There’s that old example of a loaded question, “Have you stopped beating your wife?”
If you say yes, you might look like you admitted you beat her.
If you say you never beat her, that’s a malicious and defamatory allegation, we’ve still established that as the question of the moment. We could ask your wife for one. Even if she confirms that you are not a wife-beater, someone might stand up and speculate that she might say so under pressure. After all, she doesn’t want your violence anymore.
Ultimately, we may leave your social circle with seeds of doubt. Some might say you’re innocent, those who hate you might say you definitely look like a wife-beater, but those who are neutral will just say “we don’t know”. It is one person’s word against another.
All you had to do was not respond to the allegation at all. Just change the subject. Discuss the weather. Or post romantic photos of dinner dates with your wife to make the allegations seem bizarre.
Our immediate instinct is to react. By the time we respond, we have set the agenda. Today’s agenda is whether you are a wife beater. Maybe it was the weather.
A difficult call
Politics is perhaps the only profession whose practitioners come under attack of all kinds on a daily basis. Which attacks should you respond to, which should you ignore? These are difficult questions that politicians around the world are wrestling with.
In 2007, Narendra Modi, then Chief Minister of Gujarat, came out of a television interview. The interviewer, Karan Thapar, was asking him about the 2002 violence.
Modi was answering questions, defending himself, but then decided to ask for a glass of water and end the interview. He could have continued to defend, but in the end it would have only been Modi looking defensive.
By this time, Modi had already focused on economic development and investment. The question before Modi was what program he wanted to let Karan Thapar establish.
This is why Modi came out. That’s also why he doesn’t hold press conferences: a smart politician doesn’t allow others to set the agenda. Modi picks the topic, we debate it.
It’s hard not to respond to something you’re under attack day after day. This is when a politician’s nerves are put to the test. It takes nerves of steel to refuse to comment publicly on something that dominates public or media discourse. Only those who know how to set their own agenda have this superpower.
god killed inflation
In December 2021, Rahul Gandhi spoke at a large rally against inflation in Jaipur. Called “Mehngai hatao” (Suppress Inflation), the rally aimed to crystallize public opinion on rising prices, which is hurting all Indians.
In his speech, Rahul Gandhi talked about, among other things, the difference between Hindu and Hindutva, Hinduism and Hindu nationalism. He talked about Mahatma Gandhi and his killer, Nathuram Godse. The media made it the main headline, inflation became a passing reference in reporting, even in the liberal media.
Once again, Rahul Gandhi ended up playing on the BJP’s ground rather than the opponent’s. Even though he thought it was important to address the issue of Hindu nationalism, he should have made a separate event for it. In this way, he achieved his objective neither on inflation nor on religious pluralism.
A politician (or generally anyone) who has the superpower to ignore provocation usually has a clear idea of the agenda they want to pursue. Rahul Gandhi using a rally on inflation to talk about Hindu nationalism reflects a lack of clarity: his heart is not in inflation as a problem. He doesn’t think it’s politically important enough.
The problem is not limited to Liberal politicians. Liberal intellectuals and social media activists suffer even more than politicians. A recent right-wing film has liberals in turmoil, having them speak out against it for days and days.
This made the right-wing film a cause celebre of Hindutva. The B-grade filmmaker has now been elevated to Hindutva legend status. The shouting and hollering in theaters by Hindutva activists came after liberals got into a frenzy over what they called a propaganda film, helping push propaganda forward.
Part of what’s at work here is the Streisand effect – by not wanting people to watch something, you make sure everyone wants to check it out.
The noise around the film was such that even Delhi’s Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal attacked it. Why pay so much attention to something that doesn’t suit you? Why don’t you stick to your schedule? The result is that a politically intelligent annual budget presented by the Kejriwal government – dealing with unemployment – has been erased from the headlines.