How the BJP’s Smear Machine Works: A Personal Story

Having written for international publications for nearly two decades — first as a journalist and then as a columnist — by now I’ve grown used to the usual charges flung by some of those who happen to disagree with me.

If I earned a dollar every time someone on Twitter accused me of being a shill for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, or the opposition Congress Party, or the anti-corruption Aam Aadmi Party I would be a wealthy man. Alternatively, my views are supposedly always those of my “white masters” at the American Enterprise Institute, where I work, or The Wall Street Journal, where I publish a biweekly column on South Asia.

All this is pretty standard stuff, not the sort of thing that is usually worth dignifying by acknowledging. Certain kinds of insecurities are only to be expected in a post-colonial society like India. And when your work is in the public eye some people will respond by attacking your person or your motives rather than your argument. In India, these kinds of allegations are common to the point of banality. They are the first resort of many people on social media. It’s hard to think of anyone who writes about politics or policy who has not faced something similar.

But now a prominent member of the ruling BJP — Amit Malviya, the head of the party’s information technology cell — is accusing me of something I’ve never been accused of before: plagiarism. He has shared a screen shot that suggests that my latest Wall Street Journal column was plagiarized from an Indian publication, Here’s the tweet:

My first instinct was to ignore these allegations — to me they seem thin even by social media standards. But by now they have been shared on Twitter by scores of people, some of whom have tens of thousands of followers. Many of those sharing this graphic are widely viewed as supporters of the BJP or its Hindu nationalist parent organization, the RSS. The comments on Malviya’s tweet suggest that the graphic accusing me has also been shared on Facebook and WhatsApp. So I feel compelled to issue a point-by-point rebuttal.

At the heart of the plagiarism charge is the suggestion that my op-ed “India’s Incredibly Shrunken Presidency” was lifted from a column by Rediff columnist Rajeev Srinivasan titled “Sreedharan for President.” We both believe that India’s presidency has been monopolized by politicians who shut out eminent professionals, and among those we both feel would be worthy of the Indian presidency are the Columbia University economist Jagdish Bhagwati. Beyond that the pieces bear little obvious similarity — even a casual observer ought to be able to spot the clear difference in our prose styles— but they’ve been arranged in a table to suggest the opposite. Here is my rebuttal to each of the six points in the widely circulated graphic shared by Malviya and others:

1. Both Srinivasan and I argue that the Indian presidency is poorly served by (mostly mediocre) politicians, and that the high office ought to be occupied instead by distinguished Indians drawn from all walks of life. Ostensibly, because Srinivasan made this argument in June, and my column followed a month later, I must have got the idea from him.

Except that lamenting the monopoly of politicians on India’s presidency is hardly uncommon. Here’s my own column from July 2015, on the death of President A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, a rare non-politician president. My argument then: “Kalam was also the only president since the philosopher Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, who held office from 1962 to 67, to elevate qualifications for the office beyond mere party loyalty or a talent for politicking. Unlike almost every other president during the past five decades, Kalam got the job on the strength of his achievements outside politics.”

And here’s Tunku Varadarajan arguing in August 2015 that India should break “the suffocating grip of geriatric politicians” on the presidency by nominating the cricketer Rahul Dravid.

I’m not using these examples to claim that Srinivasan, or anyone else, lifted the idea of writing about the merits of India elevating a non-politician president from my 2015 column. I’m merely pointing out that others, including me, have argued the case for eminent citizens before. Odds are that someone in India likely made this argument as early as the 1970s, when the decline in the presidency set in. This is not plagiarism by any stretch of the imagination.

2. Both columns suggest Jagdish Bhagwati as a worthy candidate for the presidency. This is true, but the way the information has been presented is highly misleading. Since Srinivasan and I both believe that India’s presidency has been poorly served by professional politicians it’s hardly surprising that we both suggest potential alternatives.

Srinivasan’s top suggestion, reflected in his column’s title, is technocrat E. Sreedharan, known in India as the Metro Man for his project management skills. But he also mentions, in passing, the novelist O.V. Vijayan, the Congress politician Shashi Tharoor, and the scientist R.A. Mashelkar, among others. I consider fewer names. Here’s the relevant sentence from my column: “For India’s unimaginative leaders, the idea of elevating the great trade economist Jagdish Bhagwati, the industrialist Ratan Tata or the erudite cricketer Rahul Dravid to the presidency would be dead on arrival.”

In short, both Srinivasan and I suggest several names — ten by my count — of potential non-politician presidents who may have been considered in ideal circumstances. Only one of these happens to be common to the two columns, but that one is highlighted in the graphic to suggest plagiarism. Suffice to say that Bhagwati, who I’ve hosted at AEI and whose book on the Indian economy I reviewed for the WSJ in 2013, is hardly someone I’m unfamiliar with.

3. Both columns mention the size of the presidential palace, Rashtrapati Bhavan. This one is almost too ridiculous to deserve rebuttal, but here goes anyway. First, the two descriptions are not that similar. Srinivasan refers to a “300 acre estate” while I talk about a “340-room sandstone palace.”

Second, like countless others, I’ve mentioned the grandiosity of India’s presidential palace before. Here’s a 2012 piece in Foreign Policy where I write about “the palatial 340-room estate completed in 1929 for the viceroy of British India.” And here’s the relevant portion from the 2015 column linked to above: “You were as likely to see Kalam being jostled by students as dining with a dignitary in the 340-room presidential palace built for Britain’s viceroy during the Raj.”

