Dhruv Rathee: ‘No matter which party comes to power, I will keep questioning the government’

The YouTuber says he firmly believes in telling the truth, even if it can be “a bit harsh or uncomfortable at times”.

Published : Apr 12, 2024 11:31 IST - 7 MINS READ

Dhruv Rathee says that more than any political party, his loyalty lies with his values of rationality, liberty, inclusivity, progress for the nation, and integrity.

Dhruv Rathee says that more than any political party, his loyalty lies with his values of rationality, liberty, inclusivity, progress for the nation, and integrity. | Photo Credit: X/Dhruv Rathee

On February 22, 2024, the popular video content creator Dhruv Rathee released a video on his YouTube channel which drew the ire of supporters of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Titled “Is India becoming a DICTATORSHIP?”, the video spoke about the farcical Chandigarh mayoral election and the farmers’ protest 2.0, raising concerns about the country’s democratic downslide. The swift and mostly vicious backlash that followed saw some on the political Right engaging in the usual whataboutery surrounding “freedom of speech”, while others questioned his status as a non-resident who had no locus standi to criticise the Indian government. The video garnered over 24 million views.

On April 1, Rathee followed it up with another video titled “DICTATORSHIP confirmed?” in which he discussed the electoral bonds revelations, the incarceration of prominent opposition leaders including two Chief Ministers, raging issues of unemployment and inflation, and appealed to Indian citizens to raise their voices against an “undeclared emergency” to safeguard democracy. Despite the usual brickbats, the video has been viewed over 26 million times.

Rathee, who was one of TIME’s 2023 Next Generation Leaders, has acquired a significant following over the past decade for his explainer videos on different subjects such as history, current affairs, and pop culture, among others. With days to go for voting in the 2024 Lok Sabha election with the first phase scheduled on April 19, India’s opposition parties are yet to find a narrative to counter the BJP’s giant propaganda machine fuelled by a largely subservient mainstream media. But many on social media feel Rathee’s recent videos have done more to expose the chinks in the Narendra Modi-led government’s armour than the opposition. In an email interview with Frontline, Rathee said that questioning the government is the “only way to ensure we keep improving as a country”. Excerpts:

When did you first start your explainer videos and what drove you to it? Have you always followed the news avidly? Or was it something in the political climate that you wanted to address?

My interest in making videos goes a long way back, ever since I was a kid. I said this in a YouTube video of mine describing my life story, but I got interested in news and politics only after the Anti-corruption movement in 2011.

Also Read | Paranjoy Guha Thakurta: ‘Unfortunately, a large section of the media has stopped asking difficult questions’

Who do you wish to reach with your videos? Do you believe your voice is having an impact? From which age profile do you get the most responses?

I wish to reach every single Indian living in and outside the country. Age, religion, caste, gender.. none of this matters. I receive responses from all sorts of people—no one demographic profile is more dominant than others.

What is your most viral video so far? How many views does it have?

It’s the most recent video on how India is moving towards becoming a dictatorship. It got over 25 million views just on YouTube, which I don’t think is a surprise considering the urgency and importance of this issue. Anyone who truly cares about their nation will feel the need to spread awareness about it.

In popular parlance, you are considered an “influencer”. Is that how you see yourself? As someone who influences public opinion. If not, how you would you describe what you do?

 I like to call myself a YouTube Educator.

As influencers increasingly become a preferred format of news consumption, do you see them replacing traditional media soon? If not, why not? More importantly, do you believe influencers can compete with the enormous reach that broadcast media has in India?

In some ways, yes. The kind of journalism done by TV news channels will surely be replaced by digital creators purely because of their atrocious quality and ethics.

In other ways, no. Digital creators cannot yet compete with the investigative journalism and intensive reporting done by some traditional media. The primary hard work is still done by relatively unknown journalists on the ground. People like me are simply giving their stories a bigger audience as a secondary source. It’s very difficult for us to do their work because of a lack of resources.

