldier” or the “Supreme Court” are commonplace, with an occasional instance of a contempt petition.
The political animus of today has lost its constitutional and foundational morality, factual granularity and civilisational inclusivity that was usually spared by the political parties during the electoral season. While there is a silent emergence of some fact-checking platforms in India, these have not yet gained the scale, credence and trust of the masses. With the potent combination of still abysmally low education levels, unhealed societal wounds and the exploitative nature of the political classes — the economy of untruth is a sad reality, especially during electioneering.
The writer is a retired lieutenant-general and a former lieutenant-governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry