Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is drawing criticism for false and misleading claims during a high-decibel election campaign in the southern state of Karnataka that goes to polls on Saturday.
Police in India’s national capital on Friday swiftly moved into action to remove several posters on city walls depicting Prime Minister Modi as “The Lie Lama”, in a sardonic reference to Modi’s apparent false statements juxtaposed with Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama.
Since 2014, India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) has won power in most of the country’s 29 states.
A win in state elections in Karnataka would cement Modi’s dominance of Indian politics, putting the prime minister on track for re-election in 2019.
To ensure his party’s prospects, the prime minister has addressed dozens of rallies during his campaign in the state, currently ruled by the Congress party.
Modi, in line with his signature muscular Hindu nationalist rhetoric, attacked the BJP’s chief rival, the Congress party, for ignoring and insulting India’s military heroes.
It’s a very sad state of affairs where the prime minister of the nation survives by peddling false history
Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, Modi’s biographer
He told supporters at an election rally on May 3 that the previous Congress government led by India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had humiliated two military icons from Karnataka state – Field Marshal Cariappa and General KS Thimayya.
As several Indian commentators pointed out, there’s “very little in this statement that’s actually correct”.
‘Erring in basics’
Modi faltered on key personalities, dates and actual sequence of events related to the India-Pakistan war over disputed territory of Kashmir in 1948 and the brief border war with China in 1962.
General KS Thimayya was not the Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army in 1948, nor was Krishna Menon the defence minister then as claimed by Modi in his election speech.
“He is erring in basics now. The blunders in his recent speeches reflect over-confidence, inability to cope with pressure. He has a good back-up team which provides him with talking points but Modi has an inverted notion of his own knowledge and likes to veer off script,” said Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, Modi’s biographer, told Al Jazeera.
“It happens very commonly to leaders when arrogance sets in.”
But this is not the first time that Modi has publicly articulated false statements.
He has earlier alleged that former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and other opposition figures held secret conspiratorial meetings with nuclear rival Pakistan, discussing internal elections, a claim found to be false.
Former Army chief Deepak Kapoor refuted these allegations about the event in Delhi attended by Indian political leaders, diplomats and a former foreign minister of Pakistan.
“Yes, I was part of the meeting and we discussed nothing more than India-Pakistan relations,” Kapoor told an Indian news magazine.
A controversy around his educational qualification also continues to simmer as the administration refuses to make public proof of his college degrees.
Trump and Modi
Analysts point to striking similarities between the leaders of the two largest democracies in the world.
Both US President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Modi have a complex relationship with “fake news” and “false statements”.
A fact checker in the Washington Post that claims Trump has made 2,140 false statements in his first year in office, says “there’s a pattern about Trump’s exaggerations”.
“Often he inflates the impact of his own actions – or he denigrates people or programs he dislikes,” the report adds.
This could easily be about the Indian prime minister’s apparent disregard for strict adherence to concepts of truth and fact.
New Delhi-based political analyst Krishan Pratap Singh says both Trump and Modi “seem afflicted with the need to manufacture facts and alter history to suit their political purposes almost every time they speak in public”.
“It partly comes from a common insecurity of having made tall campaign promises that they are struggling to fulfil, but are helped by their social media prowess that bypasses the press and communicates directly to a large minority of millions of loyal voters who lap up everything their leaders say, no matter how outlandish,” Singh told Al Jazeera.
A report on fact-checking website AltNews lists Modi’s many “half-truths and whole lies”.
Much has been written already about Modi’s economic promises and his bombast.
“Mr Modi’s economic promises are so extraordinary they must be taken with a deep slurp of salty lime juice,” writes author and journalist Adam Roberts.
The Indian prime minister has earlier endorsed claims that ancient Indians practised cosmetic surgery and reproductive genetics thousands of years ago eliciting ridicule on social media.
False statements by Indian leaders has also coincided with serious misinformation campaigns on social media, most prominently through Whatsapp.
Leading up to the elections, the Karnataka state saw a spurt of fake news. The British state broadcaster, BBC, on 7 May, announced that a fake survey circulating on Whatsapp that forecast a victory for Modi’s party was fake news.
At least two BJP spokespersons, when contacted by Al Jazeera, declined to comment on the story.
Analysts point out that there might be other precursors for Prime Minister Modi’s distortions of history.
Modi is an avowed life-long member of the Hindu supremacist group called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) that is at the forefront of a drive to rewrite history and reinvent the idea of India as a “Hindu-first nation”.
Modi and the RSS are at loggerheads with the secular outlook that shaped the way India was governed by the first Prime Minister Nehru and the Congress party for more than half a century.
“The RSS’ insecurity about history arises from not playing any significant role in India’s freedom struggle that was led by the Indian National Congress, which in its current form is still Mr Modi’s main political opponent,” analyst Singh told Al Jazeera.
“Thus Mr Modi repeatedly, whether in policy or campaign speeches, tries to twist historical facts in such a manner in an attempt to portray his political forbears in a better light than they deserve and Congress in a worse light.”
Far from insulting Thimayya in 1948 or after, Nehru appointed him as Chief of Army Staff superseding officers senior to him at the time. The PM can ask the Raksha Mantri to show him the relevant files. https://t.co/5MR9rGNYEy
— Srinath Raghavan (@srinathraghava3) May 3, 2018
Critics say Modi is demonstrating that facts are politically inexpedient and that lies are an acceptable, easier remedy during polls.
Historian Ramachandra Guha says “these lies, half-lies and falsehoods are willed and deliberate” and that Modi “will do anything at all to win an election”.
Modi has remained a divisive figure since religious riots broke out in 2002 in Gujarat when he was chief minister. More than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in the riots under Modi’s watch. He has denied any wrong doing.
But his lies and false claims as prime minister is deeply disconcerting, according to Indians on micro-blogging sites.
“They think that they can get away with it. Creating a false notion is integral to their growth. This has been done from the inception of the RSS’s history. The writings of right-wing ideologue [Vinayak Damodar] Savarkar, his depiction of events was completely ahistorical, including misrepresenting role of Muslim rulers,” Mukhopadhyay told Al Jazeera.
“It’s a very sad state of affairs where the prime minister of the nation survives by peddling false history.”