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Friendly fire? Sushma Swaraj got trolled, and the undercurrents were thick and fast

Most of the trolls who went after her were from her own side of the political divide.

Updated: Jul 05, 2018, 08:28 AM IST

Finally, we have the Home Minister of India, Rajnath Singh, standing up for External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj in what seems to be an ugly game of abuse and trolling on Twitter. It seems strange that the BJP government and its party leaders in general who speak up for respecting women in all quarters and wear the slogan 'Beti Bachao Beti Padhao' on their sleeves do not speak up for their own senior colleague who has been subject to abuse not from rivals or opposition parties, but right from within what we may call the right-wing ideological camp. It is doubly strange that much of this abuse should happen in the run-up to the world Social Media Day, June 30, and the days following that.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi controversially went to town on the Social Media Day evidently in a gesture of gratitude to social media which has played a significant role in his rise as a national leader. His surge to the highest office in the land merrily coincided with the mushrooming of mobile connections and the social media in India. However, freedom of expression and democracy do not ordinarily mean the right to offend although democratic discourse does involve heated exchanges. It is important to note that the focus in any decent democratic discourse should not be on personal grounds except where a certain gesture or statement from somebody in a way exposes or points to some contradiction in a personality or a character so that the public in general may know that there is a discrepancy between the thought, speech and action of a person. Or that there is a room for improvement.

But what we are witnessing these days is plain and simple personal attack and abuse and what is commonly come to be known as trolling. Ms Swaraj has just blocked publicly a well-known Twitter loudmouth in the latest instance of what I call 'martyrdom trolling' where right-wing activists hit their own kind to show themselves to be loyal to their cause than the next loyalist.

Now, trolling is a loosely used word that is less about the conventional dictionary term than about a dubious new-age phenomenon of irritating the hell out of people on the Internet. In my opinion, it does not at all fit well with the description of freedom of expression in a democracy. 

Article 19 (1) (a) of India's Constitution talks of the freedom of expression being subject to reasonable restrictions and among the grounds it lists for curbs are "decency and morality" not to speak of "incitement to offence." There is a lot going on social media now that clearly stand on the wrong side of the Constitution.

There is more to all this than meets the eye. It may contain political undercurrents that may cause a serious divide within the BJP. The trolling of Sushma Swaraj goes beyond ordinarily seen trolling because it comes from within the extended ranks of the BJP and that there is hardly anyone to stand up for her signifies a political equation that needs to be watched carefully as India prepares for general elections in 2019. Isn't it a fact that while Sushma Swaraj is the External Affairs Minister of India, it is Prime Minister Modi who has often been in the news on foreign policy issues with his penchant for travel across the planet? Ms Swaraj has done pretty well for herself by using Twitter as a medium for addressing grievances from Indians across the world and has therefore smartly and creatively  built for herself a reputation that is outside of what is clearly an overshadowed role as foreign minister. But there is room for discontentment yet.

We all know that several senior leaders of the BJP who were associated with the previous BJP-led NDA government headed by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the late 1990s have now been sidelined or worse. Giants of the BJP, such as Arun Shourie and Yashwant Sinha, are loud Modi critics. Murli Manohar Joshi and Lal Krishna Advani have been very simply relegated to the background as "margdarshaks" (guides)  -- which is nothing but a party code word for old fogeys past their prime.

Sushma Swaraj seems to be a crucial link between the old BJP and the new. The interesting fact is that BJP always had a side called the 'RSS camp' and those outside of it, represented by leaders like Shourie and Jaswant Singh. Although Vajpayee had his roots in the RSS, he was mellow enough to straddle various party groups as well as coalition partners as a consensus candidate in the National Democratic Alliance that successfully ruled India between 1999 and 2004.

In that sense, there is more to Sushma Swaraj's helplessness than a simple case of being isolated after an unseemly controversy in which she supported a Hindu-Muslim couple in getting their passports taking at face value their complaints that they had been subjected to parochial treatment at the Lucknow passport office. Ms Swaraj's own use of an online poll to prove her point is politically significant.

For the moment let us sidestep the open attacks on finance minister Arun Jaitley by the in-house gadfly, Subramanian Swamy. Even that apart, the BJP has not been speaking with one voice and conviction, especially on matters related to public decency. Sooner or later, this is bound to explode on the party. The Congress has never felt as enthusiastic in a decade as it goes hammer and tongs at the BJP which seems to have lost the plot in knowing the difference between democracy, dissent and divides that weaken its credibility.

We may add that beyond the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the middle-of-the-road conservatives close to Vajpayee, there are the Bhakts. These are the "non-party actors" of the BJP who eerily remind you of the "non-state actors" of Pakistan's extremist fringes. They are most active on social media.

It is more than clear to me that a ruling party in a decent democracy cannot afford a fringe that does not know the difference between principled debate and abusive trolling. It is interesting to note that Rajnath Singh is speaking up for Ms Swaraj. Watch this space.

(Madhavan Narayanan is a senior journalist who has covered politics, diplomacy, business, technology and other subjects in a long career that has spanned organisations including Reuters, Business Standard and Hindustan Times. He is currently an independent columnist, editor and commentator. He is listed among the top 200 Indian influencers on Twitter. He tweets as @madversity)

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL.)