Dhruv Rathee with journalist and former TV news anchor Ravish Kumar. Rathee told Frontline that “the Indian TV media is in a crisis” and “all ‘real’ news anchors” such as Kumar have been forced to resign.

Dhruv Rathee with journalist and former TV news anchor Ravish Kumar. Rathee told Frontline that “the Indian TV media is in a crisis” and “all ‘real’ news anchors” such as Kumar have been forced to resign. | Photo Credit: X/Dhruv Rathee

In your videos, you often refer disparagingly to the supplicant TV channels. Do you believe there is a crisis in Indian media today and if so, what lies ahead?

There’s absolutely no doubt that the Indian TV media is in a crisis. They’ve turned into sycophants for the ruling government and morphed into entertainment channels. It’s not news anymore, just noise. All “real” news anchors like Ravish Kumar, Abhisar Sharma, Punya Prasun Vajpayee, etc. have been forced to resign. I’m just going to say it straight: People need to stop using TV as their go-to source for news.

Also Read | ‘Journalists can serve democracy but they can’t save it’: Joel Simon

How do you pick subjects for your videos and how do you prepare? How long does it take on average to produce one video? Do you have a team or is it a one-man affair?

I now lead a team of 10-15 people, a significant leap from when I used to work solo. Our operations are guided by meticulously defined processes for each task we undertake. For deciding on video content, I utilise an Excel file [spreadsheet] that helps to evaluate potential topics based on specific criteria.

Each topic is scored out of 10, taking into account factors such as:

a. My personal interest and the values I wish to promote.

b. The topic’s relevance and current interest level among the public.

c. The complexity of the subject and its suitability for an educational video.

d. Audience demand and interest.

e. The extent of coverage the topic has received in the media.

I assess these criteria, rating each one out of 10, and then aggregate the scores to choose a topic. This methodical approach defines our content selection process. On average, it takes 3-5 days to produce one video depending upon how many people work on it.

Was it a conscious decision to make your videos in Hindi or is it because it is your mother tongue?

Yes, both. It is my mother tongue and I chose it because there is a lack of high-quality educational content being created in Hindi as compared to English.

You have taken on the BJP strongly and have not minced your words. How would you describe your politics in general? Are you loyal to any one political party? Should some other party comes to power this year, will you stop your videos?

I firmly believe in telling the truth, even if it can be a bit harsh or uncomfortable at times. Trust me, I’ve chosen my words very carefully. I don’t have any allegiance or loyalty to any political party; my loyalty lies with my values of rationality, liberty, inclusivity, progress for the nation, and integrity.

It is true that these values might align more closely with some political parties than others but no matter which party comes to power, I will always stand for these beliefs and values and I will certainly keep questioning the government when needed, as it’s the only way to ensure we keep improving as a country.

You must be aware of how Mohammed Zubair of Alt News was jailed on false charges. One of your videos was blocked by the government, which seems to have increased control over the internet with the 2021 IT Rules, for instance. Do you think the government will try to stifle social media in the days to come?

Will the government, already imprisoning multiple opposition leaders, freezing their assets, and blocking social media accounts amid protests, attempt to stifle social media? What do you think? If it does, it would only add to the mounting evidence, and validate all these growing concerns of the fall towards becoming a dictatorship and warnings about India’s political environment that have been raised both within the country and lately even on an international level.

Also Read | Muzzling the press

Of late, you’ve been viciously trolled, allegedly by the BJP’s IT Cell and the party’s supporters. Does it bother you?

While online trolling is definitely part of the job and something no one in the public eye is exempt from, I actually haven’t been trolled much lately. In fact, I’ve seen overwhelming support in the form of messages, comments, sharing of my videos, personal approaches in public, and even public acknowledgements.

I believe that we are at a point where even those with very different political views than me are starting to see that something is going very wrong in India at the moment.

How does Dhruv Rathee spend a day off work?

Walking in nature, hiking, sports, reading books. I also enjoy travelling, as evident from my second channel on YouTube.

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