Three days after ISRO failed to land Chandrayaan-2 “softly” on the Moon, news has started filtering out that it was indeed a success. Despite the inability to carry out the soft landing, which was the most important element of the exercise, it now appears that it should still be considered a success as Vikram, the lander, which crashed on the moon from around a kilometre in space has been located. And, anyway, the satellite will orbit around the moon and send pictures and other data to Earth. So, where is the question of a failure?
Then how about the emotional moment when ISRO chief K Sivan, after carefully removing his spectacles, sobbed heavily on the shoulders of Prime Minister Narendra Modi? The prime minister patted him on the back, as television cameras closed in on them for a minute, recording the “historic” PDA (public display of affection) before normalcy returned to an otherwise stunned nation.
Chandrayaan-2 may not have succeeded in its mission to soft land on the moon, but Modi came out tops in what many have termed a heart-warming gesture. Few have cringed that a top scientist, for whom failures should be as routine as successes in such projects, broke down instead of maintaining his cool and taking the setback in his stride.
If the coverage was extensive and to be expected for such an important event, what is striking is watching the “media spin” in action, turning failures into successes and defeats into victories.
Optimistic or deceptive narratives?
Chandrayaan-2 has not been the first. Right from the by-now discredited move to demonetise currency in 2016 the Modi government has proved itself to be adept at ensuring that the media, if not all at least a sizeable section, spins the narrative to project positivity.
Demonetization was supposed to eliminate black money, remove fake notes from the system and bring down terrorism in Kashmir. Instead, it just led to mass suffering of millions of people, especially the poor and those in rural areas. But this side of the story was effectively spun out of circulation. By May 2019, there was hardly a squeak about demonetization as an electoral issue. Even if the government did wrong, Modi could not be blamed. He was a good man misguided by the bureaucracy.
A similar narrative was woven around the implementation of GST. It arrived to the accompaniment of high-decibel trumpeting and thigh-thumping. India was finally modernising and the promise of one tax, simple and efficient, would change the nation’s economic landscape and hurl it into the galaxy of developed nations. But once brought into force, it was so messy it turned out to be a deadly accompaniment to demonetization that had brought the nation to its knees.
Businesses, especially in the unorganised and small scale sectors, which were desperate to stay afloat were whacked on the head. The result: the economy went into a downspin that not just continues but has worsened until this day. It required the guile and might of the spinners in government to somehow twist the narrative, which was to exonerate demonetization and GST by fiddling with economic indicators, leading to the protest resignations of renowned statisticians like PC Mohanan, acting chief of the National Statistical Commission, who refused to play ball.
With elections nearing, and setbacks in some Assembly elections in the late 2018, the government’s spin machine worked overtime. Pulwama happened followed by the Balakot air strike. Until today it is not clear what exactly was hit in Balakot – was it the Jaish-e-Muhammad camps as the Modi government claimed or some hapless trees in the wilderness of Pakistan’s side of Kashmir?
To top it an Indian fighter pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, found himself stranded on the wrong side of the LOC when his aircraft was brought down by enemy fire and taken prisoner. Pakistan released him in a few days, unconditionally. Yet, all the credit went to the Modi government’s so-called daring move, to send in fighter aircraft and drop bombs on Balakot.
This time around, with Pakistan in the picture, the spin machine found it easier to wrest public perception in favour of Modi. For, anyone doubting, questioning, leave alone criticising the move was termed anti-national at the very least.
Ahead of the general elections on May 23 this year, the spin machine received a major boost when JeM chief Masood Azhar was declared terrorist by the United Nations. What this would do to him in reality was hardly reported. Azhar as a global terrorist was probably enough to win the BJP some crucial brownie points. The party returned with a thumping majority. The success of spin has proved so heady that since Modi 2.0 came to power, the establishment has worked overtime to push the official narrative on all decisions, big and small.
Kashmir, spin media’s pet issue
The removal of special status to Kashmir and the near-total shutdown of the valley has raised few eyebrows within the country. If you go by the spin, this is probably the best move by any government for the development of Kashmir – it does not matter if people there are inconvenienced. They have to face it else the terrorists from across Pakistan will make mincemeat of everyone.
Reports of food shortages, difficulties in communicating with the rest of the country, the inability of independent journalists to report freely from the beleaguered state, allegations of human rights violations etc. have been successfully marginalised.
The foreign media which has been actively covering the ground situation has been a major irritant for the indigenous spin machine. Pro-Indian government protesters have demonstrated in front of the Washington Post’s offices in the US accusing it of one-sided publicity. The newspaper has however reiterated its commitment to fair reportage. When the spin is threatened, any step including such protests are fair game.
Economy in distress? Don’t blame Modi
Even the gloom surrounding the sad state of India’s recessionary economy is not a deterrent to spin. Yes, there is a recession but that is not the government’s fault – it is linked to the economic situation abroad and don’t worry, it is “cyclical”. This means that recessions come and go, don’t blame the Modi government. Some reports, as in Frontline, have attempted to explain why the economic downturn is directly related to specific decisions of the Modi government. But who is there to read such unbelievable stuff, let alone listen to the experts.
And then the much-publicised and BJP-driven move to weed out illegal migrants aka “termites” from Assam. The NRC exercise was to have recorded foreigners staying illegally in the north-eastern state. But the findings boomeranged. Instead of the expected Muslim infiltrators from Bangladesh, the NRC netted their Hindu brethren. The BJP government’s spin machine went into an unplanned spin. The party, which came to power, promising to weed out the foreigners is now struggling to douse the fire within its house. The spin operation is still on, so we need to wait for the outcome of this one.
If the NRC was a disaster, no problem. Chandrayaan-2 would have helped the government regain some glory on ISRO’s rebound and diverted attention from Assam. No wonder the chief of the highly-respected institution broke down when the events in space did not go as planned. But all hope is not lost. From the reports of the last couple of days in mainline media on Chandrayaan-2, it appears that it was actually a success. If you disagree, your patriotic credentials are suspect and you could be arrested for being an anti-national or probably charged for sedition. So take care…