Opinion: ANI podcast with Owaisi uses diversion tactics to further right-wing narrative

ANI’s podcast, hosted by network chief Smita Prakash, where she interviewed AIMIM MP Asaduddin Owaisi, is an example of how right-wing “intellectuals” and internet trolls seek to protect authoritarians from scrutiny.
Smita Prakash and Asaduddin Owaisi
Smita Prakash and Asaduddin OwaisiThe Wire
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Written By Raj Shekhar Sen

Recently, on an ANI podcast, network chief Smita Prakash interviewed All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) MP Asaduddin Owaisi. While many different clips of the interview went viral, a particular eight-minute segment where Prakash and Owaisi have a conversation around the recent spate of hate speech by the prime minister during his election campaign was particularly interesting to me for the way in which seemingly curated spaces for ‘healthy debate’ can be used strategically to  further the right-wing narrative. 

Of course, Owaisi more than held his own – despite the inherent constraint of being both a guest (on Prakash’s show), and a Muslim, whose every word and gesture is subject to far greater scrutiny than others.

For context, during President Barack Obama’s eight years in the White House, his family had to constantly remind themselves to not overtly appear angry because the social stigma around ‘Black anger’ in the US would then diminish any other point they might be making.

Creating a permission structure

The clip begins with Prakash questioning Owaisi about his comparison of Indian Muslims to Jews in the Germany of the 1930s. She adds, and I paraphrase for clarity that, “you are saying this, but they (Muslims) are not being put in gas chambers, are they?” Owaisi replied by noting that the Holocaust in Germany was a process and that much like the Holocaust started with hate speech, we do see examples of hate speech in this election campaign by the prime minister. 

By pushing the goalpost to gas chambers, Prakash was trying to put the onus of clarification on Owaisi, making it seem like he is exaggerating the situation and thus not worthy of serious analysis. 

This tactic of seeks to control conversations by using a bad line of questioning to deflect valid criticism. While exaggerating opponents’ arguments to discredit them isn’t exclusive to the right-wing, it’s more effective for them in this context. In this framework, truth and falsity are secondary to audience agreement and showmanship. 

Shifting the goalpost

When Owaisi responded to her line of questioning by saying that what Modi has said is hate speech and that this leads up to more dangerous outcomes, Prakashi shifted the goalpost again: ‘So you are saying Modi is not building toilets but gas chambers?,’ she say.  This tactic uses a ‘straw man’ – in this case the creation of toilets vs gas chambers. Any thinking individual listening can implicitly understand that there is no limitation on a politician, for they can make both toilets for the masses and gas chambers as well. But she incorporates this as a deflection tactic to further push the idea that Owaisi is exaggerating the problem.

Remember Owaisi has neither said anything about toilets or gas chambers, his concern was around hate speech but Prakash expects him to contest her on this. 

Owaisi then attempts to return to his original point about Modi’s language resembling Hitler’s, citing the prime minister’s reference to Muslims as intruders and his allegation that the mangalsutras of Hindu women will be confiscated and given to Muslims. ‘Let the PM attack the Congress, why is he dragging Muslims in to this?’ he asks. Prakash, now entrenched in her defence of Modi, seeks to counter by arguing that Modi had merely simplified his message for rural voters, who might not grasp more complex issues like inheritance tax or wealth redistribution, as suggested by Sam Pitroda. As if somehow using hate speech to simplify an idea is allowable, the discussion is now fully platformed on Prakash’s arbitrary rules of engagement. 

When Owaisi objected to implicating Muslims in this discussion, Prakash persisted, asserting that such a policy (of ‘confiscating mangalsutras’)  would inherently benefit Muslims since they are poor and the Congress had said they would help them, so Modi’s speech is justified. This perverse juxtaposition creates an assumed equivalence between Modi’s vile speech and the poor Indian Muslim who, in the words of Prakash, would benefit from the Congress’s welfare schemes.

How deeply embedded is our media structure with those in power?

Let’s take a moment to reflect on the depth of commitment exhibited in Prakash’s stance. Despite identifying as an ‘independent journalist,’ she seems oblivious to the implications of her argument, revealing a troubling lack of awareness regarding its anti-poor and privileged undertones. 

