It has been a scorching hot Indian summer. Nothing unusual about that. But adding to the sweltering heat has been the incendiary verbal political slugfests during the 2019 General Election currently underway in India.
We were once described as argumentative Indians by Nobel laureate Professor Amartya Sen. Constantly questioning, frequently provocative and perpetually cynical, Indians talked all the time and on everything under the sun. But now arguments have become acrimonious, bereft of civility and polite disagreements. And we are no longer talking to each other but we are talking at each other. We are living in bubbles of our own making, listening to the crescendo in our own echo chambers.
We are a bunch of angry Indians, but our irascible manifestation has little to do with seminal issues that are of larger societal concern. We are angry because we are being cautioned repeatedly that we have a diabolical dangerous enemy lurking suspiciously around us. Be afraid, very afraid and feel insecure, is the 9 pm prime-time advisory. And this one is not just the AK-47 carrying cross-border terrorist from Pakistan, but sinister traitors within, sheep in wolves’clothing.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has assiduously marketed fear and has gone around identifying the traitors who are conspiring to break our peace and dismantle the country. He could be urban Naxals or anyone. But he most certainly belongs to a certain minority community. Modi juxtaposes Pakistan to help the ordinary Indian see the target of his objectification at home more clearly. Television channels which happily wear the cheerleader’s badge with undisguised exuberance, do the rest. As do the burgeoning WhatsApp manufacturing factory of fake news which get regular supply of adulterated info from a flawless production centre, officially backed. It truly has been an excruciating summer so far. It could get worse. The elephant in the room is the maelstrom in Kashmir, but no one is talking about it.
Modi tried vainly to hide his hard-line Hindutva constitution for a while behind snazzy sloganeering of the Internet of Things Age; Make In India, Digital India, Start Up India etc which had a technological futuristic vision embedded in them to cushion his inherent bigotry. This artifice worked for a bit, largely because in that honeymoon phase following a staggering victory (the Bhartiya Janata Party won 282 out of 543 seats in Lok Sabha elections of 2014) most had a charitable disposition with even the sceptics not immune to being convinced. But can a leopard ever change its spots?
At his core, Narendra Modi remains a zealous right-wing fundamentalist whose congenital disdain for the “ Other” kept surfacing sporadically. During the Uttar Pradesh elections of 2017, he talked of Kabristan-Shamshan ( the place from where the departed souls are bid eternal farewell by Muslim and Hindu families) and alleged that electricity supply was deliberately abundant during Ramzan as opposed to a deficit in Diwali ( both significant markers on the religious calendar of the communities). Modi flagrantly contravened the oath he had taken as Prime Minister; he was creating divisions between fellow Indians by accentuating perceived differences between their identity profile , and alleging political favouritism or appeasement. For the BJP, minority appeasement has been a stable electoral plank (statistics unsurprisingly do not confirm his distorted misrepresentation of Muslim welfare).
In the Gujarat state Assembly elections in December 2017, fearing defeat following a resurgent comeback campaign by the Congress in his home bastion, Modi palpably lost any pretension of being agnostic. He made the bizarre but also repugnant charge against former Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh and a distinguished gathering of eminent Indian citizens of allegedly conspiring with Pakistan to make a Muslim the Chief Minister of Gujarat.
It was an abysmal nadir, akin to President Donald Trump questioning Barack Obama’s birth certificate and his patriotic credentials. In India, few winced at this cheap jibe. Mainstream media have become a pathetic pantomime, entertaining the Big Brother with a virtuoso act of meek surrender. Modi’s comments got traction and he won Gujarat. He has thus continued to make merry with his polarising demagoguery which suits the BJP’s narrative of cultural nationalism. In 2019 it has come a full circle.
Congress President Rahul Gandhi chose to contest additionally (He is also staying course at his traditional constituency of Amethi in Uttar Pradesh) from Wayanad parliamentary seat in Kerala, aptly eulogised as “ God’s own country”, a lush green paradise, a popular destination for those seeking serenity amidst its famous tropical backwaters and beguiling sea-side natural wonders. But all that meant nothing to Modi. For him, Wayanad was about Gandhi choosing a “Hindu minority seat”.
Kerala is an incandescent instance of communal harmony; Hindus, Christians and Muslims live in social harmony and tranquillity. That is anathema to the BJP whose political business model is to keep the communal temperature high and keep India in a permanent state of religious divide.
Modi’s comrade-in-arms BJP President Amit Shah wondered aloud if a Wayanad election campaign procession was happening in India or Pakistan, insinuating about the green colour flags of the Indian Union Muslim League, the alliance partner of the Congress party. This was unambiguous sectarian asperity meant to exacerbate hate among the people. Last reported, India’s Election Commission has cleared both Modi and Shah of charges of exploiting religion to spread dissonance through their dog whistle politics. Apparently, all is well. But we know it is not.
With the indefensible appointment of Pragya Singh Thakur as BJP’s Bhopal candidate ( the capital city of Madhya Pradesh), the BJP has decided to junk the contrived attempt to conceal its deadly carcinogenic machinations to fan the flames of hatred.
Thakur is a terror-accused in the 2008 Malegaon blasts case that killed six persons. Hemant Karkare, the Anti-Terror Squad Chief of Maharashtra who was himself killed by Pakistani terrorists in the dark night of 26/11 in Mumbai had arrested several right-wing extremists, Thakur being one of them. She proudly proclaimed that she had cursed Karkare, leading to his tragic death. Modi has had no compunctions in defending her; he has espoused her cause because it serves his immediate purpose to embolden the ultra-nationalist fringe and do the salsa with his core vote-bank. Violence and hate were officially endorsed.
It is on this disturbing note that we enter the last two phases of the General Election. The initial four phases of polling indicate a massive erosion of BJP seats, with the Congress and other opposition parties grabbing the pole position. The hard-line Hindutva political stratagem has evidently boomeranged.
The idea of India which quite simply told is one of a secular, liberal, inclusive democracy as enshrined in the Indian Constitution, however, is being challenged by a monstrous force adamant on its dismemberment. In 2014, many chose to be captivated by the chimera of a “Gujarat model”that was at best a snake-oil salesman charming the unsuspecting.
People chose to ignore the horrific genocide of 2002 riots, the ugly inflammatory speeches of Modi, fake encounter killings, the daylight asphyxiation of democratic institutions, the use of state machinery to hound a woman, and unrestrained crony capitalism. It was toxicity on steroids. 2014 may have been an aberration. In 2019, there will be no excuses.
(The writer is spokesperson, Indian National Congress)