Narendra Modi’s hunkar had barely died down in Patna when Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar pounced on his rally speech. According to Nitish, Modi got his Chandraguptas wrong, shifted Taxila from Pakistan to Bihar and sent Alexander the Great to the banks of the Ganges instead of having him turn back at the Sutlej. Intriguing set of counterfactuals, this. But for the less fanciful, this election season will be fertile ground for a game of true or false.
Political speeches in recent months have betrayed a tenuous relationship with facts. Modi, for instance, lavished praise on China, claiming it spent 20% of its GDP on education, though other sources claimed it spent only 3.93%. His take on mathematics seems rather like his approach to history—interpretive. Indeed, leaders across the political spectrum seem happy to gently elide the details as they reach out to voters. At a rally in Madhya Pradesh, Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi claimed that, according to a Unicef study, more people went hungry in the state than in all of Africa. In reality, it was a Unicef analysis of Indian government data, sub-Saharan Africa and malnutrition rather than hunger—but who’s listening? Meanwhile, waxing eloquent on the MNREGA in Kerala, Shashi Tharoor claimed half the women employed under the scheme were over 50, a somewhat generous estimate.
The new age politician has a penchant for data, rattling off facts and figures with remarkable efficiency. It lends a certain heft to political rhetoric, and is meant to persuade voters that their leaders have done their homework. Except, in recent months, the line between the two seems to have blurred. And facts, when wielded as rhetoric, have a peculiar habit of doubling back on the speaker.