A small restaurant in Parel was forced to shut down on Monday after protests by Congress workers over allegedly defamatory material written on its bills. Soon after this newspaper front-paged it, the story went viral on social media generating thousands of Facebook Likes, Comments and Shares, and thousands more retweets and mentions on Twitter.
Not surprisingly, the story was lapped by pro-BJP Twitter and Facebook users, and a few hours after the newspaper hit the stands, Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi tweeted it and posted it on Facebook. Given Modi’s ability to generate interest in television media, national TV channels swooped upon Aditi restaurant and the story was a national debate.
The impact of social media on mainstream media cannot be underestimated, and the Aditi Restaurant issue is a prime example. There are two issues at work here: one, whether the owner of Aditi Restaurant had actually defamed the UPA; and two, the reaction of the Congress party to what was written on the bills.
There is no question that Aditi Restaurant had defamed the government by alleging or implying that it condones and encourages corruption. There is constitutional guarantee to freedom of expression in this country, but it comes with responsibility.
What Aditi Restaurant’s owner wrote in the bill is not technically false, as financial scandals related to the 2G auction and the allocation of coal blocks, indicate. Despite that, the case for defamation is pretty strong. The Congress party workers could have taken the legal way out: sued the restaurant owner and perhaps even brought on a stay on the printing of that message.
However, they chose the easy way out — intimidation. The story, therefore, remains just that — intimidation. Make no mistake about it.
This brings us to the second mistake — Congress playing right into the hands of a belligerent BJP that has traditionally counted small businessmen among its vote bank. This incident gives the party, whose PM candidate will most likely be Modi, to garner greater support from such businesses, and at the same time, puts Congress in a corner over fundamental rights. If the Congress has to win in 2014, it cannot, as someone put it on social media, hit a local sixer and get hit-wicket nationally.