A narrative is a story – a written or oral account of events. It is not static and can be expanded, elaborated and embellished over time. Narratives can be a benign form of entertainment, or a powerful tool in changing the way people make sense of themselves and their world. Narratives are built as people interpret and link together a sequence of events across time. Since humans live in a complex world, multiple stories can occur at the same time, and the same experience can lead to many different conclusions. Political elites know this and, consequently, make sure that they control the narrative-building process.
Narratives as political tools
Political narratives provide a framework for interpreting the existing political realities. The media and ‘intellectual’ elites play a key role in shaping these narratives by controlling the means and methods of information generation and dissemination. Moreover, they often use innuendo and selective reporting to author and re-author narratives. An event occurs, the news is reported. Then a new twist is added and echoed by others. Seemingly ‘innocent’ details are added to made the new story more vivid. The hope is that eventually the altered story will become the dominant narrative. In the following sections, I will use three case studies to illustrate how this is done systematically:
CASE 1: Multiple bomb blasts occur at the Mahabodhi temple in Bihar
Despite specific prior warnings by the Intelligence Bureau, security measures were not adequately strengthened to prevent the blasts at the shrine. As the news broke, most responded with shock, while some resorted to spin-doctoring.
A little while later, a narrative began to take form implying that BJP and Narendra Modi were somehow responsible:
Step 1: Mention two events ‘innocently’ in the same breath
Step 2: Let someone draw more direct links
Step 3: Certain journalists from the mainstream media echo the view (the journalist cited below example is from Kafila).
Step 4: Members of the political elite echo the story (Digvijay Singh is a senior leader of the Congress)
Mr Singh later went on to say that non-BJP States should be on high alert, implying the role of Hindu outfits in the terror attack (see this link). Thus, an ‘innocuous’ comment builds up into a full-blown narrative. Even if nothing is ever proven, the subconscious link between Modi and terrorism is created at least in the minds of some people.
CASE 2: Hyderabad blasts
In the earlier example, one could of course argue that the initial comment by Sagarika Ghose was an innocent remark that should not be over-analysed. However, this is a pattern that is repeated over-and-over again. Here is another example of a similar situation relating to bomb blasts in Dilsukh Nagar, Hyderabad a few months earlier. Coincidence?
Step 1: Mention irrelevant detail – in this case meat shops – to subtly suggest that Dilsukh Nagar has a large Muslim population (therefore the possibility that this is a case of Hindu terror).
Step 2: Some usual suspects build up direct links:
Dilsukh Nagar is in fact a Hindu dominated area. Times of India carried an article, which reported that the area had been on the Indian Mujahideen radar since 1999 (see link). The police believed that the initial target was the Sai Baba temple in the area (see link). However, all this information is incidental. The Main questions that are begging to be answered are: What was the need to make any innuendos at a sensitive time? What happened to good old reporting of facts? Who is fanning the flames of communal divide and why? What is the need to bring in religion constantly and poison people’s minds when terror has no religion?
Case 3: Narendra Modi gives an interview to Reuters
In the interview, Modi is asked about his view on the 2002 riots. He used an analogy to the effect that as a human he would feel pain even if his car were to run over a puppy. Therefore, it is but natural for him to feel pain for the loss of human lives that occurred during the riots.
Step 1: A rival politician deliberately misrepresents the comment:
Step 2: A prominent member of the ‘intellectual elite’ picks it up and builds up a story in a series of tweets:
Step 3: The usual suspects take up the chorus and there is a lot of noise
Step 4: Another prominent member of the ‘neutral’ media keeps the pot boiling (note the use of quotation marks below)
Step 5 : Other politicians take up the narrative and score political points (Priyanka Chaturvedi is a Congress spokesperson):
But what actually happened in the interview? This is what the Reuters journalist who took the interview had to say on the matter:
It is quite interesting to see how a narrative is built up and sustained by a small group of people. The examples used above are from twitter, but many of the key players are prominent media persons as well. Thus this story-telling is being reinforced thorough newspaper columns, television debates and academic seminars. While the cited cases are new, this process has been going on for decades.
The only way to change this system is to recognise what is happening, and build counter narratives. The alternative stories may not be enough to change a person’s initial opinion. However, these will eventually be catalysts for a more thought-based approach, rather than blindly relying on what is being told to us.