Not a few Australians are in the habit of moralising about advertisements. Our journalists are encouraged by their outlets to imagine the harm or good that can be done in under thirty seconds; our citizens turn to an organisation where they might more privately do the same. Complaint to the Advertising Standards Bureau is frequent enough that you and I could dispose of an afternoon wondering about those critics troubled, for example, by an ad that corrupts with its “sexualized food” and “erection of bacon”. We love to whine about this stuff, or hear accounts of others’ whining. Press articles about the moral victory or failure from the famous series of lamb ads are surely served up more often than our roasts.

Such discussion is public and ordinary. Or, it is until an actor perceived as unAustralian passes judgement on the lamb. When the Indian High Commission this week issued a demarche — a written diplomatic rebuke — to the Departments of Communications, Agriculture, and Foreign Affairs and Trade regarding the most recent lamb ad, we had headline news.

Look. I imagine that if I were Hindu, I would not be very pleased with this depiction of Ganesha, a known vegetarian, tucking into a springtime shoulder. Just as I imagine that if I were the sort of feminist who believed in the power of “media effects”, I would write, as somebody did, to the bureau that I found “the comparison between your double breast chicken burger and women’s breasts to be offensive”. As it is, I think of advertising as both fundamentally offensive and socially uninfluential. Further, I watch almost everything ad-free and on-demand. So, I don’t worry. Still, a lot of people do, and in a bowdlerising nation where it was long ago decided that cultural “vice” could undo all our virtue, we should hardly give our front pages to the possibility that many Hindus feel precisely about the corrupting potential of ads as many non-Hindu Australians do.

[How did more than three-quarters of the cash in India become worthless overnight?]

I’m not a gambling man, but if I were, I’d lay an exotic for tomorrow. Let’s put a few bucks down on the simultaneous appearance of a Bolt-type gripe about humourless foreigners and a Guardian-type carnival of cultural sensitivity. Let’s add to the bet the complete absence of any journalistic curiosity about India, and why that nation may, at this particular time, be moved to make official protest about an ad for meat, notwithstanding the High Commission’s claim that the demarche was made on behalf of ordinary Australian Hindus.

The easy answer is that the world has gone potty. We have entered an era so rich in disaster, those institutions we hope will contain it have fallen into a very deep state of denial. Rather than address the now palpable effects of climate change and failing economic structures, governments and their ambassadors would often prefer to yell at the telly.

This is true for many stupid politicians, but unlikely to be so in the case of consummate politician, Narendra Modi. Now, I’m not saying that the Hindu nationalist himself oversaw the complaint to three of our Departments, nor do I suppose he has direct knowledge of it. But the Indian Prime Minister has certainly managed Hindu nationalism itself. This man, once barred from entry to the US for his failure to intervene in a massacre of Muslim Indians, has, perhaps, created the conditions in which such a presentation may be made.

These days, Modi presents to the West very well. All traces of the murders in Gujarat, which some say he endorsed, are forgotten, and Mark Zuckerberg — you know, that Facebook guy who says he wants to stamp out “fake news” — is happy not only to meet with Modi, but claim the role his company played in the leader’s election. Our own Prime Minister speaks of the “tremendous opportunity” this leader, India’s first true neoliberal, affords — it’s really only non-Western commentators who criticise Modi’s programs of demonetisation, GST and financialisaton. Even as we in the West come to acknowledge that these techniques have begun to compromise the function of our own economies, we say that it’s just great that this “post-colonial” guy is dragging his nation into contemporary ruin.

Even after he was embraced by Trump, Modi was still perceived in the West as fairly liberal — which is odd when one considers that the frequently illiberal German Chancellor was heralded as a truly liberal goddess for her unsuccessful handshake with Trump at the White House. Modi may be perfectly liberal in an economic sense. The way in which he imposes these policies, however, may seem to your fan of basic liberty to be scandalously illiberal.

The writer Arundhati Roy has been a bit busy of late, finishing her second novel 20 years after winning the Booker with a first. For a year or so, we’ve not had her accounts of Indian power — a kind of power now given to encouraging such violent fear of Muslims. Muslims are slaughtered by citizens while their leaders “publicly unveil an unconscionable bigotry against Muslims, which even George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld would be embarrassed to own up to”. Roy was an early critic heard in the West of Modi’s BJP. She’s picked up the habit again in the middle of her book tour, telling Democracy Now all about this modern leader’s expedient fundamentalism.

Islamophobia, in the view of many Indian commentators, was manufactured by leaders as a fast route to hardline policy. (Sound familiar?) In Modi’s India, this loathing is informed less by Western “clash of civilisations” foreign policy bollocks than it is by Hindu nationalism — an odd combo in this once proudly secular state. For Modi, Hinduism is a vehicle for aggressive reform and a rationale for state violence. Which, of course, is not to imply at all that this is the function of that faith as it is widely experienced.

[Indian dissident journo slain]

Which is to say, Hindus, and members or leaders of any religious group, should be allowed, in my view, to complain about shitty ads as much as any other Australian. Heck. Even if they’re not Australian residents, bring it on. Reporters, on the other hand, are required to ask questions of the nation that offers us “tremendous opportunity”. A nation that did not issue, despite pleas by Indian press, a demarche to the US following the shooting in February of this year of two Indian nationals, resulting in the death of one. The accused, now charged with murder, had, according to witness statements, presumed the victims to be “Middle Eastern” and “illegal”, which we know so often means “Muslim”.

Perhaps there is force behind India’s diplomatic manoeuvre more complex than a mind like the late Bill Leak’s could grasp. This powerful nation is not led by a dummy. It may be led, however, by an illiberal fan of Mussolini — or, fascist if you prefer.

But, you know. There are much more important things to discuss than our economic co-operation with a possible tyrant. Such as TV ads, and how we must, or we must not, take them very seriously, contingent on which outlet is paying us.  

 

Peter Fray

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