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Alternate reality: India surges ahead in global gaslighting epidemic

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By Dilip Bobb

The term ‘Gaslighting’ is trending these days as leaders across the globe who are under pressure politically try to create an alternate reality for their citizens. This is achieved mainly by mainstreaming a false narrative about events, individuals, policies, politics and statistics, using clever propaganda and willing accomplices to make it believable.  The term gaslighting has seen an increase in frequency after Donald Trump took office, but it is also being parlayed by a number of global leaders, from Brazil and China to Turkey and Belarus. In India, in recent weeks, the rape of a poor Dalit girl in UP becomes an international conspiracy. Then, the demolition of a temple which created global headlines amid photographs, video and eyewitness reports, finds no mention of that by a CBI judge who says no one was involved; apparently the massive Babri Masjid came down off its own accord.  An equally voluminous report by the Delhi police says the riots earlier this year was pre-planned and part of a larger conspiracy and produces dubious witnesses, willing accomplices, to state that this was so. The list goes on. The Gaslighting of India is building up steam—along with smoke and mirrors.

Are we following in America’s footsteps?  Amanda Carpenter, a well-known political commentator, published a best-selling book titled Gaslighting America.  In it, she analyzed public and social media strategies used by Trump in his 2016 candidacy for U.S. President and during his period in the White House. She detailed the steps that Trump takes, and has taken, to gaslight America. They include the following:

  • Find a political issue that competitors are unwilling to approach and that the media will find sensational. He has done that on numerous occasions, the pandemic, masks, postal ballots, not committing himself to a smooth transition of power, and much more.
  • Promote conspiracy theories using unverifiable sources, and presenting them as the truth, ensuring that lack of evidence support the theme. Trump’s Left Wing conspiracy theories are legion.  He blamed them for the anti-racist riots that broke out across America, along with what he calls “antifa’ or anti-fascist movement.
  • Create a perpetual feeling of suspense by suggesting constantly that a major announcement is around the corner and inculcate a sense of anticipation among the populace. He has done this constantly with his unnatural optimism on the pandemic and the anticipated arrival of a vaccine. 
  • Use every means to attack anyone who is critical of the government or its policies, brand them as anti-American and unpatriotic. He has just called vice president candidate Kamala Harris a “monster” and a communist.
  • Declare victory, regardless of the circumstances.  Trump has declared victory over Covid-19 numerous times, as he has on the economy, healthcare and in pursuit of his pet theme: Make America Great Again.

Does all that sound disturbingly familiar?  Neuroscientist Bobby Azarian describes gaslighting as using psychological manipulation to get people to question their own perceptions of reality using misdirection and contradiction.  The origin of the term dates back to 1938 and a stage play, Gas Light, which was subsequently produced as a film with the same title. The fictional script depicted the process of attempting to convince a victim of the truth of something intuitively bizarre or outrageous by forcefully insisting on it or by marshaling superficial evidence. The person who manipulated the facts was called ‘gaslighter’. In the play and film, a deceitful husband drives his wife to near insanity by convincing her that she is a criminal and she had only imagined the dimming of the gaslights in their house, a key element in the manipulation and misdirection.

India, it seems, is no babe in the woods when it comes to gaslighting. Indira Gandhi was constantly pointing t0 conspiracies and the “foreign hand’ whenever she was in trouble. Her son and successor, Rajiv Gandhi, was sold on the idea that the then President, Giani Zail Singh, was plotting to bring down his government. Manmohan Singh was accused of being part of a Pakistani conspiracy along with a former Indian vice president, to interfere with the Indian elections. For classic gaslighting, the present regime is hard to beat. In the midst of the biggest economic downturn in In India’s history, massive job losses and an unprecedented industrial slowdown post the pandemic, the finance minister keeps reassuring everyone that the fundamentals are strong and keeps seeing “green shoots’ in her tea leaves. We would love to know what brand of tea she is drinking. We also have the clutch of pro-government television channels, the Indian equivalent of Fox News in the US, which brands film stars as murderers and Bollywood’s drug mafia, contrary to what the courts finally decreed and what the evidence and post mortem reports showed. The audience lapped it up, which is the whole point of gaslighting. 

Yet, the gaslighting originating from UP and Delhi takes the proverbial cake. The destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992 changed the course of contemporary Indian history.  I still remember the images flashed live from the spot; the frenzied mobs armed with pickaxes and iron rods, demolishing the structure layer by layer, while a group of politicians, easily identifiable and later named in the chargesheet, urged them on and celebrated when the structure came down. Last week, a CBI court produced a 2,300 page report which acquitted the 32 people who had been accused of conspiring to bring down the temple, including two former cabinet ministers and an ex Chief Minister. The judgment avers that legally, nobody demolished the Babri Masjid, suggesting that the videos and photographs we all saw, the testimonies and news reports, were all fiction.  The biggest irony: the cases against the accused were filed by the CBI itself?

What that suggests is that gaslighting is made more effective by producing reports that have more pages than the average book of fiction.  If the report by the CBI special court ran into 2,300 pages, the Delhi Police chargesheet runs into 17,000 pages! The report unveils the gaslighting in terms of the conspiracy theory; which is the preposterous suggestion that the riots were planned well in advance to embarrass the Indian government by instigating communal violence during US President Donald Trump’s state visit to India in February. To add to the misdirection, the thousands of Muslim women who spontaneously staged an anti-CAA protest at Shaheen Bagh were, according to the report, “brought in” to give the protests “gender cover”. According to Aleksander Hemon, who teaches creative writing at Princeton University, such deception follows a pattern: “flooding the discursive field with vacuous language, becoming a choreography to which everyone must dance. The meaninglessness is the bludgeon for enforcing compliance.” As described by author Patricia Evans, there are obvious warning signs of gaslighting which include: withholding information, countering information to fit a particular narrative, discounting seemingly authentic information, trivializing those questioning the narrative, or worse, finding ways to punish them, thus weakening them and their support systems. All these have been in evidence over the last few months, proving that the gaslighting of India is not just happening but in an increasingly brazen manner. 

Lead Picture: UNI

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