Every second election story begins with a conversation with a cab driver. So does mine. This one is about an Uber driver, who gave me a ride yesterday. Let’s call him Ramesh. He comes from Pratapgarh in UP but lives in Delhi in a rented room with his wife and young son. Ramesh voted for AAP in 2015, and has volunteered for the party once in a while. Even in 2019, when more than half of Delhi voted for Narendra Modi, Ramesh chose to back Arvind Kejriwal.
This time, however, Ramesh will vote for the BJP. He says he changed his mind just a couple of weeks ago. Ramesh’s change of heart might not tell us anything about an electoral trend in Delhi. What interests me is his reason for switching his vote – how ‘knowledge’ is constructed through the peculiar institution that is popularly called WhatsApp University. It is also about how these apparently random ‘forwards’ and memes coalesce to produce a weltanschauung. This world-view is a composite of an imagined past, a constructed present and an aspirational future. And it has immense electoral effects.
“Kejriwal ji bahut acche aadmi hain, aur unhone Dilli ke liye bahut kucch kiya bhi hai. Lekin jis tareeke se unhone Shaheen Bagh ke in hijabi auraton ka saath diya hai, mujhe AAP se sakt nafrat ho gayee hai”, said Ramesh vehemently, glancing at me in the rear view mirror. But why does he believe that Shaheen Bagh is an AAP-sponsored protest? “Saara news par aa chuka hai. WhatsApp par viral bhi hai. Yeh log 500-500 rupaye mein dharne par baithe hain. Paisa Aam Admi Party de rahi hai. Aur saath mein din-raat biryani.” He was clearly referring to this viral video which was debunked by Alt News, the fake-news busting site.
His second complaint was about the massive traffic jams the Shaheen Bagh sit-in is supposedly causing. Mind you, he himself hadn’t ever been caught in any of them, but, once again, he had seen videos on WhatsApp. “Sau se zyaada mareez toh sirf ambulance mein phans kar mar gaye hain,” he said. It reminded me of a tweet by a Hindi news channel reporter, which made a similar assertion. Clearly, this piece of fake data had gone viral.
These are isolated fragments of information. They require a framework of ideas to attach themselves to and create a coherent whole. WhatsApp University has played a massive and perhaps decisive role in constructing this whole. And Ramesh, who is an extremely smart and articulate individual, has become an avid exponent of this vision.
“India was enslaved for centuries well before the British came to India. The Mughals came a thousand years ago (sic) and turned us into their ghulam. You are educated, you must know more than me about how they crushed Indians. After that the British enslaved us. Chalo, Angrezon ne to kuchh accha bhi kiya. Lekin uske baad Congress aayi. 70 saalon tak raaj kiya. Desh ke liye kya kiya?” It was clearly a rhetorical question. He had the answers.
“Aaj Modi ji ke aane ke baad, har gaanv mein bijli hai, har ghar mein shauchalay hai, har grihini ke paas gas cylinder hai.” He had learnt on WhatsApp that the Modi and Yogi governments have ensured that every single home in Uttar Pradesh has 24-hour electricity. If the Modi government is doing so well, then what made him vote for AAP in 2019? He was disappointed with the Modi government’s performance when it came to dhandha and naukri. But, now he knows better. “Iss par Kanpur University ke bahut bade professor hain, unka message WhatsApp par viral hai. Aap ko bhi bhej doonga.” The message, allegedly by a Kanpur academic, argues that the Modi government is trying to treat a cancer caused by 70 years of misrule. When a cancer is treated, the patient suffers a lot. Even after the cancer is cured, the patient suffers for another six months. After that, he stands up with renewed energy and vigour.
“Agar Modi ji 70 saal pahle Bharat ke shaasak bante, to aaj hum Cheen se aage nikal chuke hotey,” he told me. He was convinced that India was treated with disdain till Modi became PM. Now, other than our ‘enemies’ such as Pakistan & China, every other country treats India at par with ‘England-Amrika’.
Ramesh repeated the popular notion that the PM has no reason to be corrupt because he has no family, no one to leave his wealth to. Kejriwal is also incorruptible, he said. But he has a family, I pointed out, which stumped him for a while. “Kejriwal ji mein ab khot yeh ho gaya hai, ki woh Mughalon ki chaal chal rahe hain. Gaddaron ka saath de rahe hain.” He spouted standard WhatsApp fare that Muslims fought and got a separate country in 1947. “Unko phir wahin jaana chaahiye. Hamare desh mein kyon baithe hain? Aur agar yahin rahna hai to phir apna hijab biryani unhein chhodna padega.”
Note the constitutive elements of this discourse. The idea of being enslaved and humiliated by Mughals – a short form used for ‘Muslim invaders’. A soft-corner for the British despite colonialism, because they defeated the Mughals. A belief that Congress did nothing for 70 years and that India sprang into development on May 16, 2014. The idea of a cancer-ridden body-politic that needs painful chemotherapy before it can rise up again.
Underlying all this, is the idea of an eternal ‘us’ – Hindus who have always belonged to this nation. There is a corresponding concept of ‘them’ – Muslims who never believed in India. Finally, the powerful idea that ‘our’ natural national identity is that of Hindus. So, if Muslims want to stay here, they have to give up their religious ‘markers’ and their cultural practices. Anything else is gaddari.
It is a discursive space that is authorized and authenticated by some section of national mainstream media. It is then exaggerated, contorted and embellished with fake ‘data’ and false historical ‘facts’ and disseminated through WhatsApp. Once these messages and memes go viral, they become ‘trends’ that mainstream media reacts to and engages with. And, once again, WhatsApp University adds masala and spreads it further.
It’s a continuous, vicious cycle of information, opinion, ‘news’ and ‘facts’ much of which is either entirely fake or of dubious provenance. It is a beast that is constantly fed by organised producers of fake news and propaganda. This is the base upon which all politics is being fought today.
As Ramesh shows, this discourse informs voters across the key political divide in Delhi – whether one is an AAP or a BJP voter. This new way of knowing India, its politics and history, has skewed the balance heavily towards the right. Any event can be used to drum up support at a short notice and engineer massive electoral swings.
Arvind Kejriwal knows this which is why he was so keen to distance himself from the anti-CAA protests. That is why he is so anxious to tell Delhi that he can recite the Hanuman Chalisa. It is an acknowledgement that thanks to WhatsApp University, every battle will now be fought in the arena constructed by the BJP.
(Aunindyo Chakravarty was Senior Managing Editor of NDTV’s Hindi and Business news channels.)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.