Finding a middle path is impossible when the only choice is between life and death, toxicity and civility, bigotry and 'anti-nationalism'
The political culture is so poisonous that not a single Cabinet minister attended the Iftaar party hosted by President Pranab Mukherjee at Rashtrapati Bhawan in New Delhi on Friday. Pic/PTI
A journalist on Twitter recently described a political article as of interest to people "in the middle", like her. This is dishonest and disingenuous. In today's India, there is no middle.
Perhaps this journalist thought that was a way of claiming journalistic autonomy and objectivity. Perhaps one needs to report on the government without seeming antagonistic to it; perhaps one likes the ruling party but one's peer group dislikes it. Whatever the case, claiming to be "in the middle" is kind of like India in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) during the Cold War. (Pre-liberalisation, the world was divided into two camps, led by the US and Russia's predecessor state, the USSR.) Even in India, NAM's attempts to steer a middle path became the subject of ridicule.
Locating a 'middle' is impossible these days for several reasons. One, a middle is easily identifiable when politics has two poles, but while nationally there are two players — the currently dominant BJP and the apparently debilitated Congress party — in each of our lives, politics plays out locally. It is evident in the evaporating relevance of mainstream politics in J&K; the farmers' agitation in central-western India; the 12-day-old Darjeeling turmoil; the place-holding nature of Tamil politics currently; or the shadow-boxing between Mahagathbandhan partners in Bihar, to name a few. There is no common middle-ground to these varying regional politics. No surprise then that Opposition unity has traditionally been elusive, and that when it was achieved, did not have longevity.
Then there is the political culture. It is so poisonous that not a single Cabinet minister attended an Iftaar party hosted by the President of India. Not one wanted to associate with a Muslim festival, even though it was hosted by our highest Constitutional authority. Between one minister and zero, there is no middle.
The culture is so virulent that the chief minister of our largest state, UP, dismisses the Taj Mahal, one of the certified Seven Wonders of the World, as not "authentic Indian culture", simply because it is a Muslim's mausoleum. The discourse is so nasty that dissenters are called "termites", "jerks" and "louts", merely because they disagree with Prime Minister Narendra Modi; and the person who tweeted this is not some bottom-feeding right-wing journalist or paid troll, but a member of parliament. Between toxicity and civility, there is no middle.
Worse, of course, is the violence, the latest being the recent murder on a train of 15-year-old Junaid Khan. It won't be the last, considering Modi's silent acquiescence; it is as if his real mann ki baat to his hordes is "chup-chaap karte jao". Murders take place for spurious reasons like beef-eating, or for not displaying enough patriotism. In this political climate, you can get away with murder, but not with cheering for the Pakistani cricket team, which is landing people in jail. This is the dumbest thing ever. India's cricket team is not a constitutional entity. Sachin Tendulkar may be a God, but the Indian team is far from divine. People in other countries support different teams for different reasons. No American baseball enthusiast who admires the Toronto Blue Jays or the Montreal Expos is ever charged with sedition. Between life and death, there is no middle.
Violence is supposed to be a monopoly of the State, but in India it has been outsourced to unaffiliated but like-minded groups. If public outcry becomes loud — it never does, the public itself appears to be bovine, which means that cows are actually our mothers — then the government mildly chides people for "taking the law into their own hands". (India is not the only country where government does not condemn certain categories of violence: the American president has encouraged his supporters to assassinate his presidential opponent, as well as members of the "fake news" media.) If the State abandons its fundamental obligation of law and order, then it forfeits its legitimacy. Either you support the State's neglect of duty, or you oppose it. There is no being "in the middle".
The Opposition sadly occupies no identifiable ideological space, other than opposing the BJP in power. Perhaps the Congress is trying to sharpen its identity, since many elements of its tradition and history have been appropriated by Modi. (Former PM AB Vajpayee was our last Nehruvian; Modi apes Indira Gandhi.) If the Congress doesn't know how to recapture voters' imagination then a space cannot be marked out for it, and it is illogical to say that you stand midway between it and the BJP.
Finally, it is nonsense to be "in the middle" when our politics is nothing more than a power grab. This political war has only two sides, and you pick one. If there is a "in the middle", it is a "no man's land" — by definition, nobody occupies it.
Aditya Sinha's crime novel, The CEO Who Lost His Head, is available now.He tweets @autumnshade Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org
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