There’s that old example of a loaded question, “Have you stopped beating your wife?”
If you say yes, you might sound like you’re admitting that you used to beat her.
If you say that you never beat her, that this is a malicious, defamatory allegation, we have still established this 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 could stand up and speculate that she might be saying it under pressure. After all, she doesn’t want more of your violence.
In the end, we may leave your social circle with seeds of doubt. Some might say you are innocent, those who hate you might say you definitely look like a wife beater, but those who are neutral will simply say ‘we don’t know. It’s one person’s word against another.’
All you had to do was to not respond to to allegation at all. Just change the topic. Discuss the weather. Or post romantic pictures of dinner dates with your wife to make the allegations look outlandish.
Our immediate instinct is to respond. The moment we respond, we have set the agenda. Today’s agenda is whether you are a wife beater. It could have been the weather.
A tough call
Politics is perhaps the only profession whose practitioners face daily attacks of all kinds. Which attacks should you respond to, which ones should you ignore? These are difficult questions politicians all over the world struggle with.
In 2007, Narendra Modi, then the chief minister of Gujarat, famously walked out of a TV interview. The interviewer, Karan Thapar, was questioning him about the 2002 violence.
Modi was answering the questions, defending himself, but then decided to ask for a glass of water and end the interview. He could have proceeded to defend himself, but in the end it would have come out as nothing but Modi sounding defensive.
By this time, Modi had already shifted focus away to development and economic investment. The question before Modi was what agenda he wanted to let Karan Thapar set.
That is why Modi walked out. This is also why he doesn’t do press conferences: a smart politician doesn’t allow others to set the agenda. Modi chooses the topic, we debate it.
It is hard to not respond to something you are being attacked on day in and day out. That is when a politician’s nerves are tested. It needs nerves of steel to refuse to publicly comment on something that’s dominating public or media discourse. Only those who know how to set their own agenda have this superpower.
Godse killed inflation
In December 2021, Rahul Gandhi addressed a grand rally against inflation in Jaipur. Called “Mehngai hatao” (Remove inflation), the rally was meant to crystallise public opinion on rising prices, something that hurts every Indian.
In his speech, Rahul Gandhi spoke, among other things, of the difference between Hindu and Hindutva, Hinduism and Hindu nationalism. He spoke of Mahatma Gandhi and his assassin, Nathuram Godse. The media made this the main headline, inflation became a passing reference in the news reports even in liberal media.
Once again, Rahul Gandhi ended up playing on the BJP’s pitch rather than the opposition’s pitch. Even if he felt it was important to address the issue of Hindu nationalism, he should have done a separate event for it. This way, he didn’t achieve his objective either about inflation or about religious pluralism.
A politician (or generally anyone) who has the superpower to ignore provocation usually has the clarity about what agenda he wants to pursue. Rahul Gandhi using a rally on inflation to speak on Hindu nationalism reflects lack of clarity: his heart is not in inflation as an issue. He doesn’t think it’s politically important enough.
The problem is not limited to liberal politicians. Liberal intellectuals and social media activists suffer from it even more than politicians do. A recent right-wing film sent liberals into a tizzy, making them speak against it for days on end.
This made the right-wing film into a Hindutva cause célèbre. The B-grade filmmaker has now been elevated to the status of a Hindutva legend. The shouting and screaming in theaters by Hindutva activists happened after liberals went into a tizzy about what they called a propaganda film, thus helping further the propaganda.
Some of what is at work here is the Streisand Effect — by wanting people to not look at something, you make sure everyone wants to have a look.
The noise over the film was such that even Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal attacked it. Why give something so much attention that doesn’t suit you? Why don’t you stick to your agenda? The result is that a politically smart annual budget presented by the Kejriwal government — addressing unemployment — has been washed out of headlines.