Again, I’m not suggesting that Srinivasan plagiarized me because he wrote about “a 300 acre estate” five years after I wrote about “a 340-room estate.” There are only so many ways to describe a building. In fact you would find it hard to find any description of Rashtrapati Bhavan that does not refer to the size of the estate or the number of rooms or the sandstone used to build it.

4. According to the graphic, Srinivasan wrote of former presidents that “not many of them have shown excellence in anything” while I say the current president, Ram Nath Kovind, “has not earned his job for displaying any particularly outstanding qualities of heart or head.”

Again this falls into the category of “too silly to rebut” but, for the record, there’s absolutely no similarity in phrasing here, and we are not even describing the same person. The substantive point, about most Indian presidents being chosen for largely political reasons, is one I’ve made before, including in the 2015 column on Kalam shared above.

5. Both columns mention presidents Radhakrishan (1962–67) and Kalam (2002–07) as outstanding former presidents, exceptions to the rule of mediocrity. Again, this is true, but it’s something I’ve talked about before both in my column and on Twitter.

From my 2015 column, repeated from above: “Kalam was also the only president since the philosopher Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, who held office from 1962 to 67, to elevate qualifications for the office beyond mere party loyalty or a talent for politicking.” From Twitter in January this year: “As India marks #RepublicDay, I can think of only three presidents out of 13 who had the stature for the post: Prasad, Radhakrishnan & Kalam.”

Once again, I’m not accusing Srinivasan of plagiarism because he happened to make a similar observation to the one that I made in a column two years ago, or in a widely shared tweet six months ago. If you go down the list of Indian presidents and exclude the career politicians, Radhakrishnan and Kalam are the obvious standouts. There’s even a question on Quora comparing the two of them.

Some people, such as the writer Keshava Guha, believe that the educationist Zakir Husain (1967–69) belongs on the list too. In his column linked to above, Varadarajan mentions Kalam, Radhakrishnan and Husain “as men who merit our ungrudging respect.” Either way, that two columns mention Kalam and Radhakrishnan as great presidents is hardly an earthshaking coincidence.

To put this in a U.S. context, it’s a bit like asking people to name the best American presidents. If five writers come up with a list that includes both Lincoln and Washington it doesn’t mean that they all copied each other. It suggests a broad consensus on the question.

6. Both Srinivasan and I mention that some of the least distinguished former presidents have been loyalists of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. Again, the language in the graphic could hardly be more different. Srinivasan uses the term “personal retainer,” whereas I speak of “a string of mediocrities” and highlight some of the most egregious examples.

Neither Srinivasan nor I mention all of the mediocrities by name in our columns but, as with the best former presidents, I would argue that there’s a strong consensus on the worst ones: Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed (1974–77), Giani Zail Singh (1982–87) and Pratibha Patil (2007–12). I name Patil in my column, but many of my Indian readers would know that the man in the bathtub immortalized in this cartoon was Ahmed, and that the person who promised to sweep the floors for Indira Gandhi was Zail Singh.

To sum up, Malviya’s insinuation hinges on ignoring my work that predates the allegedly plagiarized column, selectively highlighting aspects of my column to draw parallels with Srinivasan’s, and portraying commonplace observations as earth-shaking coincidences. (They both say Rashtrapati Bhavan is big!) Ironically, if I used exactly the same examples as in the graphic I could accuse Srinivasan of plagiarizing my earlier work. Of course, this is preposterous. I have no reason to believe that Srinivasan did not come to his views about the decline of the Indian presidency independently. For the most part we concur on what went wrong, even if we have largely different ideas — shared admiration for Bhagwati notwithstanding — on who would make a good president for India.

What’s important here is not the allegation, but what it says about the BJP. Heading into the 2019 general elections, the party clearly recognizes the power of social media to destroy reputations and intimidate critics. No other political party in India is as well-organized, or as willing to play dirty. My own problems with what I call the “Hindutva Troll Army” erupted last year after I criticized Modi’s decision to suddenly scrap 86 percent of India’s currency notes by value, but they have deepened after I expressed my concerns about the BJP’s appointment in March of Yogi Adityanath, a hate-spewing Hindu monk, to lead India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh.

Unlike many people, I have the resources to fight back against innuendo and intimidation. But imagine for a moment that you’re a reporter for a small Indian publication, or working at an unknown think tank. Say the wrong thing and an entire online machine — complete with WhatsApp groups, fake news sites and tens of thousands of dedicated followers — can swing into action to undermine your reputation. The Los Angeles Times recently wrote about this here. The Financial Times reviewed a book that looks at the BJP’s social media operation here. Fake news-busting site Alt News has chronicled attacks on the noted Indian columnist Tavleen Singh for sharing a photograph of the squalor of Adityanath’s hometown, and the wild-eyed allegation that TV journalist Barkha Dutt had hitched a scooter ride with an Islamist terrorist.

Organized online smear campaigns are what we have come to expect in Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey and Vladimir Putin’s Russia. As long as BJP President Amit Shah empowers the likes of Malviya, it is also increasingly the reality in Narendra Modi’s India.