In her mind, and the mind of an average right-wing commentator, the responses make perfect sense. According to social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, for the conservative mind, the identity of the speaker often carries more weight than the argument itself. That is also why conservatives place such high moral value in religion and godmen. So, per them, if Modi has said something he must have had his reasons and even if we do not fully understand his rationalisation, we have to attribute him an alibi and in this case that is the fear of wealth redistribution and inheritance tax. Many Indian right-wing thinkers had justified such a tax in the past but now that Modi has ascribed it as evil, it must be. And to the many rural voters in India who may not truly be able to grasp the danger of such ideas, using hate speech is justified since all Modi was trying to do is ‘simplify’ the issue.

When Owaisi further pushes back, asking how it is right to blame Muslims who are the poorest group in India for that, Prakash responds with a non-sequitur: that since Mayawati and the Dalits (who are poor) have not complained and are in fact aligned with Modi, why was he complaining.  Owaisi said they too would also complain once they felt the situation wasn’t helping them.

Debating a straw man

By now, Owaisi the lawyer has pushed her to such a corner that she has no way to respond but use the classic, if not him then who. So Prakash asks whether he really thinks the language used by Modi is akin to Hitler and if so, who is the alternative. She further taunts him by asking, almost in a jocular manner, that if Modi loses does he think there would be rivers of milk and honey flowing in this country. And if he wins, would Owaisi’s head be branded with ‘a cross’ (she presumably meant the equivalent of the Star of David).

Owaisi to his credit ignores the sheer crassness of such a direct visual comment toward him. However, the exchange demonstrates, once more, how all the concerns he has registered up until now appear ridiculous to her because in her world there is no one else better suited than Modi to hold office. In the end, she chooses to attack his arguments by relying on an immensely exaggerated straw man of one of the lived realities of a Nazi state. She presents the branding of ‘a cross’ on his head as hyperbole. But imagine the moment: if one of the most prominent Indian journalists can joke about one of the biggest minority leaders of the country being marked out as an outsider, we have long left the vicinity of polite society. 

How the media protects Modi from scrutiny 

Such a line of defence from the ‘intellectual’ right creates a structure allowing people like Modi to escape without scrutiny and any condemnation. Their argument starts by questioning the victim of hate speech around the validity of their own emotions and when confronted, further uses the tactic of ridiculous exaggeration as rhetoric, indulging in lazy whataboutery and finally desensitizing itself and the ordinary person of the humanity of those that they oppose.

Of course, the gas chambers don’t exist right now, not yet, only hate speech does and perhaps the spectre of CAA-NRC. However, by the time ‘gas chambers’ do become a reality, it would already be too late. If the worst acts of an authoritarian regime followed immediately after the first signs, people would be shocked into action.

If the gas chambers of 1943 happened immediately after the ‘German Firm’ stickers on the windows of non-Jewish shops in 1933, the entire world, including its Prakashes, would have been shocked. But that’s not how it unfolds. Between the initial steps and the worst atrocities, there are countless small, imperceptible steps, each desensitising people to the next. If one doesn’t take a stand at an earlier step, why would they at a later one? And by belittling the legitimate fears of a whole group, these folks create pathways for ordinary people from the majority community to easily dehumanise minoritis and eventually justify any violence against them, the signs of which we already see around us. 

Ordinary individuals perhaps would not tolerate actions that blatantly defy common decency unless those targeted have been previously dehumanised, branded as infiltrators, enemies of the people, the nation, or the prevailing ideology. Allowing hate speech to be platformed and celebrated enables that. All of us, especially such journalists, would do well to remember that in politics, much like in personal conduct, accepting minor follies, no matter how profitable it might be, is what lays the groundwork for acquiescence to more severe ones. 

Raj Shekhar Sen is based out of San Francisco and works in the area of data privacy regulations.He also occasionally contributes as a freelancer writing on politics and runs a podcast on politics called the Bharatiya Junta Podcast.

This article was originally published in The Wire and can be read here.

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