Ever shifting goalposts: Modi ministers and post-truth politics

 Whether it is Aadhaar or demonetisation, ministers in the Modi government keep shifting the goalposts whenever they hit a roadblock, says Trinamool Congress Rajya Sabha MP Derek OBrien.

In his latest book "Inside Parliament", the Trinamool MP writes about themes and their ramifications he witnesses "and often participates in" inside the country's largest temple of democracy.

In one chapter, he expresses his "bewilderment" at the way union ministers take U-turns from their (or their government's) earlier stated positions, such as in the right to privacy and demonetisation. 

He notes that politicians "potentially face no penalty" for propagating "fraudulent facts" and emphasises that the only way to fight the menace is to treat it as "our civic duty to place a premium on the truth".

"A few hours after the Supreme Court held (on August 24) that Right to Privacy was a Fundamental Right, Minister of Electronics and IT Ravi Shankar Prasad tweeted that this was in accordance with the BJP government's view. 

"He repeated this at a press conference later in the day," O'Brien writes.

"I was left bewildered. This was in complete contrast to the position taken by the Union of India, represented by the Attorney General, at the hearings of the case. Justice Rohinton Fali Nariman, in his opinion, had noted that the Attorney General had referred to the Constituent Assembly debates in ‘copious detail' to argue that the framers of the Constitution had rejected the Right to Privacy as a Fundamental Right," he adds.

"So was Minister Prasad trying to give a spin to the defeat the government had suffered in court? I would say he was in direct contradiction to the truth," he writes, adding that the very reason behind the case was the government's contention that there was no Fundamental Right to Privacy.

"If Prasad was right, there would be no case at all, no need for protracted hearings and no dispute between the government and every sensible citizen," he notes.

O'Brien cites yet another example to corroborate his argument.

"On August 30, the RBI released a report admitting that a mere 1.4 per cent of the value of currency notes demonetized had not made it back to the system and had been extinguished. This added up to a measly Rs 16,000 crore. It was a twentieth of what the government had estimated.

"Finance Minister Arun Jaitley immediately dismissed these figures as irrelevant. He claimed that the amount of money being returned to banks was not the correct metric for judging the success of demonetization. In the past, he had said just the opposite," O'Brien writes.

The MP points out that at one stage, then Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi had told the Supreme Court that the government expected Rs 4 to 5 lakh crore to be extinguished.

"When it was realized that this was an empty boast, the tone changed. The goalposts were shifted. What started as an attempt to target black money and corruption was suddenly touted as a promotion of digital payments and a cashless (or less-cash, depending on which minister you decided to listen to) economy," he says.

O'Brien quoted noted columnist and commentator Paul Krugman, who once wrote that in the ‘post-truth of politics' era, "politicians potentially face no penalty for running utterly fraudulent campaigns".

"The impunity with which misrepresentations are spread through the use of social media is astonishing and worrying... The fact that the... seemingly credible and persuasive ministers can attempt to undermine positions taken by the government itself... is dangerous."

He says that the only way to fight it is that "we realize that it is our civic duty to place a premium on the truth. We cannot afford to drown in a sea of information and fail to distinguish fact from fiction".


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