Saturday, August 15, 2009

Conspiracy theories good for laughs (August 9, 2009)

By Swapan Dasgupta

Among the more interesting titles on display in London’s bookshops this week is Voodoo Histories: The Role of Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History by journalist David Aaronovitch. It explores the whacko conspiracy theories that have had cult followings in the West. Some of these include the invocation of the fictional ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ to prove a global Jewish conspiracy against civilisation as we know it, the murder of President Kennedy, and the suggestion that the British intelligence services engineered the crash that led to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.
I haven’t bothered spending £17.99 on Aaranovitch’s journey into the intellectual world of crazies because we have a fair share of our own Voodoo Histories. That Subhas Chandra Bose wasn’t killed in an air crash in Taipei but was instead incarcerated by Stalin in Siberia at the express request of India’s first Prime Minister is a story which refuses to die, despite umpteen wasteful commissions of inquiry. The intriguing but delightful story of how Jawaharlal Nehru got the better of Mohammed Ali Jinnah because he indulged in pillow talk with the last Vicereine of India has been repeated with monotonous regularity by Pakistani voodoo-ists who double up as historians. The same story, curiously, is used by Nehru-baiters in India to argue that Partition was always a grand bedroom conspiracy. The implication is that Nehru was an unwitting victim of an imperial honey trap.
In recent years, the abrupt decision of Sonia Gandhi to heed her “inner voice” and not accept the post of Prime Minister in May 2004 prompted a lot of speculation. Among the better conspiracy theories I heard was that a Russian aircraft carrying mysterious passengers flew into Delhi during the negotiations and stirred the “inner voice” into activity. There are other versions of this conspiracy in circulation, some involving former President APJ Abdul Kalam (“no wonder he wasn’t given a second term”) and others involving a brotherhood of former KGB agents. In fact, some people genuinely believe that the KGB had a mole burrowing deep inside Mrs Indira Gandhi’s residence.
Like the story about the wrist watch Sanjay Gandhi was allegedly wearing the morning he took off from Safdarjung airport for his last flight, conspiracy theories make good reading but are mainly unverifiable. We should delight in hearing and reading them, but it would be a sad day if such rubbish was actually taken seriously.
Tragically, the Internet has been a boon to global conspiracy theorists, not least in India. Harmless eccentrics who warm up to numerous conspiracies have made contact with kindred souls, cutting across national boundaries. Websites propagating pet theories and dedicated e-mail groups have often created the impression that they are neither loonies nor isolated individuals. Web interventions have conferred an illusion of numerical support on those who in an earlier era would have been laughed out of polite company. A determined group of whackos has often derailed serious discussions and done its bit towards making the blogosphere resemble an old-fashioned loony bin.
If the conspiracy theorists had confined their activities to making incredible assertions such as arguing that all Jews had carefully chosen not to go to the World Trade Center on the morning of 9/11 and identifying the exact island where Subhas Chandra Bose had taken refuge with Hitler or Elvis Presley, their activities would not have merited a column. Unfortunately, when conspiracy theorists start puncturing the credibility of the world’s largest democracy, it is time to sit up and take note.
In the past two months, an insidious campaign claiming that the Electronic Voting Machines used in the general election were doctored has begun claiming new adherents in the political class. What began as an e-mail campaign involving some isolated pensioners located in southern India has suddenly gathered momentum among politicians. In Tamil Nadu, the AIADMK led by J Jayalalithaa has boycotted by-elections in the State, protesting the use of EVMs; in Orissa, Cabinet Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad, also the Congress general secretary in charge of the State, has attributed Naveen Patnaik’s third electoral victory to EVM riggings; and, Leader of the Opposition LK Advani has demanded that India scrap EVMs and revert to paper ballots.
Had there been any persuasive evidence that a conspiracy to subvert the popular will had been successfully undertaken with the connivance of the Election Commission, there would have been a strong case for a rigorous scientific/technical scrutiny. But that has not been the contention of the sceptics. Their argument is that it is theoretically possible to doctor the EVMs — an undeniable proposition. The question is: Have these machines been doctored in a way so as to benefit a particular political party in a multitude of constituencies? Anyone familiar with the embedded chip system of EVMs would say this is absurd — unless the sequence of candidate listing is known before hand. You can doctor machines to ensure that candidate number five gets every fifth vote (regardless of where the button is pressed) but can you ensure that the favoured party’s candidate will appear as number five in every constituency?
The conspiracy theory is so patently ridiculous that the EC should have organised a televised demo to end the silly debate once and for all.
Defeat in elections is always difficult to digest. But it does not help the political process if leaders start embracing ridiculous theories because they show that the winner was actually a cheater. In cricket, there is a way of winning a match by outplaying the opponent; there is also the fabled route of winning courtesy the “Pakistani umpire”. It does not enhance the quality of our public life if the EC is unfairly charged with being a Pakistani umpire because some leaders can’t face up to the reality of public rejection.


Sunday Pioneer, August 9, 2